Fri
Dec 16 2016 3:00pm

Review: Christmas in the Lone Star State by Jason Manning

Christmas in the Lone Star State by Jason Manning is a Western set in the rough-and-tumble Texas frontier.

Read Scott Adlerberg's review of Christmas in the Lone Star State by Jason Manning, and make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of this wintry Western!

Set in Texas during the winter of 1876, Jason Manning’s Christmas in the Lone Star State is a western in the classic mold. It revolves around an aging Texas Ranger, Bill Sayles, and the assignment he receives to take a prisoner named Jake Eddings from the state prison in Huntsville to his distant hometown so that Eddings can be at the funeral of his recently deceased ten-year-old son. That Eddings—serving a fifteen-year sentence for his part in a murder—gets any leave at all from jail suggests that he has somebody in his corner. That somebody is his lawyer, who has made an appeal to the governor.

The governor, in turn, ordered he be allowed to attend his son’s funeral on the grounds of compassion. A man who had a wife, a child, and a farm, Eddings endured economic misfortune, and it was this hardship that drove him to take part in a stagecoach robbery in which the driver was killed. He didn’t pull the trigger during the crime, and his lawyer is convinced that Eddings is a decent man. The guilty verdict left his wife alone on the farm with their son, and now, due to illness, he has lost the child also.

None of this background wins Eddings the Texas Ranger’s sympathy, though; Bill Sayles has experienced his own share of misfortune, and he has dry, stern responses to Eddings’s laments about circumstance and bad luck. “Man’s got to live with the choices he makes,” Sayles tells the resentful convict.

A skilled professional devoted to his job and a man of few words who almost never reveals what he’s feeling, Sayles is a character we’ve seen quite often. But Manning gives him enough depth to make him a person who holds the reader’s interest, and the author also does well not to make him larger than life. Sayles is an ordinary human being, tough but fallible, with worries and regrets. He is also a Texan to his core, and Manning uses his detailed knowledge of the old West to ground Sayles’s character and to put his anxieties in context:

It made a man wonder if soon there would even be a need for the Rangers. From that day over fifty years ago when impresario Stephen F. Austin had formed a small group of mounted militia charged with defending the Anglo colonies from Indian raids, the Texas Rangers had fought to defend the frontier. These days, though, as far as Sayles was concerned, he and his compadres were just glorified lawmen dealing with common outlaws. This job The Captain had given him was a case in point. Escorting an inmate to a funeral and back to prison again was a far cry from being in hot pursuit of Comanche raiders. Sayles figured he ought to be glad that the threat to the settlers on the Texas frontier posed by the Comanche had been dealt with. But the truth was he knew he was going to miss the passion of the hunt. Things were never going to be the same.

As things turn out, his current job will become more complicated and dangerous than he envisioned. Two outlaws from England, the Litchfield brothers, are robbing and murdering their way across the state. By the end of the novel, what began as a routine assignment for Sayles turns into something far more treacherous. He even has to do what he previously thought unimaginable—loosen the restraints on Eddings (though they both ride horses, Sayles makes sure Eddings rides his with his hands tied) and rely on the prisoner for help. It’s an act that winds up having serious consequences for both of them.

The author of over fifty western and historical novels, Jason Manning clearly knows what he’s doing with this material. He keeps the story moving forward while providing exposition as needed. The brutality of the West is neither downplayed nor made melodramatic. He blends action with reflection well and intercuts skillfully among several narrative strands.

Besides Sayles, Eddings, and the Litchfield brothers, the novel also follows the actions of Eddings’s lawyer and wife. The sections involving his wife, a woman called Purdy, were in fact my favorite in the book. He presents a woman struggling alone in a harsh environment and suffering under the weight of inconsolable grief. She may be tough, but she is also isolated on her farm. She has to deal with a man whose instincts prove violent and predatory. Manning is convincing and unsentimental in showing how Purdy’s difficulties almost bring her to total despair, and you really root for her to pull through.

It’s odd, but though I love western films and watch them frequently, I very rarely read western fiction. I just don’t find the western genre in novels and stories as compelling as other genres, such as crime and horror. Still, I found Christmas in the Lone Star State to be a brisk, enjoyable read, and for a couple of days while zipping through the story, I was taken back to a different time, a different place. I had the comfortable feeling of being in the hands of a pro.

Like Bill Sayles, his Texas Ranger, Jason Manning eschews excess and ornamentation; he has a no-nonsense style that gets the job done. He commits one misstep towards the novel’s end—a hint of supernaturalism that seems out of place—but other than that, the novel is tight and unfolds smoothly. It depicts a West that’s neither glamorous nor overly grimy, a West that seems authentic, and I felt I was reading about believable people. A solid book for any Western fan, and perfect for the long, cold winter nights ahead.


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Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island.  His most recent novel is the psychological thriller Graveyard Love, available from Broken River Books.

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31 comments
Deb Philippon
4. DebP
This looks like a book I can relax with between Christmas and New Years. Wish me luck!
John Smith
5. jsmith2jsmith
If I were in Texas, I'd probably spend Christmas in Galveston.
Darlene Slocum
10. darandsam
I would like to read this book about the old west. It really sounds interesting.
Michael Carter
13. rubydog
This really sounds good.
Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Thanks!
Sharon Haas
14. kazul
Sounds good! It's hard to find Western books anymore that aren't just Romance.
Wilifred Alire
15. walire
I too would like to be taken back to a different time, a different place with this mystery.
Patrick Golden
16. psgolden
I read a Christmas story last year that was set in the West and enjoyed it a lot. It contains a different feeling than more traditional western settings. This sounds like it would be an equally enjoyable read this time of year.
Laurent Latulippe
17. krag48
Sounds like a fun Christmas read. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
Gregory Sparks
18. sparkplug54
I have read very few westerns, but this appears to merit my attention.
Janice Santillo
19. themommazie
Not a big western fan, but this book does sound interesting.Want to read it.
Sandra Furlotte
21. skfurlotte
Beautiful artwork for the cover. I would love to win a copy.
Karen Hester
22. rosalba
A really novel setting for a Christmas story
Mary Lauff-Thompson
23. mtl166
Sounds like it gives a nice historical twist
24. Delta Tom
A BIG state needs BIG stories. This looks one for the BIG holiday.
Mark Bailey
26. stromboli
This sounds like a great story to to read.
Kyle Johnson
27. kylecar94
Western fiction is not a genre I have really tried before. May be time for a look.
connie schhltz
29. couleeseeme
I would like to read this and find out what happens at the funeral.
Carol Kubala
31. ckubala
I have a new found interest in The Texas Rangers and this sounds interesting.
32. idasue123
I too watch more Western than I read, but this one sounds really interesting.
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