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Big Wonderful Thing

Big Wonderful Thing
A History of Texas

A tour de force by a New York Times best-selling author and master storyteller who captures the rich history of a state that sits at the center of the nation, yet defiantly stands apart.

October 2019
Active (available)
944 pages | 6.125 x 9.25 | 188 b&w photos, 10 b&w maps |

"Harrigan, surveying thousands of years of history that lead to the banh mi restaurants of Houston and the juke joints of Austin, remembering the forgotten as well as the famous, delivers an exhilarating blend of the base and the ignoble, a very human story indeed. [ Big Wonderful Thing is] as good a state history as has ever been written and a must-read for Texas aficionados.”—Kirkus, Starred Review

The story of Texas is the story of struggle and triumph in a land of extremes. It is a story of drought and flood, invasion and war, boom and bust, and the myriad peoples who, over centuries of conflict, gave rise to a place that has helped shape the identity of the United States and the destiny of the world.

“I couldn’t believe Texas was real,” the painter Georgia O’Keeffe remembered of her first encounter with the Lone Star State. It was, for her, “the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are.”

Big Wonderful Thing invites us to walk in the footsteps of ancient as well as modern people along the path of Texas’s evolution. Blending action and atmosphere with impeccable research, New York Times best-selling author Stephen Harrigan brings to life with novelistic immediacy the generations of driven men and women who shaped Texas, including Spanish explorers, American filibusters, Comanche warriors, wildcatters, Tejano activists, and spellbinding artists—all of them taking their part in the creation of a place that became not just a nation, not just a state, but an indelible idea.

Written in fast-paced prose, rich with personal observation and a passionate sense of place, Big Wonderful Thing calls to mind the literary spirit of Robert Hughes writing about Australia or Shelby Foote about the Civil War. Like those volumes, it is a big book about a big subject, a book that dares to tell the whole glorious, gruesome, epically sprawling story of Texas.

  • Prologue. Big Tex
  • Part One. They Came from the Sky
    • 1. Castaways
    • 2. Golden Cities
    • 3. “Woe to Us”
    • 4. The Lady in Blue
    • 5. Voyageurs
    • 6. God’s Work
  • Part Two. The Ripe Peach
    • 7. Filibusters
    • 8. “God Speed Ye”
    • 9. The Texas Dream
    • 10. The Consequence of Failure
    • 11. Come and Take It
    • 12. “The Alamo Is Ours!”
    • 13. Vengeance
  • Part Three. The People Want Excitement
    • 14. Aftermath
    • 15. Spartan Spirit
    • 16. “Savage Ware Fare”
    • 17. The Broken Flagpole
    • 18. Los Diablos Tejanos
    • 19. The Crisis of the Crisis
    • 20. Robbers and Lawyers
    • 21. Warriors and Refugees
    • 22. “I Will Never Do It”
    • 23. “With Throbbing Hearts”
    • 24. Reconstructed
    • 25. The End of Comanchería
    • 26. Fenced In
    • 27. The “Peril” of Legislation
    • 28. Bipedal Brutes
    • 29. Scorpions and Horny Toads
  • Part Four. While Old Rip Slept
    • 30. A Thousand Little Devils
    • 31. Gushers
    • 32. Light Coming on the Plains
    • 33. Sediciosos
    • 34. Pa
    • 35. War at Home and Abroad
    • 36. The Blacksnake Whip
  • Part Five. The Empire of Texas
    • 37. Music and Mayhem
    • 38. The Boy from the Hill Country
    • 39. Centennial
    • 40. Passionate Ones
    • 41. Texans at War Again
    • 42. The Show of Shows
    • 43. A New Texas
    • 44. Ye Shall Know the Truth
    • 45. The Lord Takes a Sleeping Pill
    • 46. Giant
    • 47. A Gamblin’ Man
    • 48. Welcome Mr. Kennedy
    • 49. “El Degüello” Reprise
    • 50. The Voice of God
    • 51. The Tower
    • 52. Vigil on the Pedernales
    • 53. A Side to Belong To
    • 54. Don’t Be So Self-Righteous
    • 55. Baptism of Fire
    • 56. Texans versus Texans
  • Epilogue. Davy Crockett’s Fairy Palace
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Illustration Credits
  • Index

Stephen Harrigan
Austin, Texas

Harrigan has devoted much of his life to exploring and explaining Texas, ever since his family crossed the Red River from Oklahoma in 1953. He is the author of numerous works of nonfiction and fiction, including the critically acclaimed novels A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, Remember Ben Clayton, and the New York Times best seller The Gates of the Alamo. He is a longtime writer for Texas Monthly and an award-winning screenwriter who has written many movies for television.


“Harrigan, surveying thousands of years of history that lead to the banh mi restaurants of Houston and the juke joints of Austin, remembering the forgotten as well as the famous, delivers an exhilarating blend of the base and the ignoble, a very human story indeed. [Big Wonderful Thing is] as good a state history as has ever been written and a must-read for Texas aficionados.”
Kirkus, Starred Review

“Harrigan, essentially, is to Texas literature what Willie Nelson is to Texas music…Texas is an incredibly fascinating state—and Harrigan, who recognizes that the state's diversity is what makes it great, truly does it justice. Endlessly readable and written with great care, Big Wonderful Thing is just that.”

“The great strength of Harrigan’s work is that he tells the stories of all the types of people who have lived in Texas, from its earliest days into modern times, with a sense that all of their lives mattered in fashioning the state’s identity.”
New York Review of Books

“Harrigan uses his stupendous storytelling skills to great effect [in Big Wonderful Thing]. He covers the state's major historical events from inventive angles, introduces newly discovered archaeological and archival research, and excels at puffing up many of Texas's larger-than-life personalities.”
Foreword Reviews, Starred Review

“Harrigan describes post-Columbian Texas in novelistic style in this eloquent homage to the Lone Star state...History lovers will enjoy this packed, fascinating account of a singular state.”
Publishers Weekly

“The shelf that holds your Texana—T.R. Fehrenbach's 'Lone Star,' James Michener's fictionalized 'Texas'—may need to be reinforced. Harrigan…has a contender to sit beside those worthy tomes…Harrigan's Lone Star tales are embodied by people great and unknown, many of whom would not have registered in what he calls the 'revised standard version of Texas history.'”
San Antonio Express-News

“Because it is so well told and because it embraces so much of the state’s charms and contradictions, Big Wonderful Thing is likely to define popular Texas history for the general reader for at least a generation to come.”

“Harrigan is at his best when he concentrates on the state's abundance of big personalities, offering up a gallery of Texas scoundrels, psychopaths, and incompetents...[Harrigan] brings an appealing humility to the impossible task of cramming a raucous, vicious, glorious state into one big, wonderful book.”
Texas Observer

“A big wonderful book…[Big Wonderful Thing] is fun to read. Harrigan knows how to tell a story that keeps the reader looking forward to the next one.”
Abilene Reporter-News

Big Wonderful Thing…takes readers around the vast landscape [of Texas] to see everything from the first native tribes and colonists to artists and politicians. Harrigan's book connects the people and places who've made Texas what it was and is.”

“Harrigan’s gift for storytelling makes this monumental work a pleasure to read. Throughout this extremely well-researched and fascinating book, Harrigan strives to dispel the myths of Texas history and remain true to its reality, creating a real page-turner for aficionados of Texas history and novices alike.”
The Literary South

“Stephen Harrigan has given us a wonderful new history of Texas. It tells us all we need to know and little that we don't need to know. A splendid effort.”
Larry McMurtry

Big Wonderful Thing is history at its best—comprehensive, deeply informed, pleasurable, and filled with surprise and delight. It is at once a gift to the people of Texas and an unflinching explanation to the world at large of America’s most controversial state. The book itself is truly a big wonderful thing.”
Lawrence Wright

“No one tells the story of Texas better than Stephen Harrigan. He brings to Big Wonderful Thing contemporary and thoughtful analysis along with the most graceful writing anywhere. Harrigan pulls no punches but uses humor and pathos to examine the complexities and contradictions that have made us who we are. Finally, Texas has the rich and honest history it deserves.”
Mimi Swartz

“It's rare to find a book that so compellingly weds such deep research with brilliant storytelling. A masterwork and a Texas history for the age.s, destined to become a classic”
Dan Rather

“I am not sure which is the greater achievement here: digesting such a vast amount of historical data or making that gigantic wall of information fun to read. Because it certainly is the latter. I challenge the reader, in fact, to open to any page of this 829-page colossus and not have fun. It’s all interesting, and that is not hype. Harrigan tacks brilliantly through the shifting winds of Texas history by telling a series of rip-snorting good tales.”
S.C. Gwynne, author of New York Times bestselling books Empire of the Summer Moon and Rebel Yell