According to the History of Van Zandt County by W.S. Mills, M.N. Crestman of Dallas claimed that in 1867, following the contest of ballots, which sent Texas back into the Union, a convention was held in Van Zandt County where it was declared by the citizens that their county be a free and independent state, free and independent of the State of Texas, Southern Confederacy and the United States of America, and put themselves in a position to fight for their liberty. General Sheridan heard of the “rebellion” and sent a troop of cavalry to quell the right. The men of the Free State used the woods in Van Zandt County to “pot-shot” on the Yankee soldiers to the extent they faded away. Following their victory, the men proceeded to celebrate. In the height of their celebration, Sheridan’s troops came riding from every point and captured the entire army of the Free State. Each prisoner received a pair of anklets safely locked on him. W.A. Allen and Hardy Allen, ex-confederate soldiers) were among the prisoners. W.A. Allen used a knife hidden in his boot to file down the anklets to a point where they could be broken. Once the rainy season came, the posts of the prison could be pushed upon and lifted out and the men escaped.
Luke and the Van Zandt County War tells the story of this historical incident through the eyes of fourteen year old Theo, the doctor’s daughter, and her foster brother of the same age, Luke. The story moves a little too slowly some of the time, and it leaves a few unanswered questions. Why is Theo’s father so uncomfortable relating to Theo and so readily available to Luke, a deserted child who talks his way into the doctor’s household? Why does Dr. Burford decide to become a pacifist? Why does he think the federal government will protect the citizens of Van Zandt County form the Ku Klux Klan when the governmnt does nothing about the lynching that takes place in the first half of the story?
Still, even with the sometimes slow pace and the questions, this novel is thought-provoking and worth reading, especially for Texas history students and fans. The author paints a portrait of one family and how and why they left their home in Mississippi to come to Texas after the CIvil War. the story includes appearances by the Klan, General Sheridan’s military government, and a few independent Texans trying to figure out how to live in changing times. Reconstruction was not an easy time to live, and the people of Van Zandt County deal with the difficulties in in different ways, according to their own philosophies and impulses. Over the course of the novel, Luke, in particular, sees some reason in the arguments of the secessionists as well as the the pacifist, law-abiding case that the doctor makes for staying out of the fray. This novel could be a springboard for discussion of secessionist movements in general and for examination of the independent tradition that is a part of Texan culture.
Theo is an interesting character in that although she hates housework and cooking, she accepts that since her mother is dead and there are no servants, she is the one who must do all the work of keeping house. Her father, who is not only disinclined to fight but also seems to be an indulgent father, still expects Theo to learn to cook and clean. He is patient with her fumbling attempts, but no one in the story even considers any other arrangement. Probably, this stereotypical female role is typical of the times, but it would be interesting to hear what young people nowadays have to say about this aspect of the novel.
Luke is the conflicted character. He admires the doctor, but he also remembers what his own father, who deserted him, taught him about standing up for his rights and fighting to protect himself and his neighbors. Luke’s decisions in the novel are influenced by the voice of his absent father, until he finally makes a decision that reflects the things that he has learned from the doctor since his father’s abandonment.
Again, this novel could provoke a great discussion in a middle school Texas history class, or even in American history when studying the Reconstruction era.