The Yellow Rose of Texas, A Novel
“MISS EMILY The Yellow Rose of Texas” blooms in readers’ hearts
BONNIE BARTEL LATINO
Avid readers of generational sagas and narrative history will be captivated by "MISS EMILY The Yellow Rose of Texas,” the finely crafted debut novel that is the collaborative effort of Ben Durr and Anne Corwin.
Published by Sunstone Press of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the book will be soon be available at major bookstores and from Amazon.com.
Briefly, this is a sketch of the story. The descendant of slaves, Rose was unacknowledged by her white father, but was raised as a member of his sister’s family. Born of a black mother who was herself descended from mixed blood, Rose was raised almost as an equal with her cousin, Emily West.
Both women grew into breathtakingly beautiful women of charm
and wit, but their circumstances were totally different. Cousin Emily eventually married a diplomat, Lorenzo de Zavala, and moved to Texas, while Rose had to work for a living. Influenced by her cousin, she secured a job in the distant territory of Texas, but as the child of several generations of slaves, she had no last name of her own and therefore, no identification with which to acquire a passport for travel to Texas before it became part of the United States.
After Rose’s cousin married and became Emily West de Zavala, she gave Rose her old name for her passport as easily as she’d once given Rose her hand-me-down clothes. In the process, Rose secured a passport as Emily d. West, while Emily’s passport was in her married name of de Zavala.
The duplicity of names might sound confusing, but once the reader grasps how difficult identity and identification were for slaves and their descendants in our nation’s burgeoning history, the confusion is not an issue.
Eventually, Rose made her way to Texas where, despite her intelligence and wiles, she was caught up in a web of intrigue and drama. Through her involvement with both Generalissimo Santa Anna de Lopez and General Sam Houston, she was thrust into a pivotal role that helped determine the future of the Republic of Texas as well as the United States.
The story is beautifully written and skillfully crafted, but there is another reason why this work of fiction resonates with the ring of authenticity. Ben Durr has spent more than 20 years researching, collecting and refining the hypothetical details of the heroine in the story. After moving to Houston in the early 1970s, Durr read articles each spring about a club tradition that piqued his imagination. Each year at their spring formal, a group of Houston society’s most eligible bachelors toasted “Emily Morgan,” but there was never any explanation of exactly who she was or why the bachelors had chosen to honor her.
Preliminary research found many unanswered questions about the woman, but Durr also made several dramatic finds--such as historical documentation for two women who arrived in Texas in December 1835. One woman was named Emily D. West and became Emily Morgan, the other was Emily West de Zavala.
Durr wrapped that documented fact around the well-known song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and blended his theory with legend and lore to create this historically accurate story. Through the portrayal of four generations of Rose’s slave family, one gains insight into what it must have been like for a person born of mixed ancestry at a time when slavery was an acceptable practice in many parts of America.
Though certainly not in the romance genre, the book’s dedication to Durr’s wife is like an unspoken promise that the reader will find romance wound as tightly as Texas barbed-wire around the telling of this glorious historical narrative about Texas’ storied past.
Durr unabashedly states, “’MISS EMILY The Yellow Rose of Texas’ is dedicated to my beautiful wife, lover, and best friend of 38 years, Carolyn, who has been my constant source of encouragement. Her pallet knife yellow rose paintings were my inspiration in the development, completion and publication of this novel.”
The authors have not simply painted characters in living, breathing Technicolor on the canvas; they have delicately brushed in subtleties that bring characters to life. For example, when Emily West de Zavala’s husband died, she had not seen her cousin Rose for some months. At the funeral she saw an almost familiar female figure among the mourners. “. . . A heavy veil concealed her face; her black dress of coarse cotton showed the tops of well-worn shoes. The woman was surely not of her circle. And yet there was a rare grace about her and that slim figure had a familiar shape. She knew that shape, if she could only remember.”
The authors not only engage the reader’s mind, but also pull in the reader’s senses. The above passage continues, “. . .But the memories were scrambled and she stood silent. The baby began to whimper in Mr. Smith’s arms. The children tugged at her skirt.”
Anyone who has ever truly mourned has experienced the “scrambled memories” one feels at such a time. The reader can almost hear the baby’s low cry and feel Mrs. de Zavala’s other children tugging on the hem of her dress. The authors have engaged the reader’s senses by showing, rather than merely telling, the story. Mastering that cinemagraphic style is vitally important in getting commercial fiction published in America today, as every would-be novelist can attest.
Writing as a single, often lyrical voice, the authors often employ an elegance of phrase. Their combination of literate style and commercial viability is rare in a debut novel in the contemporary adult fiction market.
The novel also includes numerous flashes of insight, those nuggets I think of as the universality of man, that today’s discerning reader demands. Every adult can identify with simple truths perfectly expressed, such as, “…secrets have a way of clogging a conversation.”
The novel is filled with similes that provide the reader with numerous “Ah, Ha!” moments—those short, sharp clarifications that better provide an immediate mind picture of what is being described. For example, “(General Sam) Houston snorted like a bear pawing in the ground for vermin.” Yet another simile refers to ideas in Sam Houston’s mind jumping “like squirrels in and out of a box.” This style not only incorporates creative use of similes, but the authors’ skillfully crafted language portrays regional identity without the usual clichéd Texas images. These elements combine to create an authentic atmosphere for a sense of place and time.
It is that authenticity that makes one almost believe they are reading a memoir rather than historical fiction. According to Durr, there have been discussions in historical recordings of “a beautiful mulatto” of mixed ancestry in Santa Anna’s tent shortly before the Battle of San Jacinto. Information about this woman of mystery has been totally suppressed. Why wasn’t more written about her involvement in the battle?
These are intriguing questions raised by the novel, but Durr and Corwin have crafted a plausible scenario of exactly how it might very well have played out. For his story, Durr gave the fictional Emily Rose even more importance in the outcome of that conflict. The day of the battle, as portrayed in “MISS EMILY The Yellow Rose of Texas,” Emily Rose mixed opium in the wine of Santa Anna and his top generals, almost insuring the victory of Sam Houston’s grossly under-manned army.
Following the actual battle, as a means of protecting both men’s generous egos, was a silent pact made between the generals that has kept Emily Rose’s participation a mystery to this day? Perhaps that is the most intriguing question of all.
Contacted by telephone at his wife’s Casa de Leona Bed and Breakfast on the Leona River near Uvalde, Durr said his fabricated story fits historical facts on events that took place in what he considers to have been one of the most strategic battles in the history of the United States--the Battle of San Jacinto. “After Texas withdrew from Mexico,” Durr elaborated, “a domino theory was set in motion that extended all the way to California, as other territories withdrew their allegiance from the South-of-the-Border tyranny and became part of these United States.”
In many respects, today’s Texans aren’t all that different from the “Texians” of days gone by as described by Durr and Corwin, who are well versed in sense of place and of the folks who have colored the landscape of Texas. The novel states, “. . .what they (the Texians) lack in style, I must say, they make up in determination, sheer strength and stubborn wit. They are, after all, frontiersmen, whether from the United States or Mexico.” Anyone who has ever lived for more than a week in “The Lone Star State” can attest to the truth in that critique of Texans, past and present.
Often, in a book’s publication, timing is everything. It cannot hurt that the publication of “MISS EMILY, The Yellow Rose of Texas” coincides with the ascendancy to the Presidency by the former Governor of Texas, George W. Bush. With America’s renewed interest in all things Texan, the timing couldn’t be better for this novel.
Perhaps best of all, the story of “MISS EMILY, The Yellow Rose of Texas,” lives up to the glorious, if unspoken, promise to the reader that Ben Durr makes in his dedication of the novel to his wife.
Durr, who is Chief Executive Officer for Uvalde Memorial Hospital, has lived in Texas for the past 40 years, but was born and raised in Lincoln County, Mississippi. Growing up with children of sharecroppers who worked on his family’s large farm, gave him unique insight into the cultural and societal structures of the South.
Anne Corwin's extensive journalism background as a former columnist with the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper enabled her to assist Durr in writing the novel. Corwin, who spent the first 10 years of her life in the mountains of Colombia where her parents were missionaries, now lives in a cabin near the Nueces River in Texas.
“MISS EMILY The Yellow Rose of Texas” is decidedly different from much of today’s fiction, which shamelessly targets “soccer moms” who are too busy carpooling to spend more than a few hours on their leisure reading. Make no mistake, this is an epic saga that will provide numerous hours of delightful entertainment and historical insight.
The 320 page hardback novel will sell for around $30. A sequel is in progress and Ben Durr’s says, “it’s a pistol.”
Alabama journalist Bonnie Bartel Latino was formerly a Texas resident, columnist for Stars and Stripes newspaper in Europe and recipient of a Vanderbilt University Media Fellowship to study “The Culture of the South.”