Book Review – Remember Ben Clayton by Stephen Harrigan

I read about this book this past summer through one of the umbiqutous “Summer Reading” lists. I thought I added it to my Amazon Wish List* but did not. When I was trying to find something interesting to read I remembered it and went searching. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember the title, author and only a general idea about the story. After about three days of sporadic, fruitless Googling, I hit on the word that would give me the search results I wanted: monument.

*Here’s an idea for those that compile those lists – have a button, like a Twitter or Facebook button, that will create an Amazon or Barnes and Noble wish list from your selection. I’m sure if someone approaches Amazon with the idea, they will come up with the code.

Gil Gilheaney is an ambitious sculptor whose pride drove him from New York City to the artistic backwater of San Antonio, Texas, just after World War I. His thirty-two year old daughter Maureen, who dreams of being a sculptor in her own right, assists him in his endeavor to attain the respect as a premier sculptor he thinks he deserves. When an aging Texas rancher, Lamar Clayton, commissions Gil to create a monument to his son, Ben Clayton, who was killed in the war, Gil believes the statue will be his greatest achievement. To create a realistic portrait of the young man, Gil and Maureen visit the ranch where he grew up and delve into his life there and his relationship with his father. It isn’t long until they realize that there is much more to the quiet rancher and his relationship with his son than meets the eye.

What drew me to Remember Ben Clayton (★★★★) was an excerpt I read when I first heard about it. In that excerpt, we meet the main characters – the taciturn rancher, Lamar; the egotistical sculptor, Gil; and the dutiful daughter, Maureen – and Harrigan takes us all to where the statue will be located, an isolated hill in the middle of the ranch with a view of the country stretching out for miles. The description of the spot, the desolation, the isolation, gives the monument a certain pathos that hooked me. Harrigan brilliantly weaves aspects of Texas history that many have forgotten (child abductions and murderous raids by Indians) with the emotional and physical scars of the soldiers after World War I and the obscure art form of monument sculpting that many of us see every day but have never considered the work or creativity that goes behind it. He does this all while creating very real, relateable and flawed characters. When I finished the book I was satisfied but curious to know what happened to them next.

I don’t want to call Stephen Harrigan an “Texas writer,” though that is what he is, because I fear that will be too limiting. Harrigan has a great voice, one that not only describes his home state with great affection but that also creates indelible characters who stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. He imbues plot points that could be considered tropes with such humanity and depth you feel like you are reading about this particular conflict for the first time.

Other Thoughts:

  • Hopefully, Gil or Maureen had the prescience to move to England where almost every town in the country would commission a monument to their war dead.
  • It was fun to read a book that hit on all of the historical events I have been most interested in this year – Prohibition (very slight in Remember Ben Clayton), World War I and the Indian Wars in Texas, specifically the abduction of children and women (men were killed, if not outright, after being tortured to death).
  • Remember Ben Clayton is a work of fiction based on Pompeo Coppini’s Charles H. Noyles statue in Ballinger, Texas.
  • After reading this book, I will never look at statues the same way again.
  • Harrigan does a great job of showing the reader the process for the statue creation without being too technical or boring the reader.
  • Based on my enjoyment of Remember Ben Clayton, I will add Harrigan’s other novels to my to-read list.
  • Here is an article on Stephen Harrigan in the New York Times.


 

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