Round Rock Reads!

Galveston, Texas: September 8, 1900: Over 6,000 men, women, and children dead

"A rocking horse stood by itself on a low rise, no house in sight.  'And so help me,' Sterret said, 'I would have rather seen all the vessels of the earth stranded high and dry than to have seen this child's toy standing right out on the prairie, masterless.'"

Storm destruction

A reporter's reaction to the devastation he saw from a train approaching Galveston right after the 1900 Great Hurricane.  Quoted in Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, [page 226-227], this year's Round Rock Reads winner.


What storm could be so important that it could forever alter the course of Texas history and commercial trade in the nation?  Enter the hurricane of 1900, an unnamed storm that roared out of the Gulf of Mexico, wiped out a city, killed 6,000 men, women and children and remains the single greatest natural disaster in American history.  This is the subject of Erik Larson's terrifying account of the massive hurricane that targeted the City of Galveston on September 8, 1900.

Weather forecasting at the turn of the century was in its infancy but scientists were arrogant in their firm belief that they understood the formation and paths of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico.  Isaac Cline, Galveston's forecaster, witnessed with his own eyes the bizarre and ominous weather that hung over the city before the storm, but, like a good bureaucrat, followed orders from his superiors in Washington D.C. to not warn city residents.  Sacrificing his own wife and children, he and his brother, Joseph, clung to Isaac's house at the height of the storm's vertical winds and rain.  "'Evacuate,' Joseph urged.  'Stay,' Isaac said." [Pg. 191].  Through the actual telegrams, letters, and reports sent by Isaac Cline to the nation's weather bureau, and the testimony from survivors, Larson vividly describes the devastation wreaked on the city that caused so much human suffering and death.

Damaged house

Book lovers will be riveted by this vivid, dramatic description of nature's fury and are encouraged to discuss the book and its subject matter via this blog.  Click on the library's website and the image of the book cover at for further reading, historical images of the horrific aftermath of the storm and the History Channel's program dedicated to the deadliest hurricane in history.




I Am Not Making This Up

state sealYears ago, we moved to a large Midwestern city, and I went job-hunting to fund the necessities and my husband's grad school expenses.  My brief resume earned me the chance to interview with the owner of an established business firm.  He took one look and told me kindly that the interview wouldn't be necessary--I appeared to be too young.  Customers expected the main office to exude tradition and credibility, an image this applicant didn't fit.  At least I remembered my manners and rose and said something about appreciating his time, etc.  My accent must have registered, because from halfway down the hall came, "Wait, don't go--you're from Texas!"   Long story short: this gentleman had  been stationed in Texas during World War II.  He said that the kindness of Texans helped him through an otherwise miserable experience, and he pronounced Texans to be "the best people in the world".  He also gave my resume another look.  I was hired, bills were paid, and the job proved to be a great fit on both sides.

That's one of my favorite perks about being a Texan--praise by association.  This year's Round Rock Reads! selection--Texas in Her Own Words--helps to explain why we Texans generally have stories such as this one to share.  Tweed Scott's compilation of anecdotes and musings from all sorts of Texans appeals to both natives and those wishing to figure out what that mystique (Tweed calls it the "T chromosome") is all about.  And the author undoubtedly has tales of his own to tell, some of them having to do with the eye-opening experience of creating and publishing a book. 

You'll have an opportunity to talk to Tweed Scott on Thursday, April 24, at the La Frontera Barnes & Noble, 2701 Parker Road.  This final program of 2008 Round Rock Reads! is one we've been especially looking forward to--a chance to take library programming "on the road" and enjoy Barnes & Noble's hospitality while interacting with a real, live author.  Bring your questions, stories, and curiosity on Thursday evening at 7:00 PM.  See you there!

What's in a Name?

Sam Bass gunGambler, cowboy, racehorse owner, gold miner, entrepreneur, outlaw--Sam Bass was many things.  No one ever accused him of civic mindedness, however.  Yet, Sam Bass Road, Sam Bass Youth Baseball, Sam Bass Community Theatre, and the Annual Frontier Days re-enactment of his final shootout attest to our fascination with his career.  How is it that the calculating bank robber and killer morphed into a colorful local legend?  Are we sentimental about his death on his 27th birthday?  No matter--the city of Round Rock has gained a bit of western glamour by association with Mr. Bass.  In a way, he has given back to the community from which he intended to take quite a lot.

Speaking of names that figure prominently in Round Rock geography and architecture: haven't you wondered about the McConicos of McConico Building fame?  How about the Carlins?  They're everywhere and have been for about five generations, and the same is true of the Mercers.  Joanne Land, who served as city secretary for over 30 years, is the daughter of Williamson County sheriff Henry Matysek, commemorated by a portrait bust on the courthouse grounds. 

 The first time I navigated out to La Frontera by way of Hester's Crossing, I knew there must be a story behind that street name.  Hank Hester knows it, and he'll be on hand at Round Rock in Her Own Words Thursday, April 17 at Round Rock Public Library.  Other panelists with history to share include Patsy McConico Anderson, Delfino Bryan, David Carlin, Jesse Mercer Carson, Robert Organ, and Joanne Land.  Come at 7:00 for the ice cream social (with free Blue Bell ice cream!), then enjoy the presenters and an open mic for the audience, which will include descendants of Swedish settlers.  Take an opportunity to meet and chat with Tweed Scott, author of this year's Round Rock Reads! selection, Texas in Her Own Words.

Dale Ricklefs, Round Rock Public Library director, and Chris Dyer, Williamson County Historical Museum director, will facilitate this evening of Round Rock memories and answers to those "I always wondered..." questions that occur to you as you drive around the city.  Round Rock in Her Own Words will be video and audio recorded, but you'll want to experience this event in person.


Authentic Round Rock

The Round Rock

First, a note of thanks to SOS (Save Our Springs Alliance) executive director Bill Bunch and author Tweed Scott: they shared in last night's screening of The Unforeseen and responded to some thoughtful questions and comments from the audience.  The classy, comfortable theater facility lent to us by Round Rock Higher Education Center enhanced my appreciation of that wonderful film.

Afterward, driving home from the new RRHEC building, by way of IKEA, the outlet mall, and a few other this-could-be-anywhere suburban amenities, my husband and I passed by the Round Rock.  It has witnessed much during the area's rapid growth from the sleepy town of 2700 (in 1970) to the busy city of 96,000 today.  Many who were here in 1970 have moved on, but a number of the families who were part of the early heritage remain.  Like the rock, they testify that the city retains its unique core identity, hidden under a few layers of modernity.

 Dale Ricklefs, director of Round Rock Public Library, has witnessed close to three decades of the city's transformation.  And, as she recruited panelists for Round Rock in Her Own Words, she learned even more from citizens linked to the town's past.  Dale was told, for example, that Round Rock has almost always been a fairly diverse city.  Of course, we've read about the segregated schools, but did you know that the Hispanic school merged with the white school in 1948?

Consider setting aside an opportunity--Thursday, April 17 at 7:00 PM--to enjoy free Blue Bell ice cream and get the scoop on Round Rock's past.  Some of the historic goings-on, from the advent of the early Swedish settlers through the turbulent 20th century, might surprise you!

 "In the early 1980s, the library captured the voices of individuals now passed on, such as C.D. Fulkes and Noel Grisham.  Twenty-five years later, we will capture the voices and images of those who 'lived' Round Rock in the 1940s to early 1960s, before IH-35 split the city in half, the water crisis of the late 1970s, and today's traffic gridlock."  - Dale Ricklefs

Robert Redford Slept Here

UnforeseenAm I the only local Robert Redford fan who just learned that Redford spent time in Austin during his formative years--and that he learned to swim at Barton Springs pool?  A number of film reviews for The Unforeseen allude to this, along with the fact that the actor/director cites that experience as having "awakened him to the natural world."

As co-producer (along with Terrence Malick) of the film, Mr. Redford intends for another awakening to occur--one in which we realize that the outcome of the approximately 30-year battle over land usage in the Barton Springs watershed affects all of us.  Certainly, Central Texans can already appreciate that, as a result of political moves that overturned Austin's anti-growth ordinance, Barton Springs is now (according to Kevin Kelly's Sundance review) "practically a beaker full of evidence" against land overdevelopment.  However, as underwater views of Barton Springs from 1996 contrast with recent ones, evidence warns that this is more than a before-and-after account; it's a this-could-happen-to-you tale.  Sequels to this drama could be set anywhere in the world.

The Round Rock Reads! free screening of director Laura Dunn's The Unforeseen is set for Monday, April 7 (7:00 PM) at the Round Rock Higher Education Center.  The documentary offers more than a compelling true story.  Called "poetic and gorgeous" (reviewer Natalie McMenemy), The Unforeseen demonstrates the influence that personal agendas and business interests can exert to devalue the environment--our ultimate long-term investment.

Do You Feel Lucky?

Jan Triplett observes that picking up a rock in Texas provokes one of two likely consequences: "there is going to be a snake under it" or "oil is gonna gush out from under it" (Texas in Her Own Words, p. 166). Acknowledging extremes of good and bad fortune, we may concede that the harsh, tragic, reptile-producing end of the spectrum is what ultimately molded the Texan character.

rattlesnake Clint Lynch, Director of Research for Texas State Cemetery, concurs: "I always thought Texas was founded in failure" (p. 170). He lists Houston's alcoholism, Travis' marital troubles and debt, Crockett's lost re-election bid, and Bowie's land fraud charges as proof of the alchemy that has often wrought dignity out of disaster. Sarah Guerra (p. 161) offers a more recent example. Recalling earlier times when she was denied service in restaurants and segregated from Anglo children at school, she reflects, "That love that I didn't get from white people when we were growing up, that probably gave me the courage to love everybody."

Consider this ongoing character-building opportunity: the controversy over Austin's Barton Springs. The first program in Round Rock Reads! 2008 series, a screening of The Unforeseen, showcases the conflict between real estate developers and advocates for the environment. Director Laura Dunn's award-winning film not only chronicles the battle between land investors' interests and the Save Our Springs alliance but also foreshadows the aftermath of unimpeded development.

Film critic Kenneth Turan labels this 2007 Sundance Film Festival selection a "whodunit, with the Earth itself being the victim of the crime." Mark your calendar for 7:00 P.M., Monday, April 7, when Round Rock Higher Education Center will host this special presentation of The Unforeseen. Could the lessons of Barton Springs produce yet another Texas triumph over impending failure? Watch and decide for yourself.

Why Great-Grandpa Went to Texas

Any discussion of what makes Texans Texans should include David Crockett.  Perishing at the Alamo just a few weeks after his arrival, this newcomer martyred himself for Texas independence.  However--loyalty and sacrifice aside--Crockett's actions upon leaving Tennessee already signaled his suitability for Texan-hood.  Having lost re-election for Congress, Crockett reportedly declared, "You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas."

Davy Crockett I don't mean to suggest that contentiousness is the defining Texan characteristic (some would argue), but the desire for re-invention probably is.  Many of Tweed Scott's interviews in Texas in Her Own Words note the allure of the second chance.  Mike Harris observes, "Even Davy Crockett was looking for a new start" (pg. 15).  Paul Andrew Hutton agrees that one of Texas' greatest charms is that "you have the possibility of becoming something new" (pg. 10).

Many of us claim Texas ancestors who required fresh starts--and right away, too--following illegal duels, horse-trading incidents with fatal outcomes, or other such events occurring in more settled areas of the nation.  These hurried transplants, along with others chasing adventure or prosperity, would likely have supported Vonceia Reece's judgment that "To be a native Texan means you are adaptable" (pg. 52).

In April, Round Rock Reads! will sponsor three events:  a film, a panel discussion/ice cream social, and a book discussion.  These features were chosen to portray the history of the Texan identity.  Come join us in an exploration of the past, the personalities of the Lone Star State, and a bit of modern controversy.  You'll see why the late Marge Mueller, mayor Luckenbach, reflected, "I agree that with opportunity comes the struggle.  This is Texas" (pg. 152).


I Confess...

native signs...that when up-and-coming Round Rock Public Library staffer Eric T. nominated Texas in Her Own Words for this year's Round Rock Reads! ballot, I joined in the chorus of committee approval, all the while asserting confidently, "Of course, it'll never win." Oh, but I wanted it to! A fourth-generation native Texan, I was obliged to live in other states for many years due to my husband's career. He was the only person who regretted that development more than I. A fifth-generation native, he describes himself as "a Texan of American descent". And now, nearly three years after finally achieving Texas repatriation, we still can't view a bluebonnet or the capitol dome without getting misty.

We claim zero objectivity where Texas is concerned.This was the issue-the assumption that recently transplanted Round Rock folks who cherish their own loyalties wouldn't choose to read a book apparently tailor-made for people like us. As it happens, I was wrong twice. Area residents voted decisively for Texas in Her Own Words, and the book has much to offer anyone who has noticed (and who hasn't?) that Texas is a unique sociological and political phenomenon. Author Tweed Scott collected more than sixty interviews attesting to Texas' vivid, romantic past and continuing influence. We hope you'll pick up a copy at the bookstore-or check out one from the library-and join us in (these words are Kinky Friedman's) "searching for the soul of Texas".

Texas in her Own Words is the winner!

Texas in Her Own Words

Thanks to everyone who showed up at Tuesday night's kickoff celebration of Round Rock Reads!  A special thanks to City Council Member Carlos Salinas for announcing the winning book and to author Tweed Scott for his entertaining talk. We'd also like to thank Starbucks for providing coffee and yummy pastries and for Barnes and Noble selling copies of all of the nominated books that evening.

 Now it's time to read the book!  You can check out the book at the library, or purchase the book at Barnes and Noble.  Then in April, we'll show the film      The Unforeseen at the Round Rock Higher Education Center (April 7th), have a panel discussion of Round Rock's origins (April 17th), and hold a book discussion with author Tweed Scott at Barnes and Noble (April 24th). You won't want to miss any of these great events!

And The Winner Is....

You'll find out if you come to the Round Rock Reads kickoff celebration this Tuesday night at the library!  At 7 PM, City Council Member Carlos Salinas will announce the book that we will read as a community in the coming months.  Author Tweed Scott will talk to us about what a real Texan is, we'll have yummy snacks, and Barnes & Noble will be there selling all all six of the nominated books.  And, we'll give away raffle prizes of the winning book to three lucky people.

See ya there!

It's time to vote!

I know, I's not the easiest time of year; the holidays are over, time to take down the Christmas decorations, time to start working on those New Year's resolutions.  What's there to look forward to, you ask? 

Round Rock Reads! 

You get to vote, starting TODAY! What book should our city read during the months of February and March?  You have six choices, and I promise you, any one of these titles promises a great read.

So, without further ado, here is the link to the online ballot. We'll announce the winning book on Friday, February 8th at a library extravaganza! 


What should we read?

You get to help decide.  Starting January 1st, the Round Rock Public Library will launch its second annual Round Rock Reads program with a 31-day election that will determine the book our city will read in 2008.  You can vote online on the City's website starting January 1st, or you can vote in-person at ballot locations around the city.  The choices this year all have intriguing themes;  you can see for yourself--here are the six books you will be voting on:

Around The Bloc by Stephanie GriestAround the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana by Stephanie Elizondo Griest (non-fiction)Around the Bloc by Stephanie Griest

Desperate to escape South Texas, Stephanie Elizondo Griest dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent. So she headed to Russia looking for some excitement—commencing what would become a four-year, twelve-nation Communist bloc tour that shattered her preconceived notions of the "Evil Empire."

The Namesake by Jhumpa LahiriThe Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (fiction)

The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. The novel illuminates this acclaimed author's signature themes: the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, and the tangled ties between generations.


Speed of Dark by Elizabeth MoonThe Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon (fiction)

Lou Arrendale is part of a small group of high-functioning autistic adults, he has a steady job, a car, friends, and a passion for fencing. But then his quiet life comes under attack. It starts with an experimental treatment that will reverse the effects of autism in adults. But if he was suddenly free of autism, would he still be himself?

Texas in Her Own Words by Tweed ScottTexas in Her Own Words by Tweed Scott (non-fiction)

Texas in Her Own Words is the ultimate look at what Texans think about being Texan, by long-time Austin radio personality Tweed Scott. The book is the culmination of Scott's 4,000-mile search for the "T" chromosome and the origins of the Texas mystique.The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried by Tim O'BrienThe Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company and their tour of Vietnam. With the creative verve of the greatest fiction and the intimacy of a searing autobiography, the book is a testament to the men who risked their lives in America's most controversial war, and ultimately the courage, determination, and luck we all need to survive.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman


The World Without us by Alan Weisman (non-fiction)

A penetrating, page-turning tour of a post-human Earth. In The World without Us, Alan Weisman offers an utterly original approach to questions of humanity's impact on the planet: he asks us to envision our Earth, without us. In this far-reaching narrative, Weisman explains how our massive infrastructure would collapse and finally vanish without human presence.

The author speaks

Luis Alberto UrreaI got a response from Mr. Urrea this week answering the questions some of us had about his book, The Devil's Highway.  I'll post his response here.  The questions I asked him in my email were: Why did you write the book?  And, are you in touch with any of the survivors?

 Here is his response:

" ...As far as why the book was written:  it was a request from New York.  After Across the Wire, By the Lake of Sleeping Children, and Nobody's Son (about to be re-released with a beautiful new cover, by the way), I thought I was through with the border.  I certainly had no plans to write another book about it.

However, Little, Brown contacted me and basically told me they thought I was the only writer who could tackle this tragedy and do it justice.  They wanted a "Trojan horse."  In other words, a men-in-peril adventure that snuck secrets and revelations about immigration and immigrants into Mainstream America.  What a challenge!
I never knew I'd be doing that duty for the Border Patrol too.  But, I think, that's what helped make the book valuable.
The survivors.  This is an interesting situation.  Only recently have they been released from their vows of silence by lawyers and Immigration officials.  The various lawsuits and criminal trials are over.
Through my movie team (how tacky does that sound) we have all been in touch with the widows and the people who went back home to Veracruz.  We actually have some footage of them at their homes talking about it.  The small cadre of men that survived, led by Nahum, still resides in Phoenix, with immunity provided by the US Government.  But they are afraid of exposure and leery of "fame."  Nahum, in fact, was going to come to my last series of readings in Arizona, but declined at the last minute.  Mendez, on the other hand, remains in prison under death threats to himself and his loved ones.  He will not talk.  His lawyer has taken him correspondence from me, and the movie guys have tried to get him to open up, but he won't even answer their letters.
Now, the law enforcement side and the consular side have been very much in touch with me over these years.
Honestly, I thought I'd report on it and then move on and it would all be forgotten.  I had no idea there would be a strange little Devil's Highway industry.  I'm glad I didn't know, or I would have been more timid in my writing.  I wrote with the kind of rage and fatalism of someone who was sure nobody gave a damn and wouldn't pay attention anyway.  Oops.  When the Pulitzer thing happened, you could have knocked me over with a feather.
The Book

The Devil's HighwayWe had a great brown-bag discussion of The Devil's Highway last Saturday. Near the end of the event, we came up with a few questions for Mr. Urrea, the author, so I've been waiting to post until I heard back from him. Well, he hasn't responded yet, but I promise I will let you know when he does. This is what we decided to ask him:

  • Are you in touch with any of the survivors?  How are they doing?
  • Why did you write The Devil's Highway?

Many of us attending the discussion shared with the group what a difficult read Devil's Highway was, painful to read about people suffering so much, going through the stages of heat exhaustion, and then many of them ultimately dying. It's grim. I appreciated that Urrea told the story as if he were a reporter, he did not over-emotionalize or over-identify with any one character, making the story more bearable for me to read. From the Border Patrol cop, to the immigrants from Veracruz, he gave us a picture of each individual; there were no "good" or "bad" guys, they were all people trying to do what they thought was the right thing for them to be doing.

One person at the discussion read an especially poignant quote from near the end of the book: (page 198, 199)

"Vargas watched as each coffin was carried from the plane to great tumult. One by one, they were laid inside the waiting hearses.....Later, she calculated that the dead men's flight alone had cost over sixty-eight thousand dollars.

'What if,' she asked, 'somebody had simply invested that amount in their villages to begin with?'

Something to think about.

Panel Wrap-up

The panel discussion on immigration Monday evening at City Hall was lively.  A crowd of about 50 people were in attendance, and many stayed until the end to ask questions of the panelists. 

Reverend Dr. William Sappenfield served as the moderator and each panelist got approximately two minutes to answer each of Dr. Sappenfield's six questions. Panelists included: Curtis Collier--President of US Border Watch, Terri English--Director of Immigration Counseling and Outreach Services, Leslie Helmcamp--Catholic Charities of Central Texas, Edna Yang--Political Asylum Project of Austin, and Larry Youngblood--Texas Border Volunteers. The six questions were:

  • By 2010, it is estimated that over 50% of people living in Texas will be non-Caucasian.  Why do you think some Texans fear this demographic change?
  • How well does building a wall help with the border problem?
  • Do you think the immigration laws in the U.S. need to be reformed? Which reform is most urgently needed?
  • The Hutto Family Residential Facility in Taylor, Texas has received considerable publicity in recent months.  In your opinion, how close does the facility come to fulfilling its intended purpose?
  • Should all government services be denied to undocumented workers, or just some? How should the U.S. decide which services are appropriate to offer to undocumented workers?
  • What do you think would happen if the U.S. was able to send all undocumented workers home tomorrow? 

As you can imagine, the panelists had varying opinions on each question, but they were all civilized and respectful of one another. There were newspaper articles on the panel on the front page of the Round Rock Leader today, as well as the Daily Texan on Tuesday.  The panel was videotaped, so if you would like to view the discussion from your computer, click here.

The events surrounding Round Rock Reads! will end this Saturday with a brown-bag book discussion of The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea.  The event is from 12-2 in Meeting Room B of the library.  The library will provide dessert. Hope to see you all there! 

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