The Bride of Texas
Headed for the Blues: A Memoir
The bride of Texas, in Josef Skvoreckyå«’s new novel, is not from Texas at all. Born in the 1830s to a family of tenant farmers in Moravia, then a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Lida Toupelikova ought by rights to marry one of the neighbors’ sons and spend the rest of her life raising children and doing drudge-work. But besides having a pretty face and striking blue eyes, she burns with ambition to climb the social ladder.
First she seduces, gets pregnant by, and comes within an ace of marrying the son of their landlord. Then, when the Toupeliks are packed off to Texas to get her out of the way, she ensnares Etienne de Ribordeaux, heir to a cotton plantation. Disinherited by his angry father and discarded by Lida, Etienne commits suicide; Lida promptly marries a vapid young army officer named Baxter Warren II, prospective head of the Warren Bank in San Francisco.
The philosophy of Lida, bride of Texas, is simple: “In this world it’s the strong ones that win out. And love? Well, go for love—but if you can’t get love, then go for anything you can get.” In the course of going for whatever she can get, the eyes of this hard, calculating young immigrant lose their cornflower innocence and acquire a chilling, reptilian glaze.
Lida Toupelikova (or Linda Towpelick, as she renames herself on the far side of the Great Waters) and her brother Cyril are among a handful of wholly fictional characters in a novel that otherwise takes its stand on the rock of history. In fact the Toupeliks are doubly fictitious: their author has lifted them—as he disarmingly admits—from a story that appeared in a Czech-language magazine in Chicago in 1898. Etienne de Ribordeaux and Baxter Warren II are also inventions. Otherwise the stage is thronged with “real” characters from a far greater drama: the latter years of the American Civil War, the restoration of the Union, the ending of slavery.
The Bride of Texas is only secondarily a romance of ambition and acquisitiveness: it is first of all a war novel, concerned with the progress of the war, battle by battle, and with the fate of some of the humbler soldiers who took part in it. Lida may give the novel its name, but its central character is a man, drawn by Skvorecký from the records of the Twenty-Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers: Jan Kapsa, like Lida an immigrant from the subject lands of the Empire.
Kapsa has served in two armies: the army of the Habsburg Empire, in which he had been used to suppress the nationalist uprisings of 1848; and now the army of the Union, where he has risen through the ranks to become a sergeant on the staff of General Sherman. Kapsa has come to America in search of freedom. He has seen imperial Austria-Hungary and imperial Russia at work, so he is familiar with one version of what freedom is not. To a …