Winston Groom is perhaps best known for his 1986 novel Forrest Gump, which was later made into the Academy Award winning movie starring Tom Hanks. This blend of characters and events, both real and fictional, made for entertaining history in a whimsical and emotionally absorbing story. Groom uses that same blend of storytelling and period history in El Paso, a sweeping action adventure set during the turbulent Mexican Revolution.
Railroad magnate John Shauhnessy has squandered his fortune in an attempt to be befriended and accepted into Bostonian society. His lavish lifestyle, mansions, yachts, and investments in foreign enterprises have left him cash poor, with the only hope of salvaging his rapidly diminishing wealth and status residing in the livestock on his sprawling Villa del Sol Ranch in Chihuahua, Mexico.
Oblivious to the harsh realities of war, he endangers his family by embarking on an ill-advised scheme to herd his cattle north to the markets in the Southwest city of El Paso. He envisions a romanticized western cattle drive that will not only recoup his financial losses, but at the same time be a grand adventure for his whole family. What he does not realize is that the ranch has already been attacked by the Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa who wants to drive out all foreigners from Mexico, especially American capitalists who have cheated his people out of their land by purchasing vast tracts all along the border at pennies on the dollar.
Villa’s henchmen have brutally killed the ranch manager, stolen the cattle to feed their hungry army, and kidnapped the foreman’s wife. Outraged upon hearing of this, Shauhnessy entreats the President of the United States to take action. When Woodrow Wilson refuses, he mounts a search of his own for Villa over inhospitable terrain with no clear idea of what he’s doing or where he’s going, or what he’ll do if he indeed finds him. Along the way, the situation only worsens when Shauhnessy’s own grandchildren are taken prisoner by the revolutionaries under Villa’s command.
Legendary figures from the past – General “Black Jack” Pershing, a young Lieutenant by the name of George Patton, early western movie star Tom Mix, American journalist and communist activist John Reed, Henry O. Flipper (the first African-American to graduate West Point), Mexican revolutionaries Pancho Villa and his arch enemy General Venustiano Carranza, and so many more populate the book’s 474 pages.
This was Winston Groom’s final novel. He passed away from a heart attack September 16, 2020. El Paso is a lasting testament to a writer who mainly dealt in works of non-fiction, but whose novels gave us portraits of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances interacting with larger than life personalities. Like Forrest Gump, El Paso not only provides readers with indelible impressions of crucial moments in our history, but also wraps them up in a darn good yarn.