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#8 Empire of the Summer Moon

Empire of the Summer Moon

By S.C. Gwynne
Scribner, 2010

I naturally looked at this whole endeavor with trepidation. After all, the latest reading-polls of adult Americans are not promising. Fewer and fewer adults are reading at all, and those who are have definitely grown lazier over the last four or five decades. A glance at the very Nonfiction Bestseller list we’re dissecting this time around seems to confirm the worst: three of the top slots are occupied by wide-margined 100-page pamphlets of no intellectual merit whatsoever.

The gods of reading must be watching out for me this time around, however, because I drew a winner, a book that would have stood out against far, far stiffer competition: S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon is both a superb work of history and a fast-paced, gripping narrative on par with the some of the smartest historical fiction on the market.

This is the story of Quanah Parker, the half-breed Quahadis Comanche (Gwynne informs us that the Quahadis were the most reclusive and warlike of that whole reclusive and warlike people), son of the famous Indian abductee Cynthia Ann Parker (“the white squaw” as she was nicknamed when it became common knowledge that she didn’t want to be “rescued” from her captors) and a Comanche brave. Quanah Parker rose to the status of a prominent war-chief by the early 1870s, when several U.S. Army groups (including that led by Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, the book’s other central character), were commanded to either kill him or bring him and his followers onto a reservation. The command was understandable, since Parker’s Comanches had been terrorizing the wave of settlers let loose on the West in the wake of the Civil War. And the terror itself was understandable, since those settlers were invading the tribe’s immemorial homeland with the intent to possess it.

Gwynne sees both sides of this much-vexed question – Manifest Destiny versus aboriginal destruction – and one of the many wonders of his book is its complete lack of sentimental shadings in either direction. When the U.S. Government is guilty of stealing from the natives (which it actually, literally always was), the stealing is called stealing, nothing else. And when the Comanches and other tribes are guilty of exorbitant cruelty toward their white captives (they weren’t at first, but they warmed to their work), it’s detailed unflinchingly. And everywhere in the book is Gwynne’s unerring ability to dramatize events without compromising them; he’s a present-day expert at the craft pioneered by Prescott and Parkman and perfected by Morison and Catton:

At around midnight, the regiment was awakened by a succession of unearthly, high-pitched yells. Those where followed by shots, and more yells, and suddenly the camp was alive with Comanches riding at full gallop. Exactly what the Indians were doing was soon apparent: Mingled with the screams and gunshots and general mayhem of the camp was another sound, only barely audible at fist, then rising quickly to something like rolling thunder. The men quickly realized, to their horror, that it was the sound of stampeding horses. Their horses. Amid shouts of “Every man to his lariat!” six hundred panicked horses tore loose through the camp, rearing, jumping, and plunging at full speed. Lariats snapped with the sound of pistol shots; iron picket pins that minutes before had been used to secure the horses now whirled and snapped about their necks like airborne sabres. Men tried to grab them and were thrown to the ground and dragged among the horses …

In telling the story of Quanah Parker, Gwynne has found the perfect focal point from which to expand in all directions with other stories. We learn a good deal about the sweaty pathologies infesting many of the men who became legendary Indian-fighters (none of them comes off well, although one of them became a legend and two of them became President), we live through the harrowing Great Plains campaigns right alongside the ordinary troopers whose memoirs and letters Gwynne has studied, and of course we come to know poor Cynthia Parker, often through reports in the press of the day (Gwynne’s bibliography and end notes reveal endless hours sequestered with dusty old newspapers, but there isn’t even a small whiff of tedium in the end results):

Texans could not get enough of her. There were many newspaper accounts of her return, all of which were uniformly obsessed with the idea that a pretty little nine-year-old white girl from a devout Baptist family had been transformed into a pagan savage who had mated with a redskin and borne his children and forgotten her mother tongue. She was thus, according to the morals of the day, grotesquely compromised. She had forsaken the virtues of Christianity for the wanton immorality of the Indian That was the attraction.

The conflict at the heart of Empire of the Summer Moon could only have one ending. A fierce, expertly-mounted nomadic warrior culture was confronted with an invading force of homesteaders protected by a fierce, expertly-mounted warrior culture and possessed of the one unbeatable quality: endless numbers. Once the big game on which the Comanche life-cycle utterly depended was exterminated, once wagon-trails and railway lines were driven into even the most remote sectors of the West, the result was inevitable. Gwynne knows this better than anybody; there are no rosy sunsets in his book – instead, there’s the bitterness of defeat and the indelible shame of the conquerors.

What on earth such a book is doing on the Bestseller list of 2010 America is beyond my power to speculate, but I’m glad of it, glad there’s at least a chance this fantastic book is being read and enjoyed by the wide audience it deserves. It’s a masterpiece; at a stroke, Gwynne becomes one of our best historians.

___
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters.

Read #9, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

8 Comments »

  • Bob Thompson says:

    Gwynne’s book is an absolute masterpiece. As a historian, I have to admire the depth of his research and his ability to write a truly compelling narrative. This is a fascinating story, written like a magnificent mural. It provides an important perspective on the role the Comanche played in our history and Gwynne does, indeed, do an excellent job in portraying all sides of this conflict with unflinching honesty.

    Bravo!!

  • dmoran says:

    I’m pretty close to the end of this book and would like some feedback from readers who are better informed than I as to its authenticity. As an academic I’m puzzled by the advertising that touts it as a story of the Parker legend. It’s clearly a history of the Comanches, but very little space is in fact given to the Parker connection. So, should I take this as a successful advertising ploy which sucked me in as an airport reader?
    More troubling to me, however, is the absolute wealth of information, some of which is accounted for in footnotes. But they appear to be quite randomly selected, thus it’s impossible to separate fact from the author’s opinion. Very confusing to say the least.
    That said, it should be noted that Gwynne takes a refreshingly neutral stance on the whole question of Native American history. We are given both sides of the story. Actually too much information–it bogs down frequently. Puts me in mind of a doctoral dissertation, not light reading by any stretch. Do we really have to know the statistics of troop numbers and horses killed?
    More important though is the issue of where this information comes from. Either this is an historical ‘study’ or the greatest sham ever perpetrated by author & publisher.
    It has all the earmarks of a blockbuster movie adaptation. Can’t you just see Daniel Day Lewis in red-face again?
    Call me a skeptic.

  • Karl Wahl says:

    It is a book I could not put down. Of course there were atrocities on both sides, but it is hard not to see that many whites had an attitude of killing Indians almost as a sport. Quanah was a savage warrior at times, but a super hero for his determination to do what was best for his people as long as he could. It leaves a bit of a bad taste in one’s mouth to think of the atrocities committed to so many Indian tribes from the east coast to the west even though they lived in a very primitive society compared to Europeans with their technology.

    A super book.

  • Carol says:

    To tell you the truth, I found this book hard to swallow. From Gwynne’s reference to the ‘land bridge’ on page 27, I became very concerned with Gwynne’s one-sided references for this book. For a more complete and balanced history, readers will find a starting point for Comanche history at:

    http://www.tolatsga.org/ComancheOne.html

    Gwynne’s claims to have a balanced viewpoint and does an okay job in parts of the book. However, his would have been a better book if he had chosen a better title and used at least a few Native American references (which may not have been as numerous, but are equally as valid as his one sided references are). I have been reading a book by the name of 1491: “New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”, by Charles C. Mann (who is also a white author). His biblography is 67pp. Gwybnne’s is 12pp long.

    I don’t think that the story is so much about what he claims it is either. For the reader who felt comfused, I don’t think that you are alone (smile).
    Carol

    https://market.android.com/details?id=book-mpEBZLxaLJQC

  • David Webb says:

    I grew up in the creek beds of Blanco canyon, my ancestors lived on the Texas frontier near Weatherford. Our family plot in Spur Texas is beside the soldiers that were killed, near Duck creek, Gregg and Kirkpatrick, under McKenzie, i knew these legends, or people all of my life, excellant read i even know where another soldier is buried, near Yellow house canyon, i felt the prescence of these ghosts ,indian and white as a boy there, they are still there.

  • Dustin says:

    Excellent read! I took a course in college on the American Frontier and that sparked my interest in the truer accounts of warfare on the Plains. To the reader who felt the book lacked in its focus on the Parker legend…….???? Did we read the same piece of work? The book focused HEAVILY on the Parker aspect. Gwynne did a respectable job presenting the facts and letting the chips fall where they may. An un-biased reader will come away with a greater respect for the Comanches, yet will have to accept that they also carried out brutalities as the whites did. Overall I thought it was a great investment of time.

  • Cheryl says:

    I have to agree with Carol, who is skeptical about the “balanced viewpoint” touted by Gwynne. From the very first page, I felt assaulted with the bias toward the white settler and spreading “civilization”. It was an interesting history of 19th century journalism but where is the real Comanche point of view. I couldn’t help but wonder what treatment of this subject would have looked like under Jack Weatherford’s hand (Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World).

  • Roger says:

    I’m about 80% through this book. Overall I think the author did an admirable job. Having been a Texas resident for the majority of my 77 years, and lived at both ends of the Llano Estacado, as well as in Palo Pinto County, I found numerous errors; mostly of a geographical nature in placing locations. E.g. Adobe Walls is north of the Canadian River; not south of Borger (which is south of the Canadian River). So what is the historical truth? On one of the Texas Historical Commission’s (?) web sites are three accounts of one of the battles, all of which differ slightly in their description. All-in-all, I think Gwynne did a very good job of selecting the best version of the accounts. It is quite refreshing; the opposite of my college history teacher’s biased “facts”.

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