#8 Empire of the Summer Moon
By S.C. Gwynne
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.