Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: Empire of the Summer Moon

Empire of the Summer Moon
From Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne:
Open quote 

Behind it all is the story of the rise and fall of the Comanches. No tribe in the history of North America had more to say about the nation's destiny. Quanah was merely the final product of everything they had believed and dreamed of and fought for over a span of two hundred fifty years. The kidnapping of a blue-eyed, nine-year-old Cynthia Ann in 1836 marked the start of the white man's forty-year war with the Comanches, in which Quanah would play a leading role. In one sense, the Parkers are the beginning and end of the Comanches in U.S. history."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B-

First the bad news regarding this history. The subtitle suggests the root of the problem: "Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History." S.C. Gwynne has chosen a very challenging story to tell, at once the story of a whole nation, the Comanches, and simultaneously the intimate story of the tragedies of one Texas pioneer family, the Parkers. If that's not hard enough, both stories lack a whole lot of sources for separating what is true from what is legend (or what is completely unknown, for that matter). Gwynne pieces together some of Cynthia Ann and Quanah's story, but not enough. The reader is dying to hear Cynthia Ann describe her years as a Comanche chief's wife, but Cynthia Ann never tells her story. And most of what we hear from Quanah describes his life on the reservation, not as a free Comanche chief. Instead, we get a lot of history from the viewpoint of the Texas Rangers and the US Cavalry. That history is a parade of names and so-called battles (or massacres) that come and go so quickly that nothing leaves much of an impression. None of this is as much the fault of the author as it is the consequence of the lack of sources for the story Gwynne is telling.

Now the good news. It's still one hell of a story. Cynthia Ann Parker was captured as a nine-year-old by Comanches in a raid in southeast Texas and grew up with them, married a Comanche chief, had three children with him, and refused to return to her white family until she was finally captured and forcibly returned, after which her mixed-race son grew up to become the greatest Comanche chief of all.

And the story of the Comanche tribe as a whole is equally compelling. They were the most skilled, most feared mounted warriors in American history, controlling the southern Great Plains and living off its huge herds of bison, pushing out the Apaches and other tribes, repelling the Spanish and Mexicans and Texans. Gwynne tells this big picture story well from the early days when the Comanches roamed free, controlling the Great Plains, to just a few decades later when they were destitute wards of the U.S. Government living sedentary lives on a reservation in Oklahoma.

Gwynne clears up a mystery that has puzzled me my whole life. Why is it when you think of the Old West, you think of Texas? Why not, say, Colorado or Wyoming? The answer is that it was in Texas that the westward expansion of the United States first came into contact with the mounted warrior tribes of the Great Plains. And the Comanches in Texas provided the fiercest resistance to American westward migration. That led to a forty year war between whites and Comanches in which neither side gave the other any quarter. Warfare on the frontier was savage, on both sides. Whites gradually won out for three reasons: increasingly superior weaponry (the revolver and repeating rifle), increasingly superior numbers (Texas independence, the California Gold Rush, and the end of the Civil War each brought successive waves of settlers), and attrition (the destruction of Indian villages and the killing of the buffalo herds that the Comanches were dependent on).

Gwynne's history romanticizes neither the Comanches nor the Texas Rangers nor the U.S. Cavalry. There are heroes and savages aplenty on all sides. The straight story is compelling enough. I don't know what Texas schoolchildren are taught these days about this history, but whether you thought you learned this stuff in school or moved to Texas as an adult and learned it through old Westerns on television, it's time to update your thinking. If you live in Texas, read this book.

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