Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Empire of the Summer Moon, by S. C. Gwynne

Well … wow.  Having read deeply about the American West for two decades, I had thought that there would be few surprises left in store for me.  And then, happily, I came across S. C. Gwynne’s masterful, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.  If you read only one book about the so-called Indian Wars, let it be this one.

The North American aboriginal people have been so romanticized and sanitized since the drug-addled 1960s – which re-envisioned them peyote-dropping, love-happy hippies – that contemporary readers have lost sight of just how brutal and dangerous they were.  The Plaines Indians were really more of a Stone Age people, resistant to change, without a written language or cultural attainments, totally lacking in science, and predicated on a life of horsemanship and continual warfare.  They were a truly formidable foe to settlers in the American West who came from a tradition of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and a muscular Christianity.  The worlds of the Western settlers and the Indians were as alien to one-another as to be almost other-worldly.

Settlers were completely unprepared for the level of savagery -- wanton rape, torture and mutilation were common currency among the Comanche -- and the battle between both peoples soon devolved into greater brutality on both sides.  Gwynne is utterly matter-of-fact in placing blame on both sides – there was more than enough violence to go around.  The history here is neutral, and the lack of a sanitized take is sure to discomfort partisans of either side of the issue.

Gwynne frames this sad history with the stories of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, the Comanche chief Quanah.  As a girl, Cynthia Ann watched as Comanches brutally murdered and raped most of her family.  Kidnapped to help increase Comanche numbers (the mortality of Comanche infants was incredibly high, and kidnapped women were chattel for child-bearing), she worked as a slave to a Comanche band.  Eventually, she would become one of the wives of Peta Nocona, one of the most powerful of Comanche raiders.

However, her uncle James Parker spent years and years searching for Cynthia Ann.  (Yes, this story became the model for the John Ford film, The Searchers, in 1956.)  He never did find her, but the adult Cynthia Ann was found among the survivors after a military raid and returned to her family, along with her child, Prairie Flower.  Cynthia Ann is an incredibly poignant figure – ripped from one reality as a child and forced into another, and then, ripped from that and brought back into a world she no-longer knew.  A lifetime among the Comanche had left her completely unprepared for Western life, and she sickened and died, mourning the loss of her world, her husband, and her son, Quanah.

Quanah fared much better than his mother.  One of the most recalcitrant leaders of Comanche bands, he raided, stole horses and killed many before he accepted life on the reservation.  While there, he decided to beat the settlers at their own game, becoming something of a businessman by manipulating fees for use of his land, building a grand house, and shaming the government into additional funds.  He actually can be seen in a short Western film (the first two-reeler) shot in 1908, The Bank Robbery.  It can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3q87ooO6B74.

When not focusing on the Parkers, Gwynne writes about Ranald S. Mackenzie, the man who would destroy the Comaches and become America’s greatest Indian fighter.  He graduated first in his class from West Point (the same year of George Armstrong Custer), and would later befriend and educate Quanah.  We also meet the fiery Jack Hays, the greatest of the Texas Rangers, and the source of countless legends of the Old West.  It was said that before Hays, Americans came into the West on foot carrying long rifles, and that after Hays, everybody was mounted and carrying a six-shooter.

S. C. Gwynne is a journalist who writes for The Dallas Mornings News, and is a former bureau chief and senior editor at Time.  What he seeks to do with the hauntingly titled Empire of the Summer Moon is paint on an extremely large canvas the full immensity of events during the Indian Wars of Texas and Oklahoma.  It is peopled with many heroes, more than its share of villains, and many who were a little bit of both.  It is set against a dazzling (and deadly) landscape, and encompasses several decades.  The book is rich in history, drama, violence and humanity.  It comes very highly recommended.

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