Remember that film, Dances With Wolves, that had Kevin Costner in it, and where the Lakota Sioux were shown as a peaceful tribe that only fought when it was necessary and all that? Or those films set in the American West where the savage Indians would come swooping down out of the hills and attack the helpless wagon train of settlers? Or that popular romance novel sub-genre where white girl gets kidnapped by Indian brave and falls hopelessly, madly in love with him?
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Forget all that.
S.C. Gwynne's book, Empire of the Summer Moon, takes a cold, hard look at one tribe, the Comanche, which turned western and southern Texas into a no-man's land, and who were some of the most feared of the plains Indians. Going to first hand narratives, he gives both sides of the story, giving the Comanche a sympathetic, but not sentimental, ear, and presenting a people that were at the very end of their culture and lifestyle, but did not know it. On the other side were the Americans, moving ever westward with the promise of open land, golden promises and dreams that often turned to dust.
One such dream was that of the Parker family, a multigenerational clan that moved into Texas with a land grant in the 1830's and built a settlement that included a fortified stockade and several families that included babies and young children. But on one afternoon, they made a mistake that would result in tragedy. A raid by Indians resulted in the deaths of several members of the family, and the kidnapping of several women and children, among them Cynthia Ann Parker, a girl of nine years old. While the others would eventually escape or be ransomed back to the whites, Cynthia Ann Parker vanished into the mythology of the American West, and her fate would not be known until more than a decade later.
For in Texas, there was one tribe of Indians that not just resisted the push westward, but actually cause the tide to turn and retreat to the east. Under the onslaught of Comanche raids and war parties, settlers gave up their farms and ranches and fled east. To counteract this, state and federal government sent in the army and eventually created what was known as the Texas Rangers, men who learned the hard way to fight the Comanche.
For the Comanche had one skill that had shifted the balance, however temporary, to them -- they were master horsemen, and had an uncanny ability to tame the mustang, and out of all of the western tribes, they were able to successfully breed horses to keep their stock revitalized and strong. Children were often in the saddle as soon as they could walk, and participating in the war bands at a young age. By the time a boy was in his young teens, he was considered to be a warrior, and an active participant. By the time the Americans and Texans first encountered the Comanche, they had been honing their skills on the Mexicans for several centuries, turning them back at the Rio Grande and killing anyone foolish enough to try and settle on the northern side of the river.
But when the Americans showed up, they had something to even the odds -- better guns, better communications and a determination that the Comanche were going to go -- whether into a grave or a reservation didn't matter much, as long as they went. And these new fighters on the American side didn't care much who they killed, whether they were young or old, men or women or children. That, along with the steady extermination of the vast bison herds that were what the Comanche and other tribes lived on was enough to tip the scales to the Americans as the winning side.
But there was one man who refused to give in, or to sign any treaty with the whites, Quanah of the Quahadi Comanche, and his fight to keep some sort of dignity and survival of his people. His story, along with Cynthia Ann Parker is what makes this book work, and it is both a heartbreaker and an eye-opener for the reader. S.C. Gwynne's narrative is a strong one, shifting from various perspectives on both sides of the conflict, and being as impartial as possible. He tries to show both sides of the war, atrocities and all, and doesn't sugar coat or romanticize any of it.
The writing style here is strong, and I liked how Mr. Gwynne was able to bring the reader into the middle of a pitched battle, or the minds of the various players in this drama. Most of all, it made sense to me, and tried to make the various people as well rounded as possible. The writing flows well, and while some phrases get repeated a lot, it still kept my attention throughout and kept it from getting at all dry or boring.
An insert of black and white photographs is included, along with a map of Texas in the mid-1800's, and extensive notes, bibliography and index to help find further reading materials.
I was very impressed by this book, and it has inspired me to keep exploring the history of the American West. S.C. Gwynne's writing is very articulate, and while he does get repetitious with certain phrases, his story here is compelling and interesting and one that certainly defies the notion that history is boring and dead.
Five stars overall, and a very much recommended from me.
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
2010; Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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