Sunday, January 13, 2013

Book Review: "Empire of the Summer Moon" by S. C. Gwynne

For the past couple of years, I've read almost exclusively fiction, while working on my craft as a novelist. Nevertheless, my love for history -- particularly American history -- remains strong.  Recently a new biography of Quanah Parker* fell into my hands. Quanah Parker is the kind of character that would be unbelievable in fiction. He is the embodiment of the saying "truth is stranger than fiction."

Quanah Parker was the son of a white woman, who had been captured by the Comanches when she was nine years old, and the Comanche warrior who married her.  Cynthia Ann Parker was eventually returned to white society, but she never readjusted to living in the white culture. Quanah grew up with the Comanches and became an important warrior, leading many battles against American civilians and the Army as well. Many years later, he surrendered to the Army and moved onto the reservation where he became an advocate for Indian rights with the American government (traveling many times to Washington and even entertaining President Theodore Roosevelt in his home), an important leader among the Comanches living on the reservation, not to mention a savvy businessman and entrepreneur, who managed to navigate the leap from being a leader in a stone age migratory culture to being a leader in a  so-called civilized culture like the American frontier.  The author says that people who knew him believed that Quanah would have been a leader in any culture where he might have happened to live -- and he makes a good case.

Somehow, Quanah was able to navigate the journey from Comanche culture to American frontier culture without falling into the despair that plagued so many of the other Indians who were forced to live on reservations. He played politics and did business with the whites and the Indians. I was left wanting to know more about that. Did his involvement with what became the Native American Church assist in that process? Did he really become a Christian? Did he always deal fairly with the Indians in business, or was he as willing to play hardball with them as he was with the whites?

In any case, Quanah Parker stands as one of the iconic figures of the American West: Warrior; Politician; Businessman; Self-promotional genius; and, Caretaker for a huge family as well as anyone who came to him for help.

In addition to telling Quanah's story, the author tells the shadow stories of the Parker clan of Texas, who spent years searching for the stolen Cynthia Ann and who welcomed her back into their midst (despite the fact that she didn't want to be there), and General Ranald ("Bad Hand") Mackenzie, the Army officer whose brilliant successes in both the Civil War and the Indian Wars on the Plains were eclipsed by the fame of his almost polar opposite and West Point classmate, G. A. Custer. Mackenzie, the American Indian fighter,  ultimately befriended Quanah and helped Quanah find his family. Unfortunately, he sank into madness and died very young, a military hero almost totally forgotten by his country.

This is history at its best, rivaling fiction at its best: fascinating characters engaged in a struggle for survival not just of their own lives but their very cultural heritage, set against the backdrop of a beautiful and terrifying wilderness threatened by invading hoards that would destroy it in order to tame it.

This was one of the few history books I have read that left me wanting more. In that, it resembled fiction more than history. Whatever the genre, it was a great read!  

Buy it here*. Now!

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