Let’s start this book review with a cliche, I could not put this book down. If the latest polls have a sad truth hidden in the veins of reality, book reading is doomed, apparently, less and less adults are not reading books anymore. Lazy, uninterested, I blame social media but let’s keep that rant for another day.
Now, I do not know any reader, who, when looking for as book to read, would pass the chance to get stuck in to a book which may be in the history category, but, is packed with murder, plunder, battles, scalping, rape, land grabbing, horse chases, war after war, treachery, back stabbing, friendship, love and peace, all told with gripping narrative and unbiased neutrality, well here is that book, S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon.
Gwynne’s historical epic is so packed full of unbelievable historical events you would think the book would be at least a 1000 pages long, but, is just 384 fast pace rip roaring story telling at its best, that by the time you finish it (which will be pretty quickly I am sure due to it been stuck to your hand) you feel rather nauseated and pumped full of questions with a gasp for more.
This is a story of Quanah Parker, the last and greatest leader of the great Comanche tribe, though his story does not really feature until a good few chapters in, simply because there is such an exhilaration back story to tell at first, starting with Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, who was to hunt, pursue and kill Comanches, become Parker’s greatest foe then surprisingly friend.
The book gives the story of 170 years of history, from 1706, when a force of Comanche raiders came to attention after attacking the Taos pueblo in northern New Mexico right up to 1875, when Quanah Parker and the last free Comanches carried the white flag into Fort Sill, Indian Territory, broken, tired, starving.
But, with so much historical events to fit in to this book, it mainly concentrates and centers around the 40 years of turbulence and horrific atrocities by both waring parties from 1836-1875, and gives us the account of the famous “White Squaw” Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanahs mother, a white woman, who at the age of 9, along with other family members were kidnapped or murdered by a raiding party, while Cynthia became a captive and lived with the Comanches adopting to the culture for a large part of her life, before been “rescued” against her will. Her story in itself is tragic and heart breaking and left me a little disturbed.
While part of the tribe (the Quahadis, the most reclusive and warlike of people), Cynthia was married to Peta Nocona, soon to be chief, and from this Quanah and his brother where born. The story grows as Quanah, by the of age 15 is a handsome, muscular 6-footer and a full-fledged warrior who rises to the status of a war-chief by the early 1870s and goes on raid after raid and war after war against the incoming influx of foreign invaders, hungry and greedy for land, and of course the unfolding gripping story of battles with Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackenzie.
Mackenzie, and other generals were commanded to either kill him or bring him and his followers onto a reservation. This book gives great details of such battles and excellent descriptions and backgrounds of the men involved on both sides. During some of these pursuits, Gwynne’s breathtaking narrative takes you on a journey of gripping horseback chases that leave you breathless.
As books go, the research that has gone in to this book is probably some of the best I have read. While it moves swiftly along, you learn about life as a Comanche (known as the best horsemen to ever ride) life as a pilgrim, as a captive, as a soldier, as a Texas Ranger,the destruction of the buffalo herds, the building of the railroads, the Civil War and the horrors and hardships of that era and realise that it really was not that long ago all this transpired, nearing now 150 years.
Gwynne’s brings together two astonishing stories that clash during a transition period in the USA in the 1830-1880’s, a time of a population explosion with the influx of immigration with the need and greed for land and land grabbing and destruction of the last of the native tribes where war after war began to bring the people to there knees to be forced on to reservations.
What you get to see from reading this book is Comanches were terrorizing any settlers let loose on the West in the wake of the Civil War. And this terror, what ever way you choose to look at it, itself was understandable, since settlers were seen as invading the tribe’s homeland with the intent to possess all of it and in doing so brought destruction and an end to a way of life for these people.
Gwynne does not take sides and leaves that up to the reader and the book has a complete lack of sentimental shadings in either direction. It is a superb work of history, skillfully told, fast paced with gripping compelling narrative, brutally told and is nothing short of a revelation.
One thing too before you do take up this book, it is not for the faint hearted and is very graphic, that at times I felt very uneasy and disturbed. But this is true testament of what a realistic horrific period of history should strike a chord with, and it most certainty does that.
Where To Find It?
About The Author
Sam Gwynne is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared extensively in Time, for which he worked as bureau chief, national correspondent and senior editor from 1988 to 2000, and in Texas Monthly, where he was executive editor. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, and California Magazine. His previous book Outlaw Bank (co-authored with Jonathan Beaty) detailed the rise and fall of the corrupt global bank BCCI. He attended Princeton and Johns Hopkins and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Katie and daughter Maisie.