Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Empire of the Summer Moon - and American tragedy

CACHE, Oklahoma - Empire of the Summer Moon (Scribner, 2010) chronicles the rise and fall of the Comanche nation, which author S.C. Gwynne calls "the most powerful Indian tribe in American history."
Empire's cover - with Quanah Parker

This non-fiction book reads like a thriller novel. If only it were fiction, at least the parts about what the United States did to the Native Americans of the Old West. (We weren't any kinder to the tribes of the east, but that's another long tale of avarice, greed and evil.)

This book fell into my lap, literally, while I was moving some books off a bookshelf at a friend's condo in Coconut Creek, Florida. I started reading it and was transfixed. I left that copy on the bookshelf there but was fortunate in that the Watkins Glen Public Library had Empire of the Summer Moon waiting for me when I returned from my trip.

A lot of familiar (and painful) cultural ground is covered in this book. But the writing style of Gwynne has a pulsing beat to it that makes it as compelling as a book designed as a page turner. I suspect he wrote it that way knowing how powerful it would be. There is no dry history in this tome. All the stories he recounts are lively and rich in detail, told through the personal lives of settlers, soldiers, Native Americans and captives.

Oh yes, the captives.

S.C. Gwynne
There are many horrific details in the book about how captives were treated, not just by Comanches, but by almost all of the tribes. Likewise the fate of Native Americans at the hands of U.S. Army are shown, too.

But a major focus of Gwynne's narrative highlights the life of Quanah Parker (whose photo is on the book's cover), once the chief of all the Comanche tribes. His caucasian mother (Cynthia) had been taken in a raid and became the wife of a Comanche chief, giving birth to Quanah before she was brought (unwillingly) to a white settlement.

If you have ever seen the film The Searchers, starring John Wayne, it was based on the raid in which Cynthia Parker was taken from her Texas home.

As a Comanche war chief, Quanah led the U.S. Army on many a wild chase and was feared, hated and by some Army officers, admired for his tactical abilities.

In his later years Quanah became a thoroughly modern American man at the turn of the 20th Century, even once dining with President Teddy Roosevelt.

But I am giving away way too much of the tale.

Empire of the Summer Moon is a riveting story that probably should be required reading in every American high school. But then, it would likely never get approved for any "Common Core."

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