Monday, October 25, 2010

Nonfiction book review: Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

For me, history books fall into two categories: 1. interesting subjects written in a dry plodding style, or 2. interesting subjects given life and meaning with dramatic artistic writing. Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne definitely falls into the brilliantly written category.

Empire of the Summer Moon recounts roughly four hundred years of the history of the Comanche Native American tribe. The Comanches were a fierce force reaching from Kansas to Mexico that curtailed the northward advances of the Spanish Empire and later Mexico and also thwarted the westward ambitions of Texas and the United States for decades. Gwynne gracefully explains the far-reaching historical impact of the Comanches with vivid and often horrific details from a bloody history of the North American interior that has been mostly glossed over in the last hundred years. Gwynne ties the long narrative together with the gripping story of Cynthia Ann Parker. At the age of 9, she was abducted by Comanche raiders from her family of Texas settlers in 1836. She proceeded to live the majority of her life with the Comanches, wholly adopting their culture and rejecting white civilization upon her unwanted rescue in 1860. Cynthia was a legend in her own time during her long captivity and especially after her rescue. Taken back by the whites with her little Comanche daughter Prairie Flower in her arms, Cynthia languished in misery instead of embracing her return to the civilization that bore her. Upon being returned against her will to her blood relatives, she fascinated America with her persistent Comanche ways. Known as the White Squaw, she typically refused to speak English and clung tenaciously to her pagan Comanche rites. Always longing for her home among the Comanches, Cynthia Ann did not live long among her white captors. Prairie Flower died in 1864 and Cynthia Ann perished in 1870.

And Cynthia Ann Parker was made even more famous by the fact that she was the mother of Quanah Parker, the last great war chief of the Comanches who only surrendered after a long and bloody war with the U.S. military.

Quanah was known for his brilliance and brutality. All Comanches were traditionally brutal in warfare. Among the Plains Indians, war was always a fight to death because capture meant slow torture to death. Children were abducted and kept to be raised as Comanches, adult women captives would be gang raped, enslaved, and/or tortured to death with horrible mutilations. Adult male captives were routinely tortured to death. The Comanches excelled at all these practices and were dreaded by ALL. Comanche raiders terrorized Mexicans, Americans, and Native Americans alike.

Quanah, even after the inevitable victory of the U.S., continued to distinguish himself by adapting to civilized life. He managed to thrive after a fashion amid the despair of reservation imprisonment, unlike his fellow Comanches who knew only the utter sadness of conquest.

Empire of the Summer Moon is a must read for all history buffs. Its tales are crafted from the journals of ill-fated Spanish officers, reports of Texas Rangers, reports of U.S. officers hardened by the Civil War, and the gripping accounts of captives who escaped the Comanches. This epic clash of the Stone Age and rising Empires is jaw dropping in its scope and drama.

To appreciate the talent of Gwynne's writing, read this excerpt as he explains the tragedy of Cynthia Ann Parker:

The event that destroyed her life was not the raid at Parker's Fort in 1836 but her miraculous and much-celebrated "rescue" at Mule Creek in 1860. The latter killed her husband, separated her forever from her beloved sons, and deposited her in a culture where she was more a true captive than she had ever been with the Comanches. In the moments before Ross's raid, she had been quite as primitive as any other Plains Indian; packing thousands of pounds of buffalo meat onto mules, covered from head to toe in blood and grease, literally immersed in this elemental world that never quit left the Stone Age -- a world of ceaseless toil, hunger, constant war, and early death. But also of pure magic, of beaver ceremonies and eagle dances, of spirits that inhabited springs, trees, rocks, turtles, and crows; a place where people danced all night and sang bear medicine songs, where wolf medicine made a person invulnerable to bullets, dream visions dictated tribal policy, and ghosts were alive in the wind. On grassy plains and timbered river bottoms from Kansas to Texas, Cynthia Ann -- Nautdau -- had drifted in the mystical cycles of the seasons, living in that random, terrifying bloody, and intensely alive place where nature and divinity became one.

Cynthia Ann Parker nursing her precious daughter Prairie Flower