Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne

Author S.C. Gwynne takes a most interesting approach in his history of the Comanche Indians. He does it by focusing on the events before, during, and after the life of the Comanches' last chief, Quanah Parker, the half-breed son of a white female captive, Cynthia Ann Parker, and another Comanche chief, Peta Nocona.

Empire of the Summer Moon begins with the murder and capture of most of the James W. Parker family, including the taking of 9-year-old Cynthia Ann. (The seemingly endless search of Parker for his family inspired Alan Le May's novel The Searchers and the subsequent film.)

Gwynne uses the book written by Cynthia Ann's sister Rachel (also abducted) as his main source for this material, as very little is known of Cynthia Ann's own time with the tribe until much later, when it was revealed that she had had multiple opportunities to escape and had refused to leave her husband and children.

One portion I found especially engrossing was the chronicle of the Texas Rangers, essentially a group of organized vigilantes. In order to be on equal ground and successfully fend off attacks upon the reluctant "nation" of Texas, the Rangers learned to fight like the Comanches — including their impressive skill at shooting with accuracy from a galloping horse. Gwynne also offers insight into the Comancheros, the half-breed traders who were the only non-Indians the tribe would deal with directly.

Under the guise of telling Quanah Parker's story, Gwynne produces a fairly comprehensive tribal history. Empire of the Summer Moon is one that anyone should read who only thinks of Comanches as the bloodthirsty savages of traditional Western fiction. Gwynne's prose is smooth and unadorned, resulting in a history without pretensions. He lets the story take the spotlight; his tenure with Time Magazine was apparently excellent training for this career move.

I have only reached the halfway point — Gwynne has barely touched upon Quanah himself — yet I feel confident in recommending Empire of the Summer Moon to both those with prior interest in its subject who wish to expand their knowledge, and those wanting an introduction to the topic. Both, I wager, with be well satisfied.

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