Genre: Non Fiction
Source: Received audio download from the publisher for review
In the tradition of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a stunningly vivid historical account of the forty-year battle between Comanche Indians and white settlers for control of the American West, centering on Quanah, the greatest Comanche chief of them all.
S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon spans two astonishing stories. The first traces the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history. The second entails one of the most remarkable narratives ever to come out of the Old West: the epic saga of the pioneer woman Cynthia Ann Parker and her mixed-blood son Quanah, who became the last and greatest chief of the Comanches.
Although readers may be more familiar with the tribal names Apache and Sioux, it was in fact the legendary fighting ability of the Comanches that determined just how and when the American West opened up. Comanche boys became adept bareback riders by age six; full Comanche braves were considered the best horsemen who ever rode. They were so masterful at war and so skillful with their arrows and lances that they stopped the northern drive of colonial Spain from Mexico and halted the French expansion westward from Louisiana. White settlers arriving in Texas from the eastern United States were surprised to find the frontier being rolled backward by Comanches incensed by the invasion of their tribal lands. So effective were the Comanches that they forced the creation of the Texas Rangers and account for the advent of the new weapon specifically designed to fight them: the six-gun.
The war with the Comanches lasted four decades, in effect holding up the development of the new American nation. Gwynne’s exhilarating account delivers a sweeping narrative that encompasses Spanish colonialism, the Civil War, the destruction of the buffalo herds, and the arrival of the railroads—a historical feast for anyone interested in how the United States came into being.
Against this backdrop Gwynne presents the compelling drama of Cynthia Ann Parker, a lovely nine-year-old girl with cornflower-blue eyes who was kidnapped by Comanches from the far Texas frontier in 1836. She grew to love her captors and became infamous as the "White Squaw" who refused to return until her tragic capture by Texas Rangers in 1860. More famous still was her son Quanah, a warrior who was never defeated and whose guerrilla wars in the Texas Panhandle made him a legend.
S. C. Gwynne’s account of these events is meticulously researched, intellectually provocative, and, above all, thrillingly told.
I have been a huge fan of S.C. Gwynne’s since reading Rebel Yell a year or so ago. He took a controversial subject, and someone that I had really no interest in, and made me fascinated with his intelligence and battlefield strategy (something else I am not interested in). When an author can do that for me, they fall into a special category of people whose books I need to pick up ASAP. While Empire of the Summer Moon was released prior to Rebel Yell, when I saw that Simon & Schuster was releasing the audio version, I knew I needed to read/listen to this one.
Empire of the Summer Moon takes an interesting look at the late Comanche culture. It explores the later part of the American westward migration and how they interacted with the native peoples. It also explores how the Comanche, and to a lesser extent other nations, pushed back against these incursions of their land and ways of life. The most interesting part for me was the extensive time spent on the people taken captive by natives during raids and how life was like for them. The most time was spent on the story of Cynthia Parker who was taken captive, bore three children to her native husband, and when reclaimed by her white family, struggled to reacquaint herself with her own culture. A few other capture stories are explored to some extent as well. Cynthia Parker was also the mother of Quanah Parker, who would become one of the last powerful Comanche leaders and would wrap around the time where the Comanche would go from a plains people to a reservation people. He was a fascinating person, but I felt that even though he is a titular figure, much less time was spent on his story than that of his mother or the Comanche people in general, which I think was a missed opportunity.
The structure of the novel was a little divided to me, which felt almost like two separate threads rather than a cohesive thread that spans all the way through the book. Cynthia Parker is technically the element that connects the two: she connects the old style native life with the new style life and she is the mother of Quanah. However, I really felt like these were two separate elements and would have liked them to be better integrated.
Despite my qualms with the structure, I learned A LOT from this book. I had taken classes on native American peoples during college, but none of these elements from this book were explored in them. I definitely think that Rebel Yell was better executed but this was well done as well.
The narration was strong for this book. It was never boring or dry and kept my attention. I can’t say that it was exciting or engaging as some are wont to be, but for a non-fiction book, I felt that it did enough to serve the topic.
You can check out a sample of the audio production below:
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