Monday, February 06, 2012

Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne


The Comanche male was thus gloriously, astoundingly free. He was subject to no church, no organized religion, no priest class, no military societies, no state, no police, no public law, no domineering clans or powerful families, no strict rules of personal behavior, nothing telling him he could not leave his band and join another one, nothing even telling him he could not abscond with his friend's wife, though he certainly would end up paying somewhere between one and ten horses for that indulgence, assuming he was caught. He was free to organize his own military raids; free to come and go as he pleased.

~p. 51, Empire of the Summer Moon

It took me forever to read this book because what you don't see in that excerpt about the Comanche male is that the lack of religion, law and rules of personal behavior meant that when they attacked other tribes or white settlers, Comanches were vicious to the point that they are among the few who, in retrospect, could truly be called "savage" without it being a racial slur. Seeing nothing wrong with torture (including that of babies), rape (heavily pregnant women and elderly women were not immune to rape and torture), scalpings and other horrors, young Comanches actually appeared to enjoy the cruelties they inflicted on their enemies. The details make for hard reading. Not everything about the book makes it miserable, though, or I would never have made it to the end.

So many raids were made by moonlight that in Texas a full, bright spring or summer moon is still known as a Comanche Moon.

~p. 65

When my book club discussed Empire of the Summer Moon, I wasn't able to attend. I'm sorry I missed the discussion. I was still only partway through the book because I had to keep setting it aside (although that's not the reason I didn't make it to the meeting). It kept occurring to me that the Comanche gang rapes -- which were often followed by murder, but not always . . . sometimes a woman would survive the initial attack, only to go through the same thing repeatedly -- could be classified as "sociopathic group-think run amok" [my wording]. These were not your sweet, passive Indians who were eventually shuffled off to reservations after giving in peacefully to numerous unfathomably ridiculous requests. The Comanches fought to the bitter end and in the nastiest ways imaginable. They fought to win and to drive people away. It worked for a very long time.

Quanah Parker was the last Comanche chief and part of Empire of the Summer Moon is his story, the story of the final people to leave their land behind and how he negotiated for his people and cleverly earned a fortune. But, most of Empire of the Summer Moon is dedicated to the history of the Comanches, how they lived and why they were able to ride for hundreds of miles without getting lost, how they defeated the Apaches, drove back the Spanish and stopped the white man's expansion into "Comancheria".

There's also plenty about Quanah's mother, the young white captive Cynthia Ann Parker. Although most everything that has been written about her either is very vague or involves a lot of assumptions because of what the author of Empire of the Summer Moon refers to as her "resonating silence" after she was retrieved from the Comanches, the author did an astounding job of gathering parallel accounts and information about various sightings of Cynthia Ann that help round out her story.

By the point of her liberation by whites, Cynthia Ann Parker had not only become a part of her Comanche tribe (with a completely different name) but was happily married to a chief and had three children. Her husband's death and the separation from her boys grieved her deeply. Cynthia Ann's story is a very sad one. Had she lived, I'm sure she would have been pleased with her only surviving child's leadership and kindness toward his people.

I could spend all day typing up quotations from the book because it is fascinating, well-written, informative history and at a glance I can see that I probably marked at least 25-30 passages. But, instead I'll tell you that if you're interested in Native American history, it's a must read. I've been on a bit of a Native American bent for the last couple of months and the first two books were highly critical of white treatment of Indians, as all books about Native Americans should be, in some way. But, Empire of the Summer Moon also shows the flip side -- the devastation and cruelty inflicted on white settlers by the uncivilized tribes.

As in any book of its kind, there is no escaping the horrors whites inflicted on Indians. They came, they saw, they conquered. But, author S. C. Gwynne gives you a good understanding of the rights and wrongs on both sides, the combined cruelty and idiocy of the young American government's decisions regarding our aboriginal people, as well as a glimpse into the reason hunter/gatherers eventually lose out to agrarian societies. Very engrossing stuff. I have two more non-fiction titles about Native Americans and a fictional account of Cynthia Parker's life (which I already know is in many ways wildly inaccurate) that I'm looking forward to reading, hopefully in the near future.

One of the things I really enjoyed about Empire of the Summer Moon was reading about various other tribes besides the Comanches, how they arrived in Indian Territory (aka, my home state, Oklahoma) and the wildly diverse camping grounds of the Comanches. Sometimes, I recognized the descriptions as places near my hometown. I miss Oklahoma, even 25 years after moving away, so it always gives me a buzz to read anything at all about "home".

I think this quote gives you a good idea of both the years of great change described and the quality of writing in Empire of the Summer Moon:

Much of what was left of [the Penatekas], starving and demoralized, limped on to a tiny reservation in 1855, despised even by other Comanches.

Only ten years before, such a thing would have been unimaginable. At the moment of the raid on Parker's Fort, the moment when a weeping Lucy Parker placed her terrified daughter on the rear flank of a Comanche mustang, the Comanches, and the Penatekas in particular, had been at the peak of their historical power and influence. They had defeated the Europeans, cowed the Mexicans, and had so thoroughly mastered the far southern plains that they were no longer threatened by other tribes. They had enough enemies to keep them entertained and supplied with a surfeit of horseflesh. But none to really worry about. Their source of food and sustenance, the buffalo, roamed the plains in record numbers and still ranged into every corner of Comancheria. The tribe's low birth rates virtually guaranteed that their nomadic life following buffalo herds was infinitely sustainable. Their world was thus suspended in what seemed to be a perfect equilibrium, a balance of earth and wind and sun and sky that would endure forever. An empire under the bright summer moon. For those who witnessed the change at a very intimate and personal level, including Cynthia Ann and her husband, the speed with which that ideal world was dismantled must have seemed scarcely believable. She herself, the daughter of pioneers who were hammering violently at the age-old Comanche barrier that had defeated all other comers, now adopted into a culture that was beginning to die, was the emblem of the change.

~p. 110

Empire of the Summer Moon was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, published by Scribner in 2010. Although it does bounce around in time a bit and can thus be a bit confusing, that and the fact that I thought the book could have used a glossary were my only complaints.

Highly recommended. An exceptionally written, extremely well-researched and revealing tale of American History, focusing on the Comanches and their downfall but including plenty of insight about other Native American tribes, the dangers to pioneers of the time period and the clueless handling of the Comanche "problem" by the young American government and its army. The Civil War and its impact on the frontier is also described. One warning: there is some very graphic description of violence in Empire of the Summer Moon.

Just walked in:

All Woman and Springtime by Brandon W. Jones and
Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick -- both surprises from Algonquin Books

They also sent me copies of two books that I have tried and failed to get into, so I think I just won't mention them, although I may give one a second chance (the other got two chances but will not get a third).

Let's offset the Native American History glum with a bit of kitty fun:

No, I did not let Isabel begin a workout. She gets enough working out, I promise you. Crazy cat. Happy Tuesday!

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email bookfoolery@gmail.com for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

17 comments:

  1. Uh oh, seems dangerous for kitty. heh.

    This book sounds difficult but interesting, thanks for reviewing it so well for us here. I will add this to my list but not sure I can read it soon. Sounds too hard.

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    1. Yes, actually, it is quite dangerous. I keep telling husband to remove the safety connection when he's not using the treadmill because one of the kitties came close to hanging herself. Scary. When I caught Isabel turning on the treadmill I pulled it, of course.

      Oh, Amy, I don't know if you should read this one. It's so rough. It's a very, very good book but I would happily warn you away from it because some of the description is just horrendous.

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  2. Great picture of Isabel, although I think she looks trim enough and doesn't really need to hit the treadmill. ;)

    You've been out of OK just a few years more than I've been out of CA. I still think of San Diego as home, which is weird since we've been in Nebraska for the same amount of time (20 year in each state). Where does the time go??!!

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    1. Isabel is *very* trim. She never walks if she can run and is a light eater, so she has good reason to be. I should see if chasing jingle balls would help my figure. Or, maybe something slightly larger, like a soccer ball? :)

      I will always think of Oklahoma as home, I suppose. I loved my home and I never did want to come here. It pains me that I spent so many years marking time, thinking, "Well, we'll be leaving within a year or two, so . . . "

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  3. I wish I was as enamored of the treadmill as Isabel seems to be.

    This is one of those books that I'd like to read but probably never will...the intensity is a bit intimidating.

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    1. Yes, I'm not so fond of a treadmill, myself. I like running outdoors, though, and miss is. My knees have rebelled in the past couple of years.

      Empire of the Summer Moon is definitely intense. It's fascinating, but it's a very hard read.

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  4. Great review.

    Crazy cat.

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    1. Thanks!

      Very crazy. Isabel was having such a big cat fit, last night, that I had to pull her off the tree to get her to stop batting at her big sis.

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  5. We read a fictional story of the raid at Fort Parker for our book club several years ago but the name escapes me. My college roommate is from the town that neighbor's Fort Parker so having been there for a few concerts (ooooh love me some Willie Nelson and Robert Earle Keen), I've always been interested in the history. I do agree that Cynthia Ann Parker had an unfortunate fate.

    Ahhhh--Ride the Wind by Lucia St. Clair Robson. Also pretty gruesome but it doesn't sound like it was quite as gruesome as Empire of the Summer Moon.

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    1. Trish,

      Ride the Wind is the fictional title I've got on the shelf. I read about 75 pages and decided I wasn't in the mood for that level of violence, a couple months ago. And, then I turned right around and read Empire of the Summer Moon. LOL He talks about Rachel Plummer, the pregnant woman who was kidnapped with Cynthia and raped repeatedly, in Empire. I'd say Empire of the Summer Moon is just slightly more gruesome, yes. It goes into some detail about the torture. Toe-curling stuff, for sure.

      But, the history is utterly fascinating if you can cope with the gruesome details of all those Comanche raids. I sincerely hope the next book I read about Native Americans is a bit lower on violence, but I can't deny Empire is an awfully good book.

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  6. It sounds like a very interesting and informative book, if disturbing in content.

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    1. Jeane,

      It's definitely informative. The bibliography alone is practically a novella -- huge. It does have some really gruesome details, but I don't think reading about the downfall of Native Americans can help being disturbing in *some* way. If not the blood and violence, there's the cruelty of Europeans taking away land and livelihood from the natives. The disappearance of the buffalo is also truly shocking -- so many animals gone in a matter of a few short years.

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  7. I'm adding this one to my list. I'm always curious about Native Americans. One of my childhood heroes was Crazy Horse, and later I admired Chief Joseph and his wonderful speech. As you mention, there were atrocities by both sides, but the government wielded a brutal bigger stick.

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    1. One of the books I just recently bought is about Chief Joseph (because of that speech, which you can't help but admire). Empire of the Summer Moon is an excellent book. Difficult as it is to read about the violence, I think most of us need to be more aware of what Native Americans went through because we still have native descendants and they are still feeling the after-effects. It's important history.

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  8. But regular exercise is very important!

    It's very important history. Also incredibly sad.

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    1. Yes, but maybe not on the treadmill . . . jingle-ball chase is much better.

      Very sad. And, we all really need to know more about that part of our history. It's been totally glossed over -- at least, it certainly was when I was in school. Oddly, I went to school in a town with an Indian reservation nearby and didn't realize for a good 10 years after I graduated that we had been segregated. I knew I only saw the Native American crowd at lunchtime in junior high and that only *one* Native American was in my graduating class (which meant a significant number of drop-outs) but I just didn't think we were impacted by segregation. Silly me.

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  9. I recently finished this book too and had many similar thoughts about it.

    I had lots and lots underlined and ended up forgetting to bring my book with me when I wrote my review! In general I enjoyed it, overall, not one of my favorites. And yes, very difficult. Very.

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