Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review: Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

So, whenever I travel, as I did to Chicago this weekend (congrats to the married couple), I need to read or I go nuts.  This is particularly true on airplanes where my claustrophobia hits high gear (actually, that's not true: women's clothing stores is where my claustrophobia is the worst), and I need something to occupy my mind.  Usually, I read sci-fi/fantasy.  But this time, I purchased Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne, which is all about the Native American Tribe of the Comanches.

This is some pretty spectacular stuff - the Comanche were the first of the Native American Plains tribes to fully grasp the usefulness of the horse.  While other tribes, like the Apache used horses, the Comanches were the first to fight on horseback, the first to breed horses, and so on.  And by all accounts the Comanche were spectacular horsemen -for instance, it was required that a Comanche warrior be able to pick up a fully grown human being at a full gallop.  Moreover, the Comanche were able to travel and attack by moonlight - something no one else was able to do.  Their effective range was hundreds of miles.

Of equal interest is that the Lipan Apache were essentially kicked off the Plains by the Comanches, and that as a measure of protection, the Apaches sparked a war between the Comanches and the Spanish specifically as a way to protect themselves.  The Spanish, too, used the Comanches as a buffer zone from French incursions.  No tribe held more territory than the Comanches - and it was their use of the horse that transformed the Comanches from a land-based hunting-gathering culture to Spartan-esque warrior culture.  Even as a general consumer of history, I had no idea of how influential the Comanches were - ask me who the most powerful Native American Tribes were, and I'd probably say the Sioux or the Apache. 

The book itself is a pretty good read, but limited by its source material.  I don't blame the author so much, because the Comanche weren't exactly writing down their history.  As he gets later into the events, particularly regarding the wars between the United States and the Comanches, his sources become more even-handed.  Yes, the Comanches were horrific murders who used psychological warfare against everyone by killing their victims in horrific manners.  But they were incredibly kind to their families, democratic, and got royally shafted by the United States in the years after the Civil War. 

To that end, the author pays special attention to Quanah Parker, the son of a Comanche war chieftain and the most famous Comanche kidnappee in Texas history - Cynthia Ann Parker - who was kidnapped by the Comanche at the age of 8, saw her family brutally murdered, but was adopted into the tribe, and when later given the chance to leave she refused (and eventually had to be brought kicking and screaming into the white world).  Anyway, her son, Quanah was one the last holdouts among the Comanche, and one of its fiercest warriors.  When he decided to surrender, though, he worked hard to see that he and his fellow tribe members assimilated into American culture, ultimately becoming the last chief of the Comanches.

Its a compelling book, a great read, and definitely worth a read to get an idea what the West was like.  If you are from Texas, you'll especially want to read this book - it has great information about the Texas Rangers (who were created specifically to deal with the Comanches), and about the creation of Texas.

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