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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

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

Heartbreaking and disturbing, this is a fascinating exploration of the motivations behind and the execution of white men's relentless mission of destruction; details of Comanche life; and their position as the most powerful Indian tribe in American history.

Victorious in war, unchallenged by foreign foes in North America for the first time in its history, the Union now found itself unable to deal with the handful of remaining Indian tribes that had not been destroyed, assimilated, or forced to retreat meekly onto reservations where they quickly learned the meaning of abject subjugation and starvation.

In Empire of the Summer Moon, S.C. Gwynne explores the forty-year battle between white settlers and Native Americans in the American West, particularly focusing on Quanah, the chief of the Comanches, the most powerful tribe in American history.

Gwynne traces the evolution of the Comanches--including their captivatingly described, unprecedented skill at breeding, breaking, riding, amassing, and trading horses as well as their revolutionary fighting style of hanging on the sides of their horses and shooting arrows under the horses' heads while galloping at full speed.

The hostiles were all residents of the Great Plains; all were mounted, well armed, and driven now by a mixture of vengeance and political desperation. They were Comanches, Kiowas, Arapahoes, Cheyennes, and Western Sioux. For [Colonel] Mackenzie on the southern plains, Comanches were the obvious target: No tribe in the history of the Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, and American occupations of this land had ever caused so much havoc and death. None was even a close second.

Gwynne also offers the compelling story of Cynthia Ann Parker, a white captive who assimilated into the Comanche tribe, married and bore children, and repeatedly refused to be "rescued" by white men determined to return her to a pioneer life.

The subtitle of the book is Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, and here, Gwynne explains that one of Cynthia Ann's sons was Quanah, a legendary warrior who was never defeated by white men. Gwynne digs into the complications and implications of Quanah's white-Native American heritage, emblematic of the conflicts, struggles, and mismatched balance of (fire)power that played out in our nation's history and within this book.

The details of various Indian tribe members' lives and the tribes' coexistence, intersections, and exchanges were fascinating, as were the details of Comanche life and the Comanches' collective transformation over time into a staggeringly powerful tribe. Gwynne also shares the Comanches' techniques of torture and their various brutal, effective battle strategies.

Empire of the Summer Moon also explores the pivotal development of the Colt revolver, the emergence of the renegade Rangers, the elimination of millions of buffalo (and the resulting elimination of a way of life for many Indians), the dogged, long-term Comanche pursuit by Colonel McKenzie and his men, and the American white men's overreaching, unquenchable desire to control and own the American West. He lays out how all of these factors played into the horrific widespread elimination of our nation's indigenous peoples. The book was, as one would expect, gut-wrenching to read as the destruction unfolded on these pages.

The greatest threat of all to [American Indians'] identity, and to the very idea of a nomadic hunter in North America, appeared on the plains in the late 1860s. These were the buffalo men. Between 1868 and 1881 they would kill thirty-one million buffalo, stripping the plains almost entirely of the huge, lumbering creatures and destroying any last small hope that any horse tribe could ever be restored to its traditional life. There was no such thing as a horse Indian without a buffalo herd. Such an Indian had no identity at all.

Digging into the motivations and machinations that shaped the genocide that is detailed in Empire of the Summer Moon is disturbing and heartbreaking, but appropriately so.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

S.C. Gwynne is also the author of Rebel Yell, about Stonewall Jackson.

If you like to read nonfiction, you may like the books on the Greedy Reading List Six Compelling Nonfiction Books that Read Like Fiction.

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