Monday, September 12, 2016

Empire of the Summer Moon - S. C. Gwynne

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American HistoryEmpire of the Summer Moon is another title that came to me through the Deliberate Reader book club.  I was pretty pleased when I picked it up, because as I noted recently I haven't read a lot of nonfiction this year, and this was a nice change.  According to the subtitle, it's about "Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian tribe in American History," which is some interesting capitalization, but that's besides the point.  Let me just put this out there from the beginning: other than a couple of chapters at the end, this book is not really about Quanah Parker.  Parker's relevance is basically that he managed to wrangle the title of "Principle Chief of the Comanches" out of the US Government when the majority of the Comanches had been, finally, confined to a reservation, and he became a leader later in his life and caused a lot of trouble for the government earlier in it.  But beyond that, this book is largely not about Parker, but is more about the Comanches in general, without specifics for any part of it.

It must have been hard to write a book about the Comanches, because really people didn't, and don't, know that much about them.  They weren't a literate tribe and kept themselves fairly isolated, far more so than most of the First Nations we hear about.  The exact degree of isolation depended on the band (there were five within the Comanches) but overall it means that there isn't a lot of documentation from the Comanche side of things.  This means that what Gwynne is forced to rely on is documentation from the American (and Spanish, and Mexican, and Texan) side of things.  The result is that most of the information comes from records of Comanche raids on settlements and the various attempts to hunt down groups of Comanches, either preemptively or for revenge.  The notable exception to this is the few times that people who were taken captive by the Comanches and were either released or adopted into the tribe documented their experiences to some degree, which was a fascinating change.  As for documents from the Comanches themselves?  There are a few letters "written" by Quanah Parker at the end, but that's pretty much it.  Maybe something that a chief said here or there that was recorded by a white guy, but there's not much in that category.

I think this was a fairly good general history; it's hard to be more specific and detailed without that (non-existent) documentation from the Comanche side.  But even the generalities of Comanche life were fascinating.  What did bother me was some of the language that Gwynne uses.  He constantly refers to the Comanches and other First Nations peoples as savages, uncivilized, and lacking in culture.  Well that might all be true...but only if you're looking at it from a standard "white conqueror" viewpoint.  It's such a weird thing because this isn't an old book; it was published in 2010, a year when one would think that the author of a book such as this would know better.  The writing itself is very engaging, and it kept me reading until the end, but I had this constant little squirming sensation in the back of my mind because, uhm, that's not how you talk about people?  Or have I been mis-informed all this time?  Anyway, while the narrative part is good, there is a lot of underlying racism here, and sometimes it's not lying that far under; it's very clearly an instance of "history is written by the victors," in which case victors is, of course, white guys.  Not cool at all.  I think if that had been handled in a proper way, this book would merit a better rating than I'm ultimately going to give it, which has to be...

2.5 stars out of 5.  There was some interesting information here and it really got me interested in a period and area of history in which I hadn't formerly had much interest, but the way it was handled was not the best and it gets a serious knock for that.

No comments:

Post a Comment