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

I’ve read a fair amount about this period in American history, but no work has brought it all together in the way that S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon did. It is somewhat tempting to view this as a Plains Indians version of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, but the book is so much more than a harsh commentary on the white man’s injustices to Native Americans and the latter’s futile efforts to maintain their culture. Those elements surely figure into the story that Gwynne has undertaken to tell, but thanks to his voluminous research, determined objectivity and incisive thinking, they are placed in a context that is much more informative and thought-provoking than one finds in most such histories. One has sympathy for the various Indian bands and tribes who figure into this story, but Gwynne’s portrait is not necessarily sympathetic. He doesn’t make every Indian attack a heroic battle to stop white encroachment or a valiant response to injustice. Nor does he portray every white settler as a rash invader indifferent to the interests and humanity of the people being suppressed and overwhelmed by the clash of cultures created by America’s – and simultaneously, initially, Mexico and Spain’s – migration into Texas and the Great Southwest.

Instead, he carefully and methodically works centuries of human development into the foundation of his narrative, masterfully weaving back and forth from the general to the specific as he works his way from a Comanche raid on an audacious, somewhat foolhardy family outpost deep in Indian country to the successful assimilation into something like European culture of the first and only chief of all Comanches and one of the tribe’s smartest, most brutal and most accomplished warriors.  That chief is Quanah Parker, a son of Cynthia Anne Parker, who was kidnapped in the 1836 raid on her family’s outpost at the age of six and raised as a Comanche.  Gwynne’s description of Cynthia Anne’s re-kidnapping by whites in her 30s and the impossible task that faced her in reintegrating into EuroAmerican culture is one of the most heart-breaking segments of this tale. His description of her son’s rise to power as a Comanche, followed by his success at maintaining his dignity and standing when, after years of intrepid, unrelenting, rage-fueled war on white men, it became clear to him that assimilation into white culture was his people’s only hope, is a true study in human nature and in the dilemma that faced all sides in the white man’s march to the Pacific.

The book does not shrink from descriptions of the newcomers’ despoliation of the Plains or, especially, their purposeful near-extermination of the once-abundant buffalo. Nor does it hold back in describing individual outrages and massacres perpetrated by whites.  But it is equally candid in its descriptions of outrages committed by Indians, the Comanches, especially.  If you come to this book expecting to see the heroic death throes of the noble aborigine defending his culture, you will be much disappointed, perhaps even shockingly challenged. For, instead, in Gwynne’s book, we get a deep and unvarnished portrait of the so-called taming of the West and Southwest from the middle- to late-19th century.  As a result, our understanding of the history is measurably enlarged, and we are given much to think about regarding our own time, our own dreams and endeavors  and our own place in the vast scheme of human evolution.