Review: Empire of the Summer Moon, S.C. Gwynne

Rating: 3 out of 5

Parts of this book were really good, such as the author’s extensive description of early Texas Rangers and how they managed to succeed against all odds as a fighting force. However, the real focus of the story was with the Comanches and their late leader, Quanah Parker. This part was the least appealing for me while other aspects that concerned the tribe, such as their rise and fall in the West, were done in a more captivating way.

The story begins in the 16th century, with the introduction of horses to North America. The Spanish play a very large role throughout the first centuries, and the author does a good job of detailing the little we know about the contact between the Spanish and the native peoples. This includes suppositions about how the balance of powers changed amongst the tribes, and this part of the book is rife with speculation though not unfoundedly so. I enjoyed the times the author focussed in on some of the Viceroys of New Spain, such as Agustín de Ahumada, who presented a very different picture to the majority of the imperial military officers.

Quanah Parker’s story began with a raid I’d not heard of before—that on Fort Parker—which would otherwise have played a very minor part in the history of the west, had Quanah’s mother Cynthia Ann Parker not been taken captive during this raid. Quanah, therefore, presented an interesting point of view into the Comanche society. This becomes more relevant in the later years, where Quanah’s efforts in retaining traditional values but appropriating Western clothes, housing, transportation, and other methods are portrayed by the author as a far-sighted move to make the Comanche relevant again, with the other option a continued life eating hand to mouth.

What I didn’t like in all of this was the author’s assertion that only he really understood the indigenous people by launching thinly veiled (or thoroughly unveiled) assaults at other historians who have erred too much on either side. Without actual proof—that of numbers, statistics, etc, difficult to produce as it may be—this was more grandstanding than actual history-writing. Mr Gwynne might very well be correct about all of the points he made, especially assaulting any and all historians who think that tribe-on-tribe warfare had a low casualty rate, but he didn’t prove these statements.

Overall, however, I found this an educating read. The focus on the Texas Rangers and Jack Hays was particularly enjoyable and well-written, but Quanah Parker also rose to be a thrilling figure, especially in his later life. The book isn’t quite a biography of the man, but it comes close.

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