When I saw S.C. Gwynne was a scheduled speaker for Books in Bloom this year, I decided it was the perfect time to try one of his books that had been on my to-read list for a long-time, Empire of the Summer Moon.
I’ve been interested in the American West and Native American history since I was a child–my family can vouch for how weirdly obsessed I was with Son of the Morning Star as a nine-year-old–so I was excited to try Gwynne’s well-regarded history of the Comanche tribe.
I found Gwynne’s book interesting, but, at points, frustrating. For the most part, his narrative is easy to follow and intriguing. I especially thought that was true when he was discussing famous Comanche chief Quanah Parker; his mother, who was taken captive by the tribe as a small child; Parker’s most persistent adversary, General Ranald Mackenzie; and the development of the Texas Rangers. However, the book covers much less of Parker’s life than the subtitle indicates. The book is more of a general history of the Comanches…which isn’t exactly what I was expecting.
As a history buff, I think one thing that Gwynne does especially well is establishing a context for modern readers in how contemporary assumptions and thoughts differ from life 200 years ago. I think that’s important to establish in historical nonfiction to help readers out, and Gwynne was good about explaining those moments.
But his choice to start the book at one point in the 19th century and then backtrack centuries earlier and work his way forward confused me. Once I got over that, I had to come to peace with Gwynne’s treatment of the brutality of frontier Texas. He does seem genuinely interested in being fair but doesn’t always quite achieve that, in my opinion. And I’ve found several other reviewers critical of Gwynne’s descriptions and word choice, as well as the graphic description of how both sides mistreated noncombatants.
My biggest frustration with the book, though, were some assertions that seem to have no basis in known historical fact. Gwynne has clearly researched his topic extensively–his endnotes and bibliography indicate that–but the book struck me as having a tunnel vision-like approach to the topic. He often made claims about the Comanche Wars that are just not supported by anything else I’ve read in my two decades of being an armchair researcher of the Indian Wars.
For instance, Gwynne claims that the Comanche were the only tribe to practice horse breeding, the only ones to have a band who never signed a peace treaty, and the tribe that had the largest American military force fighting against it in American history. But I think those assertions would be news to the Nez Perce, Seminole, and Apache, respectively.
So, I closed this book with mixed feelings and reached for my tattered and torn copy of Son of the Morning Star.
As always, if you’re interested in learning more about this book, please follow this link to our online library catalog.
Calling all history buffs: S.C. Gwynne will be at Books in Bloom to discuss not this book but his more recent biography of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Who are you interested in going to see at Books in Bloom? What’s your favorite book about the Indian Wars? Who’s your favorite Native American chief?