Friday, February 5, 2016

Empire of the Summer Moon

Empire of the Summer Moon
By S.C. Gwynne

Empire of the Summer Moon was published in 2010, it quickly began to rack up awards and honorable mentions, winning the Christian Science Monitor's best book of the year award, the Texas book award and the Oklahoma book award, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. It was the second book published by S.C. Gwynne. Mr. Gwynee is a journalist with a history degree from Princeton University and a Masters in Writing from John Hopkins University. During his career he wrote for Time (spending 12 years at the magazine), the New York Times, the Boston Globe and many other papers. He also served as an executive editor for the Texas Monthly where he wrote a number of high profile pieces from 2000 to 2008. Basically he's done a lot of writing and lot of it has been good. Let me move on to the book.

The Empire of the Summer Moon is both the history of the Comanche tribe of native Americans and an examination of the fate of members of a 19th century settler family who become deeply tied with the fate of the Comanches, the family of the Parkers. Most especially of Cynthia Ann Parker and of her children. Cynthia's story starts with the raid on her family's settlement that shattered her birth family began one of the more famous stories of the frontier. The extended family of the Parkers had settled at the very edge of settled land and their farms and homes were on the border of the empire of the Comanche (stretching from across the southern great plains where the Comanche held some of the riches buffalo ranges, empire is the right word here) and as such had made themselves vulnerable. The Comanche attacked, they would kill most of the adult men, torturing to death a number of them. The women and children were kidnapped, the adult women would be gang raped, tortured and if they were lucky enslaved, most of them would be murdered. The children however would be adopted into the Comanche tribe, given to women who had either lost children or seemed unable to have their own and treated equally with any native born Comanche. Right away Mr. Gwynne makes it clear that this book will not romanticize anyone (he describes the early Texas Rangers as bands of dirty, savage, illiterates who had mostly signed up for a chance to kill someone) and pull no punches in telling us what exactly was going on the frontier in the 1800s. He doesn't balk from telling us specifically what the crimes committed by whites or natives were and who the victims were.

To be honest I frankly appreciated it. My own views were formed in Oklahoma where I not only in history class read accounts by white settlers but by natives. In my own case I was exposed to history from the Cherokee side of things. Among other things their war with the Kiowa (strangely enough they show up in this book as the closest allies of the Comanche's) when they were basically exiled to Oklahoma and no one bothered to tell the Kiowa that Washington D.C had given the Cherokee land that the Kiowa considered theirs. For that matter I had even learned about the traditional battles between the Cherokee and the Iroquois, although for obvious reasons my education focused on things that happened after the Trail of Tears. What I'm saying is I already had a vague grip on the idea that this book mercilessly pushes home. The native tribes were not innocents who never fought a war before the white men showed up. Nor were the whites a uniformed band of monsters who relentlessly plotted to see every native wiped from the Earth. They were people, with all the virtues and vices inherent to being people. Now I do not desire to pretend that the United States was pure and unsullied in it's treatment of the native people's of North America and neither does this book. The many massacres and atrocities visited upon the natives at the hands of the United States Government, or more often by private citizens of the United States who could not be bothered to extend even the most basic rights to native men and women are not glossed over. Instead of the actions of both sides are given context and shown to be what they were, the actions of human beings who were both acting and reacting within specific events and contexts. If we're ever going to be better and not repeat the mistakes of the past, it's important that we look at the past and come to grips with the context and motivations of the people living in those eras and not view them as simple angels or monsters. Even for groups of people that it's hard to do that for, like the Comanche.

Before the arrival of white men in North America, the Comanche were a simple people of little note. They were a stone age people, who had not reached the advancements of the Aztecs or the Mississippi mound builders. Instead they skulked ignored by their neighbors on hunting grounds no one else wanted in the high empty plains of North America. They would have likely been one of the forgotten peoples of history expect for one thing, just one thing. The Spanish allowed horses to run wild on the American plains. The horse breeds that the Spanish brought were perfectly adapted to the plains of the North America (which frankly horses had been native to anyways before going extinct, possibly by over hunting by the natives ironically enough). According to Mr. Gwynne we can't be entirely sure when the Comanche meet the first horse but we know it had to be in the 1600s. Because by 1709, the effects were in full bloom. The Comanche hit the tribes and the Spanish colonizers of the southwest like a hammer through glass, chasing the Apache out of their home range and utterly wrecking Spanish plans for New Mexico and Texas. Written annuals of the time show them to be merciless. Even after chasing the Apache out of the territory they wanted, they would raid, burn and murder their way through Apache lands whenever they got the chance. One of the things I got out of this is that the Comanche's could fairly be compared to the tribes of steppe nomads that arose in Central Asia who often became the terrors of surrounding civilizations. I'm fairly sure that farmers in Northern Mexico at the time (the Comanche would raid Northern Mexico killing thousands of people a year until nearly the 1890s) and the various native tribes who struggled with the Comanche would agree with me.

Despite his lack of military training, Mr. Gwynne manages to explain why the Comanche were able to commit such feats of military dominance despite lacking any large scale organizational skills or any real social complexity (the Comanche never advanced beyond organizing at the band level, their raiding bands were basically ad hoc volunteer organizations held together by the force of personality of the man who called the raid). Actually to be fair that lack of social complexity worked in their favor. Without any tribal authority, there are no targets for decapitation strikes, being nomads traveling in small bands, there are no economic or political centers to hit. Hell, the Comanche had no organized religious beliefs meaning there were no sacred sites to take and hold and force the Comanche to fight on your terms. Fighting a society like the Comanche with the tactics that the Spanish and later the Americans had developed in the 1700s and the first half of the 1800s is like fighting a lake with a fork, hit as hard as you want, you ain't doing any damage. It was impossible to bring the Comanche into a large scale traditional battle. To the Comanche, war was a series of raids on lightly or undefended targets where you stole cattle and horses, kidnapped children and women and killed everyone else. On top of this the Comanche had some really hardcore tactical advantages. One was their unmatched horsemanship, at this point everyone else in North America was in the habit of riding into combat and dismounting to fight. This worked fine against the native tribes in central Mexico and the eastern United States, but the Comanche fought in a style more comparable to the Mongols or the Huns. They fought on horse back with bow and arrow and were often able ride rings around their adversities be they native or white. Their bows were much better adapted for this style of warfare than the single shot rifles or muskets being used, having a higher rate of fire and at the ranges the battles were taking place at, were more accurate. To be blunt it wasn't until the invention of the 6 shot revolver and repeating carbine in the late 1800s that the Comanche lost the firepower advantage. It was after they lost their tactical advantages that the US military was able to solve the strategic problem that Comanche posed. Although there was a lot of help from the private sector (the mass slaughter of buffalo destroyed the Comanche logistical base for example).

Woven into this is tales of the Parker family, mostly the women who survived the deadly raid, like Cynthia Ann Parker who would adapt fully into Comanche society and give birth to their last great war chief Quanah Parker, who was the first and last Tribal Chief of Comanche. The book traces his life as well as his mother's and his aunt's Rebecca Plummer. Rebecca was an adult when the Comanche attacked her settlement and the Comanche were not as gentle towards her as they were her niece Cynthia Ann, Ms. Plummer would survive 21 months in slavery and would write about her ordeal at the hands of the Comanche. She would die of illness after finally being reunited with her family and her husband. Cynthia who was 9 when she was taken would marry a Comanche chief and become culturally fully Comanche (frankly I suspect some Stockholm syndrome in some of these situations, as Cynthia and other captives would watch their adult relatives be gang raped, tortured and murdered before being turned over to childless couples who would treat them rather well). Quanah on the other hand would lead the last great war between the Comanche and the Americans, the campaigns between him and the American General who finally broke the Comanche, General Mackenzie, or as the Comanche called him, Bad Hand (he lost 3 fingers in the civil war). The book spends a fair amount of time on General Mackenzie who is a rather obscure figure in American history despite his accomplishments and digs into the relations between him and Quanah in war and peace. The book also details Quanah's life after the war's end where he becomes a figure greatly respected by white and natives alike. Dying a influential and politically relevant figure. I gloss over this because I believe you should read this for yourselves.

Empire of the Summer Moon provides an solid look into the history and lives of a rather neglected tribe in American History. As well as giving us a stark, unrelentingly and fairly factual look at the lives on the frontiers and the people living them. If you're interested in American history, the Indian wars or just looking to read an interesting history book, you got one here. That said, while not graphic or explicit the book is rather blunt and plain spoken about the violence and evil that both groups inflicting on each other and bystanders. I think we could use more of that. I'm giving Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne an A.

I have to admit the year is going pretty well so far, no major disappointments in the book department. Now that I've typed those words, have I jinxed myself? Will the streak continue? Find out next week when I cover the graphic novel, Autumn Lands Vol I and after that Abhorsen by Garth Nix. See you then.  

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