July 18th, 2013


Empire of the Summer Moon

This is a tough one. The author is writing non-fiction, to be sure, but his purpose is to tell a story. That frequently means emphasis on salient personalities, and the constant refrain of describing the dry landscape of the southern great plains. I can certainly say that I learned a lot, as I was mostly ignorant of the details of settlement in Texas during the 19th century. I freely admit that I had no idea that native raids were as bad as described in the book, and he cites enough primary sources for his descriptions to be credible.

But the story drags on. The descriptions are repeated a lot, presumably to reinforce other aspects of the story, but it makes reading the book for any length of time tedious. Certainly best consumed in small chunks.

In addition, the story's lead doesn't really fit the role. The ostensible main character is Quanah Parker, the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman who had been kidnapped and raised by the Comanche tribe from the age of nine. Quanah eventually does rise to some command within the tribe, but after the point where the tribe's fate is sealed. He ends up playing a much larger part in the reservation life of the tribe, but is not the focus of the story (it's the last tenth of the book).

There is also a certain sense in which the story is being woven out of small bits, which it tries to gloss over but not always successfully. This is especially true with Quanah's life before the reservation: he (very wisely) did not discuss his specific movements during this time later in his life, nor did other Comanches that might have been with him. The author ends up having to do a lot of guesswork about the events that occurred during this time, and in some cases glosses over what should be the main part of the story.

But all of those are fairly minor problems. The big one is the racism, which just feels bizarrely out of place whenever it comes up. The author specifically calls the Comanches "savages" and describes their technology as being "like from the stone age". While it is true that Comanche warriors did acted savagely while raiding, that does not make that an accurate description of the culture as a whole (he makes the point that other native tribes were more "advanced" that the Comanches, which is better than nothing but still doesn't address the main point). The Comanches were what they needed to be, well adapted to living where and how they did. And they did make adaptations, by trading for things they could not produce and some of their own innovations, such as stuffing shields full of paper for extra protection. But the author doesn't seem to understand those things, even though he mentions them. My theory is that the continued reference to the supposedly simple culture of the Comanches is supposed to reinforce the story, to serve as a backdrop for their successes (ie in spite of their cultural limitations) and their violence (because of it). If that's true, it's unnecessary, and it has the effect of otherizing them in a book that is otherwise mostly about them.

I'd say the first chapter or two was worth the read. The rest of it, not so much.