Book Habit Blog: Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches

by S.C. Gwynne

This is an historical non-fiction narrative, telling lyrically three, tightly interwoven stories: the settling of the state of Texas; America’s forty year war of extermination of the Comanche tribe; and the saga of pioneer woman Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by the Comanche as a nine-year-old girl, integrated into the tribe, never attempting nor wishing to escape, who gave birth to and raised the legendary, principal war chief, Quanah Parker.

Journalist Gwynne’s story telling is an historical feast, delivering thrillingly a tapestry of the development of America’s Southwest.  The telling is unmatched in rigor and grit even by fictional yarns of pioneers’ relentless, westward 19th-century, “manifest destiny” expansion.

All writers in this genre wrestle with the boundary between the known and unknowable.  They should deal fairly with the inherent limitations in filling the historical gaps they encounter.  How they handle the gaps is crucial in the story’s value as a plausible and unbiased version of events being revealed.  Gwynne appears to have handled this well, though not without criticism.  Many critics of this meticulously researched book decry the author’s alleged cultural insensitivity to Indian ways, said to be attributable to his Eurocentric, white American perspective of the 19th-century pioneer, the “noble settler”: that getting rid of Comanches was a perfectly natural and reasonable goal, as well as perhaps his excessive portrayal of comparative nastiness of Comanches.  With a tinge of confession in post-publication interviews, Gwynne has acknowledged to seeing extreme revisionism in his book, but no intentional bias. 

The positives of his enlightened, research-based, and exciting revelation of the Comanches’ tenacity, unsurpassed military competence, and resourcefulness in their underdog war of resistance attest to Gwynne’s fair handling of the natural, historical gaps he encountered; but, his failure to remind his audience of the Comanches’ humanity, his occasional and unnecessary generalizing (i.e., “merciless Indian savages” or “low barbarian”) and the relative paucity of Comanche-source material (interview records or culturally-significant material such as religious practices) detract modestly from the overall quality of the historical validity and evenhandedness of his work.

However, despite the potential slackness present in this and many historical non-fiction works, I highly recommend this book.  It is brilliantly written, about a fascinating era of history, a singular Native American tribe, anchored in compelling characters throughout, a memorable page-turner start to finish.

- Jim Scott