Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. By S.C. Gwynne. Scribner, 371 pp., $27.50.
By Janice Harayda
No Indians of the Southern Plains had a more fearsome reputation than the Comanches. Nomadic warriors who liked to attack under a full moon, they inspired terror with their horned buffalo-wool caps and their ability to fire arrows while clinging to the sides of horses. They gang-raped women, speared babies with lances, and tortured male captives, sometimes by burning them to death. After a massacre, an Army captain reported seeing evidence of beheadings and victims whose “fingers, toes, and private parts had been cut off and stuck in their mouths.”
In this worthy finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, S.C. Gwynne denies neither these atrocities nor the many betrayals by whites that helped to foster the warriors’ thirst for vengeance. With journalistic balance and novelistic flair, he tells the story of the fall of the Comanches through the lives of three people who had entwined roles in it: Quanah Parker, their last great chief; his white mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by the tribe as a 9-year-old and removed from it against her will 24 years later by Texas Rangers; and Ranald Mackenzie, a brilliant Indian fighter who attended West Point with Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Of those three lives, only Quanah’s did not end in tragedy, and Empire of the Summer Moon shows the cost of the American ideal of Manifest Destiny both to those who pursued it and to those who obstructed it. Few stereotypes of Indians have proved more tenacious than that of the “noble savage,” but Gwynne shows that among native tribes as among whites, extraordinary courage often went hand-in-hand with comparable ignobility.
Best line: One passage describes what Comanches did after they gang-raped and shot several arrows into Martha Sherman, a white settler who was nine months pregnant: “They scalped her alive by making deep cuts below her ears and, in effect, peeling the top of her head entirely off.”
Worst line: In a rare descent into sentimentality and cliché, Gwynne writes of Cynthia Ann after whites recaptured her: “And maybe she thinks, just for a moment, that all is right in the world.”
Published: May 2010 (Scribner hardcover), May 2011 (Scribner paperback).
Read an excerpt from Empire of the Summer Moon.
You may also want to read: The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America
You can follow Janice Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda or by clicking on the follow button in the right sidebar. Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.