One-Minute Book Reviews

October 3, 2011

‘Empire of the Summer Moon’ – The True Story of the Last Comanche Chief, His White Mother and the Texans Who Hunted for Them

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:46 am
Tags: , , , , ,

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.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Empire of the Summer Moon appeared on this site on Oct. 3, 2011.

Furthermore: Empire of the Summer Moon was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. Cynthia Ann Parker’s capture provided part of the inspiration for in the movie The Searchers.

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.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Empire of the Summer Moon’ – Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

Filed under: Nonfiction,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:40 am
Tags: , , ,

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
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

No Indian tribe of the Southern Plains had a more fearsome reputation than the Comanches, who terrified generations of frontier settlers with their moonlit attacks and ability to fire a fusillade of arrows while hanging off the sides of their horses. Empire of the Summer Moon tells the true story of their fall 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. S.C. Gwynne was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for the book, which the judges called “a memorable examination of the longest and most brutal of all the wars between European settlers and a single Indian tribe.”

10 Discussion Questions for Empire of the Summer Moon:

1. Most Americans know the names of few women who lived on the frontier except perhaps for Laura Ingalls Wilder. What did you learn about those women from reading about Cynthia Ann Parker and her contemporaries?

2. A Comanche male was “gloriously, astoundingly free,” but a Comanche woman was “a second-class citizen,” S.C. Gwynne says. [Page 52] Do you agree?

3. Gwynne says it’s hard to avoid making “moral judgments about the Comanches” when you read the memoir of Rachel Parker Plummer, who was captured along with her cousin Cynthia Ann but soon separated from her. [Page 43] Rachel’s story involves gang rape, the torture and murder of her 7-week-old baby, and other horrific acts. What moral judgments, if any, did you make about the Comanches?

4. The stereotype of the “noble savage” has existed since the time of James Fennimore Cooper, and stereotypes may contain a germ of truth. [Page 51] Was there anything noble about the Comanches?

5. Gen. George Armstrong Custer became world-famous after his defeat by several tribes at Little Big Horn, and Ranald Mackenzie became obscure after his victory over the Comanches. [Page 2] Why do you think the two generals had different fates?

6. The U.S. government failed to end Comanche raids sooner partly because many Easterners believed that “the Indian wars were principally the fault of white men” and that “the Comanches and other troublesome tribes would live in peace if only they were treated properly.” [Page 223] Gwynne says they were wrong: No one who knew about the horrors of Comanche attacks “could possibly have believed that the tribe was either peaceable or blameless.” [Page 224] Did he persuade you of that?

7. Gwynne also argues that the U.S. “had betrayed and lied to Native American tribes more times than anyone could possibly count” [Page 230] and that the Office of Indian affairs was “one of the most corrupt, venal, and incompetent government agencies in American history.” [Page 230] To what degree, if at all, were Comanche attacks justified by how the government treated them?

8. Empire of the Summer Moon cuts back and forth between the stories of its major figures (Cynthia Parker and others captured in the 1836 raid on her family’s fort; her son, Quanah, and her husband, Peta Nocona; the Indian fighter Ranald Mackenzie; and others). How well does the cross-cutting work? Could follow the threads of the story easily or did you sometimes have to reread parts of the book?

9. Especially after the Civil War, the extreme violence of the Comanche attacks “amounted to what we would today consider to be political terrorism,” Gwynne says. Is it fair to compare the tribe to today’s terrorists?

10. Empire of the Summer Moon gives many example of Comanche brutality. The first pages of the book note, for example, after the Salt Creek 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.” [Page 4] Did Gwynne ever go too far or describe violence that seemed unnecessary to the story? Why or why not?

The page numbers cited above refer to the hardcover edition of Empire of the Summer Moon.  A review of Empire of the Summer Moon appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 3, 2011.

Vital statistics:

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. Published: May 2010 (Scribner hardcover) and May 2011 (Scribner paperback).

Noteworthy reviews of Empire of the Summer Moon appeared in the Economist and elsewhere.

A review of Empire of the Summer Moon appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews in the post that directly preceded this review.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 25, 2011

How Comanches Used Books as Armor: Quote of the Day

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:52 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

In 1860 Comanches gang-raped, tortured and killed Martha Sherman, nine months pregnant and living with her husband in Parker County, Texas. Twenty-four-year-old Charles Goodnight joined a posse of Texas Rangers and Seventh Cavalry soldiers who pursued her assailants, and before doing battle with any Indians, he found a pillowcase with Sherman’s Bible in it. Why had the Comanches taken the book when they fled their victim’s cabin? S. C. Gwynne writes in Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall the the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History(Scribner, 2011), a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction:

“According to Goodnight, Comanche shields, made of two layers of the toughest rawhide from the neck of a buffalo and hardened in fire, were almost invulnerable to bullets when stuffed with paper. When Comanches robbed houses, they invariably took all the books they could find.”

A review of Empire of the Summer Moon will appear soon on this site.

June 2, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #2: Willie Morris’s Memoir, ‘North Toward Home’

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:40 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

A gifted writer maps his journey from Yazoo City, Mississippi, to the top position at Harper’s in New York

North Toward Home. By Willie Morris. Introduction by Edwin M. Yoder, Jr. Vintage, 464 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

No personal chronicle “tells more poignantly, comically and beautifully just what it is to be an American and Southerner in our time” than North Toward Home, the Virginia-born novelist William Styron once wrote. Styron knew the literature of his region far better than I, but by my lights, he was right about this wonderful memoir by the Mississippian who became the youngest editor-in-chief of Harper’s.

Willie Morris admired his distinguished ancestors, such as Cowles Meade, the first acting territorial governor of his state “who tried unsuccessfully to catch up with Aaron Burr when Burr took off down the Mississippi River on his curious scheme to conquer the territories belonging to Spain.” But Morris doesn’t re-embalm his forebears. Instead he shows how he tried to find his own way, first in Yazoo City, then at the University of Texas, and finally in Manhattan.

Critics recognized the greatness of North Toward Home on its first publication in 1967, but the dreariness of so many recent memories has thrown its virtues into higher relief. Perhaps more than any autobiography of the mid-20th century, this modern classic depicts vibrantly the intersection of Southern and Northern influences in the life of a gifted writer who cared passionately about both.

This is the second in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. Tomorrow: Flannery O’Connor’s collection of essays on life, literature, and peacocks, Mystery and Manners.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 13, 2009

Kathi Appelt’s Violent and Controversial 2009 Newbery and National Book Award Finalist, ‘The Underneath’

Cruelty to animals and people abounds in an acclaimed children’s novel set in an East Texas pine forest

The Underneath. By Kathi Appelt. Drawings by David Small. Atheneum, 311 pp., $19.99. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

What were the Newbery and National Book Awards judges thinking when they named this novel a finalist for their prizes? That kids don’t see enough repulsive characters in other media and needed a book about two more? Or that they have to get their New Age twaddle early so that they’ll recognize it when they see it in The Secret?

The Underneath tells the linked stories of two hate-filled characters: a cruel gun-toting hermit and a poisonous shape-shifting serpent, who live deep in an East Texas pine forest. The hermit, known as Gar Face, avenges his abused childhood by shooting animals, getting drunk, and plotting to kill a giant alligator in a nearby bayou. He brutally mistreats his only companion, a lame bloodhound named Ranger. The serpent seethes over the loss of her daughter, who ran off with a shape-shifting hawk who changed into a handsome man. She, too, has one companion — the giant alligator that Gar Face wants to kill, “and he was not the snuggly type.” That is the closest you will find to wit in this novel.

Like the snake, Gar Face has an Ahab–like fixation on vengeance, complicated by the arrival of an abandoned calico cat, who soon has kittens. Ranger protects the cats and warns them to stay in “the Underneath” – a crawl space under the hermit’s shack — or face Gar Face’s fury. Unfortunately, kittens are hard to manage: “There is also that whole thing about curiosity.” This line is bad news for anyone who expects Newbery finalists to avoid clichéd themes like, “Curiosity killed the cat.”

The Underneath is so drenched in sorrow that while it might pain some children at any time, you wonder how it will affect those who are suffering greatly because of the recession. The scant redemption comes in the last few pages and at the cost of more violence. One hate-filled main character remains unrepentant and meets a grisly death. The other gives up on revenge and acts kindly, if belatedly. The message is: When you feel bitter, you can keep on hating or you can choose to love. A worthy idea, certainly. But the final act of kindness is so unexpected — and so little foreshadowed – that it’s as though Ahab had decided at the end of Moby-Dick to join a “Save the Whales” campaign.

In a sense, all the cruelty is beside the point: There’s plenty of cruelty to children in the novels of Charles Dickens, and they’re still worthy of readers, young and old. The problem with The Underneath is in part a lack of balance. Good children’s books may have cruel adults, but those characters tend not to predominate as in this novel: Villains share center stage with better people. The absence of good people in major roles invests The Underneath — perhaps inadvertently — with a deeply cynical view of human nature.

What, then, could the Newbery and National Book Awards judges have liked about this controversial book, apart from its love-is-good message? Above all, a rich sense of place. The Underneath reflects a strong appreciation for the landscape of the Texas-Louisiana border — the birds and fish, the trees and plants, the marshes and bayous. A sense of landscape isn’t enough to sustain a novel. But it’s not nothing when so many children’s books offer bland descriptions of classrooms and soccer fields (and, interestingly, it’s something The Underneath shares with the 2007 Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, which vividly evokes the Mojave).

Kathi Appelt also writes clearly, although her book has some inane lines like: “The pain she felt was palpable.” She weaves her several storylines together smoothly, if often repetitively, and maintains a fair amount of suspense given that two of her characters at times do little more than sit around plotting revenge.

But one aspect of The Underneath that may have appealed to judges isn’t a virtue: It touches many ideologically fashionable bases. These include the idea that animals (and, in this book, other forms of nonhuman life) are morally superior to people.

After Gar Face commits a heinous act, the book asks: “What do you call a person like that? The trees have a word: evil.” No, humans have a word, but you wouldn’t know it from this story. Later we get more on the wisdom of trees, written in pretentious tones like this:

“For trees, who see so much sorrow, so much anger, so much desperation, know love for the rare wonder of it, so they are champions of it and will do whatever the can to help it along its way.”

This is sentimental New Age goop, pitched to an age in which environmentalism often becomes substitute religion. The Underneath acknowledges that the hermit is evil. But it’s trees — not wise people — who see that he is. The best children’s books may have virtuous animals or trees, but they also have admirable humans. Charlotte’s Web has Wilbur and Fern (and part of E. B. White’s genius is that his novel has a girl named Fern, not a talking fern). In The Underneath the only good humans are part-animal shape-shifters who are not main but supporting characters. Even they die terrible deaths. Instead of hope, this bleak book offers children a variation on the cynical political axiom: If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

Best line: “This Piney Woods forest in far East Texas is wet and steamy. Take a step and your footprint will fill with water.”

Worst line: “Humans are designed to be with other humans, even those with mixed blood.” That “mixed blood” refers to shape-shifters, creatures half-human and half-bird or -reptile. But the phrase comes across as an unintentional racial slur. Among David Small’s illustrations (which strike me as just OK): Appelt says Hawk Man has “coppery feathers in his long black hair,” but in a picture he appears to have a shaved head.

Recommendation? The Underneath has the most misleading dust-jacket copy I’ve seen on a children’s novel this year, which begins: “A calico cat, about to have kittens, hears the lonely howl of a chained-up hound deep in the backwaters of the bayou. She dares to find him in the forest, and the hound dares to befriend this cat, this feline, this creature he is supposed to hate.” Strictly speaking, that is accurate. But it gives a poor sense of what you will find in this book, which is not a sweet story about a cat and dog. Librarian Elizabeth Bird got it right when she warned that if you know children who can’t read Charlotte’s Web because they find Charlotte’s death too disturbing, “boy oh boy is this NOT the book for them.”

Read an excerpt.

Editor: Caitlyn Dlouhy

Published: May 2008

Furthermore: The Underneath was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature. It won a 2009 Newbery Honor Book citation from the American Library Association. The Underneath is the first novel by Appelt, who has also written picture books for children.

Note: I haven’t read the 2009 Newbery winner, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, so I can’t compare it to The Underneath. If you’ve read both novels, can you suggest what it has that Appelt’s book doesn’t? Or recommend a recent Honor Book that might have more to offer 8-to-12-year-olds? Thanks. Jan

One-Minute Book Reviews is the home of the annual Delete Key awards for the year’s worst writing in books for adults or children. The 2009 finalists will be announced on Feb. 26 and the winners on March 15. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these posts.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 26, 2008

Should This Line From the ‘The Devil in the Junior League’ Make the Shortlist for the 2008 Delete Key Awards?

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:50 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Here’s the kind of question I’ve been wrestling with while compiling the shortlist for the annual Delete Key Awards that will be announced Friday: Should the following line from The Devil in the Junior League (St. Martin’s/Griffin, 341 pp., $12.95, paperback) appear on the list? Linda Francis Lee writes in this comic novel about backstabbing Texas socialites:

“Sure, I wanted the chance to explain why I had been less than mannerly to him, but that didn’t mean I wanted all those overly feelingish feelings he had an uncanny ability to make me, well … feel.”

Why it should be on the list: Would you buy this novel if the book flopped open to this line while you were looking at it in Borders?

Why it shouldn’t: No. 1: The writing on the Delete Key shortlist tends to be unintentionally funny. This line is – I think – supposed to be funny (and, if delivered by the right actress, could be). No. 2: The Devil in the Junior League is pop fiction that’s up against heavier-hitters like On Chesil Beach. No. 3: Would I libel the state of Texas by suggesting that this is how women there think ?

I’m leaning against it. Lee may be just too good for this shortlist.

The finalists for the Delete Key Awards will be announced Friday in separate posts that will begin at 10 a.m. Eastern Time and appear at about 30-minute intervals throughout the day. The full shortlist will be posted by the end of the day.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 369 other followers

%d bloggers like this: