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
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?
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.