Feature

Book of the week: The Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S.C. Gwynne

Gwynne offers a gripping new history of the Comanche nation—the one native tribe that could have halted America's westward expansion—and its greatest leader, Quanah Parker.

(Scribner, 371 pages, $27.50)

If there was one native tribe that might have arrested America’s westward expansion, it was the fearsome Comanche, said Bruce Barcott in The New York Times. In S.C. Gwynne’s gripping new history of the Comanche nation and its greatest leader, the 19th-century West feels like a place we’ve never seen clearly before. The Comanches “were a Native American superpower.” With their unparalleled skills as horsemen and ruthless use of nighttime raids on potential rivals, they ruled a great buffalo-hunting ground that encompassed most of modern-day Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma. When white settlers encroached, the Comanches slaughtered the men and infants, and often captured the women. Gwynne makes scenes like these so palpable that his book may “leave blood and dust on your jeans.”

An “extraordinary” main character gives the book its spine, said David Holahan in The Christian Science Monitor. Quanah Parker, born in the late 1840s, was the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman who had been captured as a young girl. A skilled raider, he led a band of Comanche warriors that killed hundreds of white settlers and was instrumental in briefly rolling back the white frontier some 200 miles. But Parker rose to power just as the development of railroads and repeating firearms turned the battle in the settlers’ favor. He eventually agreed to move his people to a reservation, and in a “bravura second act” became a cattle rancher, school board chairman, and pal of President Teddy Roosevelt. “The adjective ‘astonishing’ doesn’t do such stories justice.”

Gwynne recounts this history evenhandedly, highlighting several important but often overlooked factors, said Bill Mashburn in the Roanoke, Va., Times. The Comanches, he points out, were originally transformed into a major war power by horses brought to the New World by 17th-century conquistadors. White expansion, meanwhile, only became unstoppable after the railroad created an efficient way to ship buffalo hide to Eastern markets. Gwynne is also candid about the brutality of both the Comanche raids and the U.S. Army’s retaliation. This is history that thrills even as it reshapes our understanding of the past. “You may never think about Texas, or the Great Plains, in quite the same way again.”

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