This is a great book. Now, if you’re a regular reader, you know that I’m not much for nonfiction. This is because I am addicted to narrative. I just love story. Most nonfiction texts seek to convey information in a more “straightforward” fashion. This seems more credible to most readers, I suppose. Empire of the Summer Moon, in spite of its lack of overarching narrative, places important facts in their narrative context. Gwynne presents a vision of what life was like on the Plains when Europeans crashed into it, and shows the process of its change into fenced, domesticated property. The story of Quanah Parker’s life is emblematic of this shift, and Gwynne uses it effectively as a touchpoint to describe this transition.
I expected this book to be about Quanah Parker’s heroics primarily, but instead Gwynne treats the reader to a history of the Comanche people. In doing so, he shows that Quanah’s story is the story of the Comanches in many ways. I expected this book to focus more on Parker’s prereservation life more than it did, and was disappointed at how little (comparatively) there was about his early life. The historical record is scant, though, particularly since the Comanches don’t seem to have kept any written records, so I can understand an historian’s reticence to speculate.
Gwynne’s balances his tone in this piece artfully between bias and neutrality. He clearly deplores the violence of white settlers, but he is equally disgusted by the depredations of the Indian tribes. In fact, “disgust” and “deplore” might be too strong. He shows that such violence was inevitable, given each culture’s own prejudices, worldview, and situation. Likewise, it is difficult to tell whether Gwynne thinks of Quanah Parker as a hero or as a sellout. This is exactly the tone one expects in this sort of work, but sometimes I do wish nonfiction authors would take a stand rather than merely present an issue. Gwynne is biased, obviously, as we all are, but he takes pains to speak respectfully of everyone when possible, and to frown on the blatantly offensive. His bias is towards deplorable acts (rape and torture, for example) and sometimes people (idiots, mostly, or the arrogant), but not towards whole groups of people (like the Comanches or the white settlers).
Gwynne is a capable writer with a strong sense of compassion towards his subject. His presentation is objective but not entirely neutral. He does a remarkable job presenting a potentially volatile issue in a way that invites dialogue and reflection. The only things I didn’t like about this book were faults in me, not in the author’s presentation. Many other reviews found this work mind-blowing. I appreciated Gwynne’s insights into this era, and I liked the he took the time to show what history has tended to overlook (Ranald Slidell Mackenzie as “the anti-Custer,” for example, or Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Indian-fighting military roots). If you like nonfiction, military history, Native Americans, Texas, or Summer Moons, check out this book.