Book review: Empire of the Summer Moon

Comanche warrior "Ako" and horse, 1892. (Wikimedia Commons)
Comanche warrior “Ako” and horse, 1892. (Wikimedia Commons)
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, New York: Scribner, ©2010. ISBN 978–1416591061

Book coverAs a student of American Indian history (in the Southeast), I have been asked more than once whether I’ve read this popular book. I’m no expert on the Comanches and only have a general acquaintance with the Great Plains nations. But I do have an in-depth understanding of how challenging it is to write the history of a people whose records were kept by their conquerors. Knowing how much better Indian histories have become in recent years, I came to Empire of the Summer Moon with high hopes. But my first scout through the pages, including a long camp in the bibliography, showed me a history as dead and barren as Ezekiel’s plain of dry bones. Reading the book is like having the ghosts of cavalrymen and settlers rise up to harangue us about the bloody deeds of “wild Indians,” while Indian ghosts remain quiet in their unmarked graves.

This old-fashioned western history pits civilized white people against savage redmen in a bloody contest for control of land. The contest is a racial one and the outcome is inevitable. Because race explains so much, the book dwells with fascination on the “white squaw” Cynthia Ann Parker and her “mixed-blood” son, Quanah. The Comanches as a whole are treated, not as a nation with a history and culture, but as a body of fierce, “primitive” horseback warriors with women and children stowed back at camp under tepees. Because they are so primitive, the Comanches have no history: the way they lived in the 1800s is assumed to be the way they had always lived, and the only way they ever could live.

A good counterpoint to this book would be Comanche author Paul Chaat Smith’s funny and insightful Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong. It’s too bad Sam Gwynne didn’t have a chance to read it before he embarked on Empire of the Summer Moon. Maybe it would have made a difference. Continue reading “Book review: Empire of the Summer Moon”

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The guns of Winnenden and Geneva

One year ago today, 17-year-old Tim Kretschmer shot 15 people to death in two small towns near Stuttgart, Germany. Then he committed suicide. Nine of the slain were students at a school where Kretschmer had graduated a year earlier.

One year and one day ago, Michael McLendon went on a systematic killing spree in two small towns in Alabama. He hunted down his own relatives and their neighbors. He killed eleven before shooting himself to death.

Kretschmer’s killing spree caused a nationwide revulsion in Germany, of a kind that we in the United States have forgotten how to feel. German President Horst Koehler was in Winnenden today to commemorate the dead, and to call for tougher gun laws. Last year the state parliament of Baden-Württemberg doubled the appropriation for school psychologists.

Kretschmer’s father, whose gun collection provided the weapons his son used in the rampage, expressed his regret by voluntarily surrendering his firearms ownership permit. The gesture has not prevented officials from charging him with the equivalent of manslaughter. Continue reading “The guns of Winnenden and Geneva”

The disaster in Huntsville

La Querida and I set out Friday afternoon for Huntsville, to see a performance by the touring American Shakespeare Center players. They were staging Beaumont’s comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). It’s not every day that you get to see a Jacobean comedy in Alabama that wasn’t written by The Bard™.

The unusual snowstorm had passed and the roads were clear. As we headed north on I-65, the radio reported a shooting in Huntsville, on the university campus. Two people were dead and four injured, and the “shooter” — a word that seems to have sprung from the lingo of video games — was in custody. The 4 p.m. shooting was the lead national news story for the next 24 hours. Continue reading “The disaster in Huntsville”