Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

I’m not from the West by any stretch, so much of the history of the West is not really my history. But perhaps no other genre feels so authentically American as the Western. Fictional gunslingers following the Code of the West are America’s version of the knights errant, and the storied conflict with the American Indian tribes of the Plains, however perverted by bias and prejudice, has reached epic status in our mythology.

The popular images of the Western and its stock characters are far better understood than the history which spawned them. We have gone from glorifying the cowboy and demonizing the Indian to vilifying the American settler and whitewashing the Native American. Each pole can be both victimizing and patronizing, but neither is all that rooted in reality. This history does a great job painting that reality as accurately as possible with all its inherent drama.

The Comanches, according to the book, were the deadliest enemy faced by Europeans and Americans in the New World. They were the world’s greatest horsemen, excellent marksmen and masters of a terrain the European descended peoples found terrifying. The Spanish were utterly defeated and the Americans were brought to a standstill. The Comanches nearly depopulated great swathes of land equal in area to most states. There was no answer to their ferocity and mobility until the Americans learned, with the essential aid of allied Indian tribes, to attack the Comanche on their own terms with superior technology.

However, it’s not the dates or battles that stand out in this history. It’s the clash of cultures and the colorful people who rose on both sides that make this history so enjoyable, if unpleasant at times. Two cultures, the Americans and Comanche, are shown at the point of their meeting and throughout their inevitable war. The humanity of both sides is shown, but humanity is not always pretty. Each side was prone to savagery as well as courage. Guilt was shared by all, and cruelty provoked cruelty. Rape, torture and the murder of children in front of their families are frequently mentioned. Readers will find their sympathies shift with each episode as the passing of the Comanche way of life is given its tragic due. The history is true, and so is the drama.

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