Monday, September 15, 2014

Empire of The Summer Moon: A Response

You should know right away that I'm all in- 100% head over brains and heart in and an avid lover of this book. This book, man. Should have won that Pulitzer.

Look at the cover. Look at the face of Quanah Parker and you know that in the hands of any half respectable historian of this time period, any writer of moderate talents, this is going to be a fascinating story. In the hands of S.C. Gwynne we are transported heart and mind to 1833 and the story of the birth of America- bloody, physical, emotionally heart wrenching and for many, unasked for- and the fight to the death between Indians and white Americans and Mexicans. The outlines of this are familiar to anyone with a basic education, even more so to anyone with an interest in American history, but the total immersion into the heartbeat of the breath to breath, body to blow, life to death moments of this time has been masterfully crafted by S.C. Gwynne. This author- I'd never heard of him, nor read any of his work- has not only built this story for us block by block of valid fact and historical data, but he has also infused the sentences with a deep understanding of human nature, a deep respect for all parties involved in this epic struggle, and an overall devotion to what really happened and not, as with many historical accounts, an noticeable agenda to push, perspective to prove. Here, he might say, is a bold, brilliant and beautiful act from this man, and in the next paragraph he might add, Here is a terrible act of selfish brutism from the same.

In the beginning of our story, there were many tribes of Indians living in the West, and a small but long standing Mexican population. Right away, we understand if we did not already that there were no such thing as 'Indians' so far as one people who lived and fought and socialized and believed in a similar way. The Navajo, for example, wove blankets ( blankets that were eventually worth 10 buffalo hides for every one Navajo blanket ) grazed sheep and feared death. The Comanche, the Indian tribe this book navigates from, killed buffalo, made everything they owned primarily from every part of the buffalo ( raw buffalo liver, squirted with gallbladder bile and eaten, was especially prized ) and were the most feared, skilled and deadly horseback warriors in America.

The story of the Comanche raid on the Parker clan in Texas is bone chilling and a sobering wake up for anyone who thought this recounting was going to be interesting without breaking your heart. The Comanche- and Kiowa tribe members- killed some of the Parkers ( whose menfolk had left them inexplicably exposed to Indian attack, despite the fact that they were very aware of the Indian raids on American settlements, they had left the barricade doors wide open while the men went out to work ) and took two women and three children captive- one child was the blonde haired blue eyed Cynthia Ann Parker. Gwynne leaves no details unspoken, and so we read- I wept- of the violent raping of the women while the children were forced to watch, the beatings of all the captives, and then the way they slept that night- faced down on the dirt, hog tied. One of the smallest captives was a toddler boy who was beaten so badly his mother did not believe he could survive, though survive he did.

This is how Cynthia Ann Parker was introduced to the Comanche tribe, the tribe that eventually adopted her and married her to Peta Nocona, a powerful chief who gave Cynthia Ann three children, one of them Quanah, the last great Comanche leader. Quanah doesn't seriously show up in this book until half way through or more, but when he does, he is a formidable presence: outrageously courageous, a brilliant horseman, an orphan at a young age left with his brother Peanuts ( named after his mother's favorite snack before her captivity ) until Peanuts died also, then left truly alone and drifting through the tribe until manhood and his obvious warrior skills began his ascent to a great Comanche leader, the last to surrender to the white man, a central figure in the Civil War, and a great leader even after life on the reservation. 

The story of Quanah's mother is fascinating on its own, and I found many short books on Amazon regarding Cynthia Ann Parker. Captured by white soldiers in a battle that killed her husband, the chief Peta Nocona, and wrenched her away from her two young sons and a life of freedom forever, she and her two year old daughter, Prairie Flower, were returned to the vestiges of the Cynthia's white family, where Cynthia wept and cut herself and her hair in a traditional grieving process. She tried to escape back to her tribe many times. Eventually, Prairie Flower ( famously photographed nursing at her mothers bare breast not long after captivity ) died of disease, and not long after, so did Cynthia Ann. 

The detailed, prolonged recounting of torture scenes recorded in historical journals ( such as the famous journal of one of the Parker women who was kidnapped, Rachel- she was 19 and kept a regular journal during her entire captivity until her death ) involving children, especially in the first half of this book, make it very difficult for me to imagine re-reading this important piece of history. I had no idea. I had no idea that women and children were kidnapped and tortured as frequently as they were, homesteaders and pioneers. One of the reasons this book achieves the profound resonance that it does both intellectually and emotionally is that the author does not shy away from questions which he himself has no clear cut answer for, but that the events clearly call for. What is the meaning of morality? What is it to be a human being? How can we understand the Comanches, their brutal torturing of not only whites, but all tribe members they war with- they are a warrior society, with no culture to speak of, no real organization or religion, just a general fear of the spirits they believed lurked in everything, from rock to rabbit- as human beings?  What is civilized

As I mulled this over I spoke to Mr. Curry often about my thoughts, and he responded with ( what I know is ) his signature nonchalant, deep insights into human nature. He talked to me about the nature of war, the nature of groups of humans, the nature of survival, of how our cultural beliefs shape us before we can blink.

Of course, the things that would fall under ' I had no idea ' during my reading of this book are numerous, my ignorance was more than I realized. I had no idea that children about three and under were lanced and shot with arrows during raids or while taking captives, because they were more trouble than they were 'worth', while older children could just as easily be adopted into the tribe and treated with love and respect and end up adoring the very peoples who kidnapped them, as they could end up being regularly beaten and tortured ( having nose, eyes and mouth burnt to almost gone was common ) raped and eventually killed. There are two torture scenes in this book that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I will never forget. The kind of suffering that was inflicted on these groups in each scenario is truly, beyond comprehension. Beyond what my little brain can bear to know. I had a sleepless night as the result of this, that involved silent crying, and if you would like to avoid this, I suggest every time you come across the beginnings of a torture, just skim till the subject changes.

I also 'had no idea' that white soldiers killed so many Indian squaws and children, either, or raped them as frequently as happened. I suppose my mind retained the Little House on the Prairie image of Indian and white war, a Disney portrait. 

At the end of this story is of course, the reservation, and this too will break your heart. The chapter that begins so: ' The reservation was a shattering experience ' captures it rightly. White people shattered the entire life of Indian people, we took not 'just land', we took, it feels here, their spirit. The entire essence of Indian life was murdered. Comanches, people of the buffalo who lived nomadically and experienced life truly savagely, were plucked from their horses trampling down the prairie grass, their whoops filling the air, the enormous endless land rolling before them, the buffalo thundering around them, fires crackling ahead with their families and stories and food, and we gave them disease, alcohol- directly delivered both of these- and killed all the buffalo. 

The writing here also contains many, many glorious escapes into a spirit soaring kind of freedom and connection that left me feeling maudlin about my Little House in the Suburbs. Read here a paragraph from S.C. Gwynne on Cynthia Ann:

' One thinks of Cynthia Ann on the immensity of the plains, a small figure in buckskin bending toward her chores by a diamond-clear stream. It is late autumn, the end of warring and buffalo hunting. Above her looms a single cottonwood tree, gone bright yellow in the season, its leaves and branches framing a deep blue sky. Maybe she lifts her head to see the children and dogs playing in the prairie grass and, beyond them, the coils of smoke rising into the gathering twilight from a hundred lodge fires. And maybe she thinks, just for a moment, that all is right in the world.'

'One' can hear the little boy in S.C. Gwynne here, the absolute thrill and magic of the West and the free life as seen by a heart open toward it. I myself felt this thrill many times reading this glorious book, and was so transported that I often find myself now, jogging along a narrow root strewn dirt path and looking into the enormous dark blue sky of my night run, imagining that I am free, and running toward home in the grass.

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