My Review of Empire of the Summer Moon

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My college does a fabulous job, arguably too good of a job, bringing authors on campus. Sometimes, the student body just gets tired of them. Not so when S.C. Gwynne (or “Sam,” as he prefers to be called) visiting. Sam was obviously the literary celebrity of the semester (at least until Colum McCann visits in three weeks). However, no one had yet found time to read “Rebel Yell,” his enormous tome on Stonewall Jackson. So to ward off any potentially awkward situations, the professors instead ignored the book Gwynne was actually plugging and discussed “Empire of the Summer Moon,” his Pulitzer-nominated work on Quanah Parker.

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According to fellow visiting writer Hampton Sides, “Empire of the Summer Moon” revolutionized the field of southwest studies. The praise was so effusive that I bought a signed copy of “Empire of the Summer Moon” for my uncle. Though, of course, I couldn’t give that Christmas gift until I had previewed it first.

The book is presented as an unbiased, unflinching look at the frontier wars. This praise becomes controversial in the political context of southwest studies. In my limited exposure to this field, books tend to romanticize one side and villainize the other. So for centuries, we had the pure, civilized whites against the barbaric Indians. “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” toppled this dynamic by showing compassionate, human Native Americans trying to preserve their culture against the horrifying brutality of white America.

“Empire of the Summer Moon” aims to shift this dynamic yet again. When people say “Empire of the Summer Moon” tells both sides of the story, they mean it makes everyone look evil. Parts of the book read like battle scenes in “Game of Thrones.” We see both the horrifying atrocities of the Sand Creek Massacre, and the nauseating  torture Comanches inflicted on their captives.

However, I don’t believe “Empire of the Summer Moon” actually is unbiased. When Gwynne recounts the violence inflicted on Native Americans by white soldiers, he takes a clinical tone. Yes, he lists the wounds inflicted and emphasizes how the white soldiers targeted women and children, but there is no sense of horror. It reads like an officer describing the conflict in an official report to his superiors. This tone changes when Gwynne recounts the violence Comanche warriors committed on white settlers. Now, we have long descriptions of hot coals burning through a prisoner’s stomach, accounts of the slaughter of pregnant women. This is more than just a mood of horror- this the gleeful attraction to violence that characterizes sub-par thriller books.

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Gwynne also seems to feel disdain for his subjects. Although the book markets itself as a biography of Quanah Parker, most of the book is spent describing Comanche history and culture. Well, maybe not so much the second- Gwynne asserts in basically every chapter that the nomadic Comanches had no real culture. Yep, he said that.

Gwynne portrays his subjects as “filthy,” “violent,” “primitive” “low barbarians” who delight in inflicting pain. You read that right. Gwynne actually calls the Comanches low barbarians. I hope to God that’s just an outdated anthropological term, not a willfully racist description.

We also have my personal favorite quote: “Making people scream in pain was interesting and rewarding for the Comanches… it was an important part of their adult culture and one they accepted without challenge.”

Gwynne dutifully lists the treaties broken by white America, but he takes far more relish in listing all the white settlers brutalized and scalped by Comanche warriors.

It is also disturbing that Gwynne does not, to my count, quote a single Native American source. This is largely due to the lack of written records within the Comanche tribe. However, though Gwynne occasionally alludes to letters written by Quanah, he never actually bothers to quote them. The only source for life within the Comanche tribe are the memoirs of white captives who, needless to say, will be biased.

My objections to the book came almost exclusively from the portrayal of Native Americans as violent “low barbarians.” Gwynne is, however, an excellent writer. As a West Texas native, I would like to forget this corner of the world and read about a place with, well, trees. However, Gwynne makes even a jaded ex-Texan like me see this well-trodden history with new interest.

As far as I can tell, Gwynne’s new book shies away from the racial aspects of the Civil War and focuses instead on the life and death of Stonewall Jackson. Therefore, since I enjoyed Gwynne’s world building and characterizations, I am keeping “Rebel Yell” on my TBR. But… since it is seven or eight hundred pages, I can’t see myself getting to it anytime soon. I might just save myself the trouble and link FictionFan’s awesome review here.

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2 thoughts on “My Review of Empire of the Summer Moon

  1. What a pity! I have to say that the reviews of this one on Amazon had led me to think that there might be a problem of bias, but I didn’t want to put the thought in your head before you read it. Certainly Rebel Yell is also attracting criticism for being too pro-South and not anti-slavery enough. But while I felt it was told very much from the side of the South, I thought he steered away from the politics to a large degree (he described the politics during the war, but didn’t go deeply into the underlying causes) – and also I felt that, not being American, I wasn’t as emotionally involved in the arguments. For me, it’s an interesting period of history, rather than something with consequences that are still affecting the world I live in, if that makes sense. In fact, I’ve been surprised how virulent the arguments over the Civil War still seem to be – I opted out of the Amazon comments on my review after a while because it was all becoming too intense. Some people definitely felt that my praise for the book somehow meant I was condoning slavery…

    If you ever feel strong enough to read it, I’d love to hear what you think of it though. And thanks for the link! 😀

    • You’re actually completely right! People are still weirdly obsessed with the American Civil War. As I said, I grew up in Texas. There is a strong mentality there (and throughout the American South) that every problem is the federal government’s fault, and that things would be wonderful if we still had the Confederacy. It would make for a neat sociological study.
      And I’d be inclined to agree with you on “Rebel Yell.” Gwynne wasn’t trying to tell the entire history of the Civil War, nor was he trying to make a moral judgment on it. I for one could definitely read and enjoy a biography of a great man even if I disagree with his cause.
      Thanks for the insightful comment, as always!

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