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Published on Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Empire of the Summer Moon

By S.C. Gwynne

Reviewed by Kenneth Mark Hoover


Empire of the Summer Moon, subtitled Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the most Powerful Indian Tribe in History by S. C. Gwynne, is a grim and bloody account of the savage killing that occurred in 19th century Texas.

This non-fiction book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and it's easy to see why it garnered so much attention. The writing is top-notch and the historical lens Gwynne uses to explore every aspect of the violent war between Native Americans and Texans is both unblinking and unapologetic.

    Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

Gwynne does something in this book many historians either completely avoid or wash over with sympathetic language. Gwynne does neither. He explains in grim, savage detail how bloody and violent both sides were in these conflicts. How, over time, both sides killed one another because that's the only thing either of them knew how to do. Gwynne's work is, in effect, an indictment of settlers who moved into territories occupied by Native Americans, the shallow and venal politicians in Texas and back east who enabled them, and the Native Americans themselves and their own culture of violence, rape, and torture and how they brought and used those tools in war.

There are no apologies in this work. No one gets a pass. Gwynne has no axe to grind, no political statement to make. He is an historian. He presents the ragged tapestry of blood and war and rape and torture in clear and concise language. It makes the reader feel uncomfortable because it challenges so many of the long-held tropes and iconic beliefs we have grown up with.

The book concentrates on the capture of Cynthia Ann Parker by a Comanche raiding party when she was a little girl, her inclusion into their culture, her recapture by white settlers after she was an adult, and her constant longing to return to the tribe and Native American family she had come to love. Meanwhile, her mixed-blood son, Quanah Parker, kills and fights and finally becomes the last war chief for the Comanches before he surrenders.

Gwynne does even more, however, than giving us a time line. He explains in detail what it was like for a young man to grow up as a Comanche warrior, along with a deep anthropological examination of their culture and how they became the most feared horsemen on the western plains. He tells about Spanish colonization and how it impacted white settlers and presented economic and cultural pressures across the land.

But one thing Gwynne does really well is write about the violence that occurred during four decades of plains warfare between the Comanches and white settlers.. He doesn't explain the violence away. I want to make that clear. He doesn't make a case for either side or give apologies. He tells history the way it happened, and writes in grim detail what the rape and torture and violence was like and how and why it occurred on both sides... and how it left everyone emotionally scarred as a result.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants an unvarnished look at what the fighting was like in the American West. If you are writing westerns you might do well to also give it a look.

Empire of the Summer Moon is brutal, honest, and relentless in presenting what life, and death, was like during these conflicts. It is not a pretty read. But it is history in all its raw violence, uncompromising policies, and ultimate sacrifice.

Don't miss this one.

Kenneth Mark Hoover is a professional writer who lives and works near Dallas, Texas. He has published over 60 short stories and articles and is a member of SFWA and HWA. His new dark western, Haxan, which is based on a series of popular short stories, is scheduled for publication by ChiZine Publications in the near future.

You can find out more about Mr. Hoover's work and writing, and his thoughts on the old west and genre, by visiting his writing blog at

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