S. C. Gwynne, Austinite award winning journalist and co-author of The Outlaw Bank, takes 170 years of history – from the rise and fall of the Comanche nation and to the life of Quanah Parker – and transforms the historical account into the 319-page book Empire of the Summer Moon. Gwynne has worked as bureau chief, national correspondent, and senior editor of Time, executive editor of Texas Monthly, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, and California magazines. Gwynne also co-authored The Outlaw Bank (2004) and published Empire of the Summer Moon in 2010.
The historical account begins with an overview of the extent of Comancheria – which extended from East New Mexico, across Texas, into Northern Mexico, Oklahoma, and Southern Arkansas – and at the end of the story with Mackenzie and Custer’s pursuit of Quanah Parker. The true beginning of the story begins after forshadowing the climax: the raid of the Parker fort. The historical account encompasses the economic and social history of the Comanches during their rise in power as well as the political transformation of the Plains Indians after the deception cause by the national government.
Empire of the Summer Moon is organized by topic. Each topic is chronological based on the lives of the main historical figures discussed. For example, chapter four is about the life of Rachel Parker Plummer as a Comanche captive. The topic is the life of captives, Rachel Parker Plummer is the main historical figure, and her story is told chronologically from the time she was taken until the day she was rescued.
Gwynne attempts to retell the Comanche story objectively but shows off his liberal perspective. Gwynne constantly explains different actions committed by the Comanches: how Comanches acted and why they did so and their cultural values. Gwynne also emphasizes that Americans did not want to accept the Plains Indians for who they were and insisted upon killing them all even though the Indians were there first. Gwynne is pro-Indian from the start of the story to the end.
Gwynne confronts the question of moral judgment. He acknowledges they were governed by a sort of demonic state of mind: gang raping of women captives, the scalping of enemies, and other “horrors” the white population was completely against. He also acknowledges that the white people were who invaded the Plains Indians native territory. “The Comanches and Kiowas were to share a 2.9-million-acre reservation […] it was but a tiny fraction of Comancheria, which at its peak held nearly 200 million acres” (230). Whites were convinced that everyone should want to be part of American culture, live in confined spaces, and believe in the concept of private property. The Plains Indians only wanted to roam free and hunt buffalo, plus kill off the other Indians since they had always been enemies. If the white population had not invaded the Plains because of Manifest Destiny, the Indians would have been very happy living in only that area.
Gwynne uses Empire of the Summer Moon to explain his thesis that morality is subjective to culture. For the Comanche and other Plains Indians, scalping and gang raping was perfectly normal: “There was the shrieking panic of the Indian attack, the uncomprehending horror of the moment her mother, Lucy, set her on the warrior’s horse, her father’s own bloody death, the astonishing sight of her cousin and aunt being raped and abused” (37). This is, possibly, what was going through Cynthia Ann’s mind when she was captured. For the white men, killing off natives on land they want was perfectly normal. He attempts to find a balance and concludes causing death is not acceptable regardless of customs.
“The notion that the trouble with Plains Indians was entirely due to white men was spectacularly wrongheaded. […] No one who knew anything about the century-long horror of Comanche attacks in northern Mexico or about their systematic demolition of the Apaches or the Utes or the Tonkawas could possibly have believed that the tribe was peaceable or blameless” (224). Gwynne flips back and forth from one culture to the other. It was very hard for me to understand what his thesis was to begin with and then decipher his supporting arguments. Gwynne’s writing is very vivid and the individual scenes are very impacting. Gwynne is confusing. First, he argues that whites were right by fighting against the Plains Indians; then, he switches and argues that the Plains Indians were right by fighting against the whites. It seems he tries to side with both cultures by supporting protecting basic human rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Everyone in America had the right to protect their land, their families, and their own selves.
I enjoyed reading Empire of the Summer Moon but did not thoroughly grasp everything presented due to the confusing method of organization. I do not know a lot about Texas history and had to constantly go back and find information many chapters back in order to understand what was going on. If the story had been chronological from start to finish with little parts that went back in time to explain the current events, I would have understood more. The language was very simple and overall the book is well written. Gwynne is a powerful author that effectively revives past culture on paper. Empire of the Summer Moon is a book meant to be read by people familiar with Texas history.
The most important and valuable idea I will hold onto after reading Empire of the Summer Moon is Cynthia Ann Parker’s will power to be who she wanted to be. I love how she continued to be a Comanche after being returned or, better said, captured, by the Texans. She was kidnapped by the Comanches at age nine, married a war-chief, and loved being a Comanche. I hate how no one wanted to understand her. As an archaeology student, I’ve learned about assimilating cultures in my anthropology courses, and I firmly believe no one should impose their own belief systems on someone else. She may have had no choice but to adopt a Comanche lifestyle, but she wanted to live that way in the end. Cynthia Ann Parker has reminded me about how there will always be imposing forces acting on us and how important it is to stand up for our individual beliefs.
The concept I love the most from Indian tradition is the lack of restrictive boundaries. The Comanches had a vast territory where they roamed free. They were not limited to living in a confined space. They could move around. The most emotional part is the mourning of the Plains Indians when the Comanche Springs are cut off and removed from their territory, and Ten Bear’s speech. At both moments it is clear how devoted they are to their land. They hold nature close to their hearts and nature is their ultimate god. Manifest Destiny was taking away nature with destructive practices and limitations of land they could inhabit.
Empire of the Summer Moon is a fantastic story. Though I had to reread most parts a few times in order to make sense of the unfamiliar history, I did enjoy reading. The story is vivid, realistic, emotional, political, and even economic. Gwynne does a good job at exposing both perspectives in history: white and Indian. The story is alive. I could almost envision Quanah Parker galloping on his horse across the plains followed by his warrior band after becoming the most famous Comanche war chief of all time.
Melanie E Magdalena