sábado, 22 de enero de 2011

Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West

Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West (Anchor Books, 2007)
by Hampton Sides
USA, 2006

For a California boy with an unfortunately all too inadequate understanding of how the West was won and lost,  I thought Blood and Thunder was a solid, entertaining, and ultimately an entirely adequate introduction to a subject I hope to be spending some more time with over the course of the year.  Its many bibliographical suggestions should prove quite useful as well.  Using a biography of famed frontiersman/Indian fighter Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson (1809-1868) as the focal point of an ambitious three-pronged narrative also having to do with the U.S. war with Mexico and the U.S. military's often genocidal war on the American Indians, Sides brings the "Manifest Destiny" era to life with a measured account that manages to be very readable and nuanced despite the sprawling scale of the worlds-in-collision events under consideration.  While I'm tempted to complain that the 578-page chunkster is maybe a little too long for its own good in parts (like an overly chatty friend, the journalist Sides apparently never met an anecdote that he didn't like), I suppose that's a small price to pay for a work as sensitive to the costs of American expansionism on the continent as this one.  Perhaps because of my own pro-Mexican and Native American and anti-settler biases for this time period, though, I have to say that I often found myself less interested in Carson's remarkable life story than in what was going on around him.  Sides writes, for example, of an occasion in 1846 when the so-called Army of the West encountered a "vast herd of buffalo, easily a quarter million strong" near Pawnee Rock on the Santa Fe Trail--part of an overall buffalo population of "as many as 50 million [which] roamed the Great Plains at this time" (69).  In thinking about these astounding numbers--way greater than what I had remembered from reading about the senseless slaughter of the buffalo back in my high school days--it's naturally only a short hop, skip and a jump to thinking about the human population losses that also resulted from U.S. westward movement.  To give you just one small example, Sides later writes of the one out of every three Navajos who died in captivity at the first western reservation experiment at Bosque Redondo from 1863-1868 (481).  Whatever your feelings on whether these tradeoffs were necessary to bring about an eventual shopping mall culture in 20th and 21st century America, it's hard not to feel an ubi sunt moment for the eradication of an entire way of life out west even knowing the outcome of the story in advance.  (http://www.anchorbooks.com/)

Hampton Sides

U.S. diplomacy in action: November 21, 1846
"The United States," [Col. Alexander Doniphan] began, "has taken military possession of New Mexico and her laws now extend over the whole territory.  The New Mexicans will be protected against violence and invasion, and their rights will be amply preserved.  But the United States is also anxious to enter into a treaty of peace and lasting friendship with you, her red children, the Navajos.  The same protection will be given to you that has been guaranteed the New Mexicans.  I come with ample powers to negotiate a permanent peace between you, the New Mexicans, and us.  If you refuse to treat on terms honorable to both parties, I am instructed to prosecute a war against you.  The United States makes no second treaty with the same people; she offers the olive branch, and if that is rejected, then she offers powder, bullet, and steel."
(Blood and Thunder, 189)

15 comentarios:

  1. I think Sides is a very entertaining writer. I loved the line: "As the forerunners of Western civilization, creeping up the river valleys and across the mountain passes, the trappers brought smallpox and typhoid, they brought guns and whiskey and venereal disease, they brought the puzzlement of money and the gleam of steel." (Hard to imagine writing "civilization" with no "[sic]" after it!) I also liked the attention to the Polk presidency. He's sort of a forgotten president but Sides got me quite interested in pursuing more info about him (and then I promptly forgot about it). I guess there's still a lot of controversy over Carson: was he actually trying to help protect the Native Americans, or was he complicit? The book argues the former, which is why one can see 50 million copies of it in Taos. But there have been a lot of critical reviews of this book by believers in the latter. It was a horrible situation, either way.

  2. Does the book talk much about the Hispanic civilization of the Southwest? Santa Fe was already an established city when the Pilgrims were just arriving in Massachusetts. It's really unfortunate that we get taught history from a British-centric perspective, which claims that the West was this empty space with only a few "primitive" tribes here and there.

  3. Hi Richard, what part of CA? Very quickly, I'd like to congratulate you on a fine post, in particular, a finely written post. You're one of two or maybe three bloggers who often make me feel, through no fault of your own, my own glaring defiencies as a cobbler together of letters and words. Cheers, K

  4. I'm from the southwest myself and share an interest in this history--thanks for the review, this book certainly catches my attention.

  5. I'm agreement with both you and Rhapsodyinbooks. I also meant to pursue more information about Pres. Polk as well and didn't.

    I also think Mr. Sides does go on a bit too long, but this book is well worth a read.

    It's a shame that this level of complexity and this type of moral ambiguity gets left out of the history books so often, because it's exactly what makes history so interesting.

  6. You probably have a full list from the bibliography, but I have a few recommendations, if you want them. Is the plan for the year relatively focused - Southwest, Native American, the frontier, or whatever - or more general - the West?

  7. *Jill: Although I agree with you that Sides is definitely an entertaining writer, I thought the book was pretty clear that Carson was both for and against the Native Americans depending on the circumstances. At the very least, it would be hard to defend many of his actions towards them even if others were worse in that regard. Anyway, I thought about you while reading this book and envy you your proximity to so many of the places portrayed within it. How lucky you must be--despite having Bristol Palin as a new neighbor, ha!

    *E.L. Fay: Yes and no. That is, Sides talks about such things but maybe not as much as I would have liked given his focus on other aspects of the story he wanted to present (this is more an attempt at an explanation rather than a criticism on my part). And Santa Fe gets a lot of play as a locus for events that take place, of course. Anyhow, David J. Weber's The Spanish Frontier in North America (Yale University Press, 1992) is a book I've been eyeing that will hopefully add a "corrective" dimension to some of the "British-centric" history you mention here. Such a vast topic!

    *Kevin: Thanks, that's very kind, especially coming from you! On the California thing, I grew up in L.A. and on the Central Coast and last lived out in the Ventura, Oxnard, and Port Hueneme area before heading to New England where the weather and lack of decent Mexican food are slowly killing my spirits. You live in the Bay Area, right? How totally fortunate--cheers!

  8. *Emily Jane: This book is certainly a less expensive way to (re)visit the Southwest than a plane ticket, but now it's putting semi-expensive travel ideas in my head! Got any suggestions for me as a onetime southwesterner yourself?

    *C.B. James: Ha ha, I guess I was the only one out of the three of us who didn't fall under the spell of President Polk's charms! On a more serious note, I think you make a fine point about complexity + moral ambiguity making history more interesting (and probably more accurate).

    *Amateur Reader: I'd love to hear your recommendations, but [sheepish pause] my rather unfocused "plan" for the year is to start exploring all the things you mention! I've actually been collecting a list of titles for an ongoing Native American reading project I want to undertake (partially inspired by your Cahokia and Comanche posts a couple of years back), but the Southwest, the frontier, Californian history, and the West in general are also in play as subjects of interest. Would appreciate any recommendations you care to make on any of the above. Are you familiar with Colin G. Calloway's One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (University of Nebraska Press, 2003)? That's one of the touchstone new histories I plan on reading along with the Weber book I mentioned to E.L. Fay. Anyway, thanks in advance for any bibliographical assistance you care to render--I know it'll be good!

  9. Two - no, three - recommendations. The theme is "Books that do not have to be read all the way through."

    The Patriot Chiefs by Alvin Josephy is a series of vignettes of Indian resistance. You could easily skip the non-Western chapters. The chapter on Popé and the Pueblo uprising is jaw-dropping; the Chief Joseph chapter is excellent, too, although these are, what do I mean, very easy stories to make interesting.

    George Catlin's 1841 account of his career painting the portraits of Native Americans was a revelation to me. He takes the culture, the humanity, of the Indians he meets completely seriously, inventing cultural anthropology from scratch. The first half, his trip up the Missouri and life with the Mandan, is key. The second half or volume of the book is more episodic, and not as good, although his encounter with the Comanche is pretty interesting.

    Sacagawea's Nickname, Larry McMurtry. I've read parts of this. It's a book of essays (book reviews) from the New York Review of Books. I read about that Comanche book, for example, in a McMurtry piece (not in this book). Good book to use to catch up on a topic; no need to read it all. I hope a second volume comes out some day - not so long ago he had a piece about books about Custer that was brutal. "Stop writing books about Custer!" was the premise.

  10. That does sound like an interesting book. I haven't really been much of a history reader (despite the fact that I do often enjoy a good historical tale--fiction OR non), and it's easy to stick with what I learned in school. It's clear, however that there are so many lesser known stories that really illuminate precisely where the US comes from. Not to mention so many stories that are just plain fascinating.

  11. *Amateur Reader: Thanks very much for the great suggestions--and in annotated bibliography format at that! Have to say that this type of exchange is one of my favorite parts about blogging. And the other nice thing is that the Josephy book was the only one of the three I had on my radar, though I'm not sure why I didn't think about the Caitlin. "Stop writing books about Custer!" = classic advice, ha ha!

    *Amanda: I love history, and I think I prob. read more nonfiction than fiction before I started blogging. Not sure what happened to me since then--peer pressure?
    Anyway, I think Sides' book is a good example of popular history for readers who don't usually care for history in part because the events he's writing about are so inherently juicy (if often depressing). He's a good writer, too, as others have mentioned in the comments above.

  12. As an Oregon girl with a similarly patchy understanding of this history and a similar interest in learning more, this post and the ensuing comments have been super intriguing and helpful! And while I'm know what you mean about authors who've never met an anecdote they didn't need to pass on, I guess I'd take that over historians who are too dry. So hard to hit the perfect balance.

  13. *Emily: I think that's a great point you make about finding the right balance. While I tend to prefer academic to popular histories these days, sometimes the professional histories sacrifice "appealing writing" to presentation of their argument for an insider audience and other times the popular histories sacrifice challenging argumentation in favor of a dumbed-down narrative arc for mainstream audiences. Not everyone can write like Edward Gibbon, I guess, eh, Oregon Girl? :D

  14. This sounds like a good book and my husband has recently become interested in reading history and my father-in-law loves books like this. I will have to tell them both about it!

  15. *Stefanie: Good to hear--hope those men in your life enjoy the book!