What I'm Reading (No. 80): brutal and beautiful histories
Last week, I found an unexpected common thread between the books I read. This week, the commonality is a bit more obvious. It also happened to be one of the better reading weeks of the year for me in terms of book quality.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead has more accolades and is found on more "Best of" lists than possibly any other novel of this century. It lived up to the hype, fully.
Empire of the Summer Moon by Sam Gwynne has also gotten plenty of attention over the years. and was unexpectedly one of the better books I've read this year.
Both are brutal in some ways, and beautiful in others.
Let's get right to it.
Empire of the Summer Moon by Sam Gwynne (2010)
Native Americans occupy an interesting place in the American psyche. Because of the brutalizations of white people, and our national eagerness to claim ownership over a land that had never been owned before, we view Indians as a whole — all the various tribes and cultures — in a fairly romantic light. These "noble savages" were a serene people who lived peaceful lives on the plains, using every bit of the buffalo and never choosing war. That's what we learned in school, at least.
But Gwynne writes that for some of those societies, war and even torture were an integral part of their culture. Specifically in this book, he tackles the history of the Comanche tribe from the 1600s through their eventual demise at the tail end of the 1800s. Through that larger tale, he weaves in the fascinating subplot of Cynthia Ann Parker — the White Squaw — and her son Quanah, who was the last chief of the Comanches.
There are so many interesting threads in this book: the introduction of the horse to America; the Spanish invasion of Comanche lands and how the Indians permanently turned them back; the rise of the Texas Rangers; the kidnapping, torture, and occasional tribal integration of white people (like Cynthia Ann); how the Comanches eventually surrendered to America's military might. And more!
This is one of those gripping, can't-put-down books that makes you want to read its author's entire scope of work. For anyone with an interest in Native American history or the story of America's West, this is a must-read. As a bonus, it makes me appreciate Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove series even more.
I already have copies of Rebel Yell and the upcoming Hymns of the Republic to look forward to.
A Non-Fic Frontier Reading List
Last year for work I compiled a big list of the best Western novels every man should read. I've also read plenty of great history books about America's frontier lands. Here's a few of my favorites:
The Fair Chase by Philip Dray. The story of sport hunting in America, of which the West plays a big part.
The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck. A really fun read about a guy who re-creates the traveling of the Oregon Trail in an actual covered wagon.
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. Another of my favorite non-fic authors. A true crime story from Oklahoma.
The Big Burn by Timothy Egan. The story of the Great Fire of 1910 which burned over 3 million acres and killed 87 people. Yes it's about fire, but also conservation and America's move westward. Megafire is a great look at the state of wildfires today.
The Revenant by Michael Punke. The great survival story you'll ever hear. Yes, it's a novel, but Punke was as true to history as you can get, which is why it's on this list.
Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. An incredible, stirring look at the epic journey of Lewis & Clark.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
With Colson's new book out, I figured it was time to read his most well-known work. I can tell you wholeheartedly that it did not disappoint. I'll keep the plot outline simple: Cora, our protagonist, is a slave who attempts to make her escape on the underground railroad, which in this book is an actual underground railroad.
While that sounds a little fantastical, the railroad is actually kind of a minor part of the story. It's far more about the people Cora encounters along the way — both good and evil — and the places she resides for varying lengths of time. And really, you don't need to know any more than that in order to pick it up and be transported into the fear, anger, and helplessness of a slave.
The writing is just magnificent. There's no other way to put it. It's sparse and Hemingway-esque at times; it's flourishing and poetic at others. It's despairing but wholly without gratuitous graphic violence. (Where it does get violent, it's obviously warranted and not dwelt upon.) It's brilliantly constructed in a way to allows the reader multiple points of view without getting too complicated. To be honest, I can't even think of a critique, which is very rarely the case.
I hope this is a book that becomes required reading for high schoolers someday. Few stories feel as quintessentially American (Time Magazine recently named Whitehead "America's Storyteller"); yes it's grim at times, but so so necessary. The Underground Railroad immediately reminded me of Homegoing, but this one far surpasses it in my opinion.
As a result of reading this, I snagged The War Before the War from the library in order to get a sense of the true story of fugitive slaves. I'm also excited to dig into the rest of Whitehead's work. Zone One — a literary take on the zombie apocalypse genre —has been on my radar for a long time.
That's it for me this week. I cracked 1,000 pages on Les Mis, so I'm getting there. Slowly and surely. Thank you for your time and inbox space.