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Bookshelf: 'Empire of the Summer Moon' on audio

A lifelong East Coaster, I've never given much thought to the settlement of the West. As for the United States' systematic cleansing of millions of Indians from their native lands, I confess that I've preferred not to think too much about it. (Condemning other countries' genocides becomes more complicated when you consider that we were engaged in our own less than 150 years ago.)

Which may explain why I found S.C. Gwynne's "Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History" (read by David Drummond, Tantor, 12 CDs, $39.95) such a revelation.

Before Texas became an independent republic (in 1836) and a state (in 1845), it was the northernmost region of Spanish Mexico, the setting for an epic struggle between Spanish settlers who wanted to move north and the Plains Indians who had occupied the center of the North American continent for millennia. In fact, Gwynne observes, it was largely because of the Indians that the Spanish gave up their designs on the lands north of the Rio Grande. Once settlers from the eastern United States started their move westward, it was, again, the Plains Indians that stood in their way.

The most fearsome of the Plains Indians were the Comanches, a people whose nomadic existence was centered on hunting buffalo and warring with other tribes. What made the Comanches particularly effective at these two activities was their superior horsemanship.

Gwynne makes the point that the conflict between the white men and Comanches was not just a clash of cultures, but a clash of eras. With their agriculture, technology, art and culture, the settlers were about 4,000 years ahead of their foes, who were, essentially, Stone Age hunter-gatherers on horseback.

Quanah Parker (1848-1911) was the half-white son of the West's most famous kidnap victim. In 1836, Cynthia Ann Parker, age 9, was seized by Comanches. She was adopted by the tribe, considered herself Comanche and eventually married the war chief Peta Nocona. Then in 1860, she and her daughter were recaptured by Texas Rangers and returned to her uncle, who had spent years searching for her. (This is the true-life basis for the John Ford film "The Searchers.") Quanah remained with the Comanches and grew up to be a prominent war chief.

The first third of "Empire of the Summer Moon" expands on all this fascinating back story. The middle third is an educational but sadly repetitive litany of battles, massacres and raids. Quanah himself doesn't come into focus until the final third, and his story is entwined with the tribe's sorry decline: In 1875, Quanah and his band surrendered, and the surviving Comanches settled into a distinctly alien existence on a reservation.

Was it his half-white blood? Gwynne doesn't speculate, but Quanah, alone among the Comanches, believed that throwing in his lot with the white man offered the best way to help his tribe. He became a leader in the Indian community, a prosperous rancher and a player on the national scene; President Teddy Roosevelt came to visit him.

Gwynne doesn't romanticize the Plains Indians and offers a clear-eyed assessment of the situation that, more than 100 years after their defeat, is painful to read. To wit: "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 either peaceable or blameless. Except in the larger sense, of course. The Comanches had been first on that land . . . and the westering Anglo-Europeans were the clear aggressors."

In other words, it was either the settlers or the Indians.

Another confession: I managed to reach middle age without ever reading "Oliver Twist" (Tantor, 13 CDs. $35.99). It's an article of faith among audiobook fans that there's no better way to brush up on your classics, and so I recently availed myself of Simon Vance's masterful reading. I'd seen the movie "Oliver!" (Mark Lester was my first crush), but I now realize that Lionel Bart's musical was largely free of Dickens' unrelentingly grim portrayal of Victorian society - not to mention Dickens' sick-making anti-Semitism and groan-inducing reliance on coincidence, these last two making "Oliver Twist" a less enjoyable read (or listen) than "Great Expectations" or "Bleak House." But second-tier Dickens is still first-rate literature.

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