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Book review: “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the RISE and FALL of the COMANCHES, the Most POWERFUL INDIAN Tribe in American History” by S. C. Gwynne

Let’s talk about book titles, and book covers, and book marketing.

For all intents and purposes, S.C. Gwynne’s 2010 book “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the RISE and FALL of the COMANCHES, the Most POWERFUL INDIAN Tribe in American History,” appears to be a biography of Quanah Parker.

For one thing, an image of Parker takes up more than half of the book cover, the part not covered by the title and the subtitle.

That subtitle, by the way, is strange, with its odd mix of some, but not all, words in boldface and some, but not all, of those boldface words in all capital letters. “Quanah Parker” is the only boldface word that is not all caps, but, in a way, that gives more emphasis to the name. And, of course, it’s further emphasized by being the start of the subtitle.

(By the way, here’s another odd thing about the title itself: Nowhere in the book does Gwynne or anyone he quotes refer to the Comanche dominance on the Plains as the Empire of the Summer Moon. And, from what I can tell, it’s not a term that’s ever been used anywhere else to refer to the Comanche power at its height. [The term seems to have been dreamed up on the basis of a parenthetical sentence in Gwynne’s text: “So many raids were made by moonlight that in Texas a full, bright spring or summer moon is still known as a Comanche Moon.”])

In the eight-page photo section halfway through the book, Quanah Parker is the central figure. Six of the 18 photos are of him. One is of his mother, and three others are related directly to him.

Even the text on the dust jacket describes the book with these words: “In the tradition of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a stunningly vivid historical account of the forty-year battle between Comanche Indians and white settlers for control of the American West, centering on Quanah, the greatest Comanche chief of them all.”

Well, no.

Not “centered” on Quanah Parker

This book does not “center” on Parker. For the first 193 pages, Gwynne writes about the struggles between white settlers and nomad Indians, particularly Comanches, for control of the Great Plains in and around Texas. Except for a few passing references, he doesn’t take up Parker’s story until two-thirds of the way into “Empire of the Summer Moon.”

This is when Gwynne describes what happened to a 12-year-old Parker and his younger brother Peanuts after they escaped in 1860 from a raid on a small Comanche camp in northern Texas by a force of U.S. Cavalry and Texas Rangers.

Killed in that raid was the Comanche chief Peta Nocona, the boys’ father. Captured was their mother Nautdah, a white woman who, 24 years earlier, at the age of nine, when she was known as Cynthia Ann Parker, had been abducted by Indians. Quickly incorporated at that time into a Comanche band, she considered herself Comanche and had no desire to return to white civilization. Regardless, she was.

It is Cynthia Ann Parker’s story that is a connecting thread throughout much of the book up to this point.

Quanah Parker’s small role

Gwynne now takes 10 pages to tell what little is known about Quanah Parker’s rise to a position of power within his band of Comanches.

And then, at page 207, he moves on to write more about the white-Comanche clashes. There is very little about Parker until, on page 283, the Comanche chief finally takes center stage and dominates the remaining 36 pages.

Please excuse the tediousness of the various page counts. I want to be as specific as possible in showing how relatively small a role Quanah Parker plays in this book. Because of the cover, title and other signals, I went into “Empire of the Summer Moon” expecting it to be about Quanah Parker.

Instead, I found frustration.

This is a book about the fall of the Comanches in the 19th century. It’s a decent enough history of the tribe although I’m not sure why it was nominated for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction. It pales in comparison to T. R. Fehrenbach’s rich and meaty 1974 “Comanches: A History of a People.”

Perhaps it was the marketing.

So let’s talk about that marketing.

With manuscript in hand

My suspicion is that Gwynne wrote the book he set out to write. He wrote about the collision of white and Comanche cultures, a crash the tribe lost, and he built is account around the stories of two people: Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah Parker.

These individuals give focus to the story, particularly Cynthia Ann, but this is not a story about them.

Then, with the manuscript in hand, I’d wager that Gwynne’s agent or his publisher Scribner came up with the title, probably the publisher.

Long subtitles are not unusual today for non-fiction books. They are usually used to hit a number of aspects of the book that are not covered by the title itself. Often, they’ll make claims that the book doesn’t bear out, such as “the battle that changed the world” or “who made America what it is today.”

In this case, the subtitle has to carry much of the load since the title itself is poetic rather than authentic. “Empire of the Summer Moon” is a made-up term for the Comanches so it isn’t recognizable. By contrast, a title such as “Rough Rider” for a book on Teddy Roosevelt has some resonance in the marketplace.

So the publisher — again, my guess — comes up with the lengthy subtitle with its odd typography that signals that the book is about: (1) Quanah Parker and (2) the “RISE and FALL” of the Comanches.

The subtitle ends with the assertion that the Comanches were “the Most POWERFUL INDIAN Tribe in American History.” As usual with subtitles, that over-states the case. The book seems to argue that the Comanches were the most powerful of the Plains Indians, but Gwynne makes no attempt to compare them with other tribes elsewhere in the nation in other historical periods.

Why package the book this way?

As I noted earlier, the use of Quanah Parker’s name to begin the subtitle, the huge image of him on the cover, the dust jacket text and his dominance of the photo section give the potential buyer the idea that this is a book about Parker.

Since Parker plays a pretty minor role in the book until the final 36 pages, why would the publisher package the book this way?

Well, we live in a time when the public is fascinated by personalities. As a result, biographies, autobiographies and memoirs sell much better than other non-fiction works.

A book about the person Quanah Parker is likely to sell a lot more copies than one simply about the Comanche tribe.

So Gwynne’s book was titled, packaged and marketed in the way it was in order to win more sales — even if the title, packaging and marketing distorted the subject of the book to the point of frustrating the reader.

By then, though, the book was SOLD.

Patrick T. Reardon


  • Lee Droege
    Posted November 14, 2022 at 10:19 pm

    Thanks for a precise structural criticism of this book. It clarified some of my own frustration concerning its content.

  • Post Author
    Patrick T Reardon
    Posted November 14, 2022 at 10:23 pm

    Glad it helped.

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