October 08, 2006

Reviews of Blood and Thunder

Carving a fuller role for Kit Carson

After winning the Mexican War in 1848America found itself inheriting a long-standing blood feud between the Navajos and the Mexican settlers, a fight that predated Plymouth Rock and Mexico's independence.

This three-way clash and the resulting traumatic "long walk of the Navajos" is the basis of Hampton Sides' energetic and engaging "Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West." Sides, the author of "Ghost Soldiers," offers a sweeping look at the interaction among these three groups, exploring the endemic violence of the 19th century frontier and the difficult issue of how America dealt with both former Mexican citizens and the nomadic Navajo (or as they called themselves, the Diné) tribes. The disastrous resettlement of the Navajo tribes was Sides' original focus, but to the benefit of readers, he expanded his subject to include this much larger and complex story of America's conquest of the Southwest.

"Blood and Thunder" is at its best when telling vignettes of historical figures who played a major role in this Southwestern drama but have lost some their luster in recent years. Though their names might be familiar today, some because of the cities named in their honor--Carson, John Fremont, Stephen Watts Kearny--others because of their titles, like Sen. Thomas Hart Benton and President James K. Polk, their actions in starting and fighting for America's expansionist adventure are barely remembered. In crafting his book, Sides wisely centers it on one of the most dynamic, morally complicated men of the mid-19th century, Kit Carson. Carson appears at nearly every juncture: guiding several key explorations of the Oregon Territory, playing a major part in the conquest of California and leading the fight against the Navajos.
Rotten editing, writing ruin epic Kit Carson story Who edited this thing, Mr. Magoo?

Honestly, you wonder sometimes if the art of editing books hasn't gone the way of the rotary phone. It's hard to find one these days unmarred by hackneyed phrasing, stilted dialogue, lame characterizations and incorrect usage masquerading as "style." It's harder still to find one that couldn't be improved by cutting the verbiage by a third.

Case in point: "Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West" could have been a very good book. There aren't many likelier subjects than Kit Carson, the frontiersman who embodied all that was heroic--and much that was unheroic--in the "winning" of the West. He was a scout and a mountain man, a soldier and a settler, a warm friend to some American Indians but a scourge to others, a loving parent but also a casual killer, a man utterly at home in the wilderness and completely unnerved by city life. His exploits were so varied and so dazzling that he was literally a legend in his own time: revered out West, a household name back East, the unwitting hero of the earliest dime novels, the prototype of the laconic Westerner.

This is can't-miss material. Yet Hampton Sides, an editor at Outside magazine and author of the best-selling "Ghost Soldiers," fumbles badly.

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