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Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American Westby Hampton Sides
"In the end, once all the land has been cleared, the Indians and Mexicans tamed, the United States united, there is Carson, a grizzled old man whose only want is to go home to his wife and kids. Whether you bemoan his actions or not, it's a truly American story about a soldier who got the job done." Tyler Cabot, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
Synopses & Reviews
A Magnificent History of How the West Was Really Won — an Epic Tale of Shame and Glory.
In the fall of 1846 the venerable Navajo warrior Narbona, greatest of his people's chieftains, looked down upon the small town of Santa Fe, the stronghold of the Mexican settlers he had been fighting his whole long life. He had come to see if the rumors were true — if an army of blue-suited soldiers had swept in from the East and utterly defeated his ancestral enemies. As Narbona gazed down on the battlements and cannons of a mighty fort the invaders had built, he realized his foes had been destroyed — but what did the arrival of these "New Men" portend for the Navajo?
Narbona could not have known that "The Army of the West," in the midst of the longest march in American military history, was merely the vanguard of an inexorable tide fueled by a self-righteous ideology now known as "Manifest Destiny." For twenty years the Navajo, elusive lords of a huge swath of mountainous desert and pasturelands, would ferociously resist the flood of soldiers and settlers who wished to change their ancient way of life or destroy them.
Hampton Sides's extraordinary book brings the history of the American conquest of the West to ringing life. It is a tale with many heroes and villains, but as is found in the best history, the same person might be both. At the center of it all stands the remarkable figure of Kit Carson-the legendary trapper, scout, and soldier who embodies all the contradictions and ambiguities of the American experience in the West. Brave and clever, beloved by his contemporaries, Carson was an illiterate mountain man who twice married Indian women and understood andrespected the tribes better than any other American alive. Yet he was also a cold-blooded killer who willingly followed orders tantamount to massacre. Carson's almost unimaginable exploits made him a household name when they were written up in pulp novels known as "blood-and-thunders," but now that name is a bitter curse for contemporary Navajo, who cannot forget his role in the travails of their ancestors.
"With 'Blood and Thunder,' Hampton Sides has taken an implausibly broad canvas of time, people and events and created a brilliantly realized portrait on an epic scale. The United States conquest of the Southwest involved territory ranging from St. Louis to Mexico City and California, as well as a large array of principal figures. Sides has wisely chosen Christopher 'Kit' Carson and Santa Fe as the... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) human and geographical touchstones. Carson was the consummate frontiersman, who had traveled widely across the West as a trapper, scout and adventurer long before the events of the Mexican War brought his abilities to the attention of the U.S. military. Illiterate but fluent in five Indian languages as well as Spanish, he'd had two Native American wives before marrying into an old Spanish family from Taos. Carson, who seems often to have been at the right place at the right (or wrong) time, had a deep understanding of the complex clash of cultures taking place. And yet his ultimate devotion to duty and patriotism earned him an enmity among the Navajo that extends to the present day. In Sides' depiction, Carson was a humble loner who became an unflinching killer when circumstances or superiors demanded it. The center of events, in many ways, was Santa Fe, the old Spanish territorial capital almost forgotten by the authorities in Mexico City, more or less functioning under self-government often at the expense of the settlers and natives. It was also the long-sought terminus of the famous trading trail bearing its name, believed by the United States to offer the best possible route to California and the Pacific coast. In truth, it was more symbolic than anything else: a dusty backwater of an empire under collapse, whose occupants were subject to routine raids from a number of tribes. President James Polk entered office with one absolute intention: to extend the western boundary of the territorial United States to the Pacific Ocean. While not the author of the concept of Manifest Destiny, he was the first president to initiate military action under that theory. There's no doubt Polk inaugurated the Mexican War with little or no basis beyond his own will. At that point, the native peoples of the region were considered by the authorities to be little more than noisome pests to be easily dispatched with on the way toward an audacious land-grab from Mexico. How wrong they were. The Navajo warrior Narbona was in his 80s when the U.S. Army straggled in from the east, and he watched them come. His age and great wealth, measured largely in herds of horses and flocks of sheep, along with his long experience through peace and war with the Spanish settlers, placed him in a position of influence within an intricate, matrilineal, clan-driven tribe. To what degree he understood the role of chieftain that the Americans thrust upon him can't be known. It appears he accepted at least the premise in an effort to educate the Americans about Navajo culture and concepts of land ownership and use. At the same time, he was quietly determined to maintain the Navajo way of life. Briefly, it appeared there might be hope for both sides, but Narbona was shot to death by a U.S. trooper who believed one of Narbona's warriors had stolen a horse. With the death of this wise man, all possibility of avoiding open warfare vanished. The Navajo faded back into the vast desert mountains and canyons of their homeland, leading to a protracted and fruitless series of expeditions against them that became successful only after the United States, led by Carson under the command of Gen. James Henry Carleton, initiated a scorched-earth policy. This finally culminated in the Navajo surrender and the infamous Long Walk to a barren redoubt in eastern New Mexico, where the defeated tribe began a disastrous period of disease and confinement. Although the campaign against the Navajo anchors 'Blood and Thunder,' Sides also details a panoply of events surrounding the Mexican War and its aftermath. These include the taking of California from the Spanish and British, as well as the ill-fated and short-lived Bear Flag Rebellion; the last of the famed rendezvous of the mountain men at Green River, Utah; and the bedraggled Confederate army's failed attempt to extend the Confederacy into the Southwest. There was a constant undercurrent of outrage and barbarity on all fronts and among all principal parties, Americans, Spanish, Mexican and Indian. Toss in accounts of a number of explorers, fortune-seekers, scoundrels, politicians, inept military adventurers, madmen and fools, and it all begins to sound like a collaboration between Cormac McCarthy and Federico Fellini. But this is neither film nor novel. The truth of history is often fickle and difficult to determine, and Sides demonstrates his awareness of this with a riveting narrative focus. Like the authors of many other recent works of popular history, Sides dispenses with footnotes but offers an exhaustive bibliography that underscores the scope of this monumental undertaking. Not only does 'Blood and Thunder' capture a pivotal moment in U.S. history in marvelous detail, it is also authoritative and masterfully told. Jeffrey Lent's novel 'A Peculiar Grace' will be published next year." Reviewed by Jeffrey Lent, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A]n engaging and exciting book. Sides engages readers with his fast-tempo, almost staccato-like chapters....
"Like a Cinemascope western, Blood and Thunder abounds in colorful characters, bristles with incident and ravishes the eye with long, lingering pan shots of the great Southwest." William Grimes, The New York Times
"Two related but not interdependent epic themes run through this book: the wresting of the Southwest and California away from Mexico to make them a part of the United States and efforts by the Navajo to protect their territory from inroads by Mexico and the United States." Library Journal
"This work will be an excellent addition to collections on western history." Booklist
"[Sides'] fascinating work delivers...pulpy pleasures as it recounts America's expansionist war against Mexico in the 19th century. (Grade: A-)" Entertainment Weekly
"The story of the American West has seldom been told with such intimacy and immediacy. Legendary figures like Kit Carson leap to life and history moves at a pulse-pounding pace—sweeping the reader along with it. Hampton Sides is a terrific storyteller." Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt
"Sides brings life to this history through his excellent use of stories passed down by the Navajos and of original documents, including soldiers' journals, personal letters and battle reports." Seattle Times
"[E]ngrossing....Sides' keen observations are fresh and fairly impartial, weighing in with the flaws and failures of all sides involved in this pivotal period of America's expansion." San Antonio Express-News
"Blood and Thunder is a full-blown history, and Sides does every part of it justice....By telling this story, Sides fills a conspicuous void in the history of the American West." N. Scott Momaday, The New York Times Book Review
"Sides offers a beautifully written, mesmerizing account of...the quarter-century-long quest to explore the Western lands and build an American empire that would span sea to shining sea." USA Today
"Sides works material well-known to historians...into an unchallenging but informative narrative." Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
A native of Memphis, Hampton Sides is editor-at-large for Outside magazine and the author of the international bestseller Ghost Soldiers, which was the basis for the 2005 Miramax film The Great Raid. Ghost Soldiers won the 2002 PEN USA Award for nonfiction and the 2002 Discover Award from Barnes & Noble, and his magazine work has been twice nominated for National Magazine Awards for feature writing. Hampton is also the author of Americana and Stomping Grounds. A graduate of Yale with a B.A. in history, he lives in New Mexico with his wife, Anne, and their three sons.
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