Saturday, October 26, 2013

The American West retold and retooled

We fiction writers are spoon-fed rules about writing. One of them is to avoid exposition, or at least pare it to the barest minimum. The reason is that exposition can distance readers from the narrative and bleach the reading experience of emotional impact. Yet nonfiction is told almost entirely in exposition and that doesn't keep us from getting sucked into a good story.

The book I'm reading now has me completely floored with its narrative and historic scope. 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. It's a story we Americans are familiar with: the clash of two cultures, one Stone Age, the other modern (for the time) and powered by steam and gun powder. We've memorized the tropes: the defiant hard-scrabble pioneers pushing forward; bigger-than-life gunslingers and hustlers; soldiers both brave and cowardly; and of course the American Indians, the victims of a traitorous, incompetent, and mendacious federal government. In pre-1960s Hollywood, Indians were portrayed as bloodthirsty savages...renegades on the war path. Afterwards, they became noble, enlightened indigenous people, practically New-Agey in their behavior. S.C. Gwynne spares few details showing us that the truth was in between. At times sublime and beautiful. But mostly cunning and vicious.

While this story presents no mystery--we know it won't end well for the Indians, I was struck by the brutal and noir aspects in Gwynne's telling. And it demonstrates the driving momentum of a well-paced and forceful expository narrative. Gwynne makes us taste the dust, feel the heat and the cold and the terror and the hatred and the blood spatter, smell the sage and the burning homes, and hear the cries of the anguished and the bereaved. Any fiction writer would be proud to tell a story of such epic and dramatic sweep.

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

My daughter gave to me but I haven't read it yet.