Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wordcraft -- Quanah Parker's descendent drops in

Empire of the Summer Moon
by S.C. Gwynne
As we rode up the escalator at the Lincoln Park Barnes & Noble bookstore, Sonia Pahcheka asked quietly whether there were any other Natives present.  A glance at the crowd showed that she was the only Comanche attending Dallas Morning News writer Sam Gwynne’s discussion of his New York Times bestseller, Empire of the Summer Moon.  The book that told the story of the last and greatest war chief of the Comanche nation.

We sat on the back row of folding chairs, the only place we could find two seats together.  Gwynne had already explained how he, a journalist rather than a historian, became passionate about this story of the Comanches’ rise to power, fueled by an “astounding piece of technology that they understood better than anyone else – the horse” and “blowing everybody off the southern plains” in their pursuit of that source of food and sustenance, the bison.

“If you understand (this),” he said, “you’ll understand everything about how the West was won – or lost.”

And within that big story lay the smaller, personal tragedy of the captured nine-year-old girl, Cynthia Ann Parker, ultimately famous as the mother of her great son, Quanah Parker.

“I’ve got to ask a question,” Ms. Pahcheka whispered as Gwynne finished.

But hand after waving hand vied for his attention.  At last, she stood and announced herself – here to tell them that Quanah Parker, the man under discussion, was her great-great-grandfather by his third wife, Choni.

I had been nervous that Gwynne’s book would be too painful, especially given his statement in her hearing earlier that he had made “a conscious decision not to interview (contemporary) Comanches for the book.”  But she charmed all, including two long-lost cousins on Cynthia Ann’s side of the family – adding personal and family reminiscences that fleshed out Gwynne’s account.  Gwynne clearly enjoyed his discussion with her of Star House, the mansion Quanah built to house his numerous family members after making peace with the United States government.  The house still stands, with its rooms intact – the bedroom where Quanah kept a picture of his mother, the formal dining room with wallpaper and molded tin ceilings where he entertained dignitaries including Geronimo and Theodore Roosevelt.

“When you go through, you can feel the spirit,” Ms. Pahcheka said.  And, of course, there are the rooms for all the wives.  (She is descended through her great-great-grandfather’s third wife, Choni.)

She added, according to family lore, that when Quanah was asked why he raided, he quipped, “I have eleven wives.  It’s much quieter on raids.”

(Next week, the discussion of character in fiction returns with “The likeability quotient.”)

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