A tale of shame and glory in the Southwest

 

Hampton Sides’ latest book, Blood and Thunder, is an expansive treatise on an expansive subject: Manifest Destiny and the opening of the desert Southwest. Sides uses Kit Carson — with his distinctive combination of chivalry, heroism, cruelty and unflinching complicity with inhumane policies — as a sort of thread to weave together the history of the mid-19th century Southwest, culminating with Carson’s “scorched earth” campaign against the Navajo. This campaign resulted in the death of thousands, the abject surrender of thousands more and the forced removal of the Navajo from their homeland, Dinetah.

Blood and Thunder offers little new information on its subject, but Sides’ prose snaps along with the fluidity and detail of good fiction. Take, for example, this description of Carson’s arrival in Sonoma, Calif., at the outset of the war with Mexico:

“The windswept grass on the jumbled hills had crisped to a fine summer gold when Kit Carson guided his mule down through the gambel oak thickets and into the tiny village of Sonoma, California …

“Cows mashed their cud in the surrounding pastures while the town dogs yipped at the strangers. Sonoma’s dirt streets thronged with rabbles of American men drunk on liquor — and drunk on a newfound power. They shouted out ‘Liberty!’ in slurred cries that frightened the local townsfolk, who did not know there was a war on and did not want one.”

Despite the unifying presence of Kit Carson, the book at times seems to be little more than a series of historical vignettes. Nevertheless, Sides’ meticulous research and clear descriptions make Blood and Thunder a worthwhile read. The history of the desert Southwest is too often romanticized in the popular media; Sides’ book offers a straightforward reminder of its brutal realities.

 

Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West

Hampton Sides

404 pages,

hardcover: $26.95.

Doubleday, 2006.