This book may not be of interest to Coffee Mates who live elsewhere on our globe but it's a dandy if you like real history that reads very much like a thriller. Too bad we didn't have text books like this in school.
Hampton Sides has done a remarkable job here, putting together people, places and events in a way that clarifies a whole section of our history like never before. He seems to have done an excellent job of research all the way around and there's an impressive bibliography in back, should you wish to explore further.
What I like here is the way he presented the information without -- for the most part -- imposing his own judgment on the individuals or the events. The reader gets to do that. What you will find are fleshed-out historical figures that are neither all good or all bad -- just a complex mixture of both, as is usually true of all of us.
The overriding event is the expansion of the United States from "sea to shining sea" and, within that framework, we have the Mexican War, the Civil War, a taste of the Indian wars in the southwest, the end of the mountain man era and the destruction of one way of life as another overwhelmed everything.
The focus is on Kit Carson, who emerges as someone quite different than he had been previously painted. He really was a legend in his own time, thanks to the wildly exaggerated fictions published in the 25-cent pulp paperbacks in the "blood and thunder" genre that was the forerunner of our western novel -- and the source of this book's title. He became, without his consent or approval, one of our first action-heroes. Heck of a note for the Army's only illiterate general, a position he held toward the end of his incredible life.
In spite of his unassuming appearance and soft-spoken manner, Carson was very good at what he did and not a man to be trifled with. He was both a loving family man with strong moral values -- and a stone killer when he felt he needed to be. It is indicative of Sides' skill that he is able to show Carson in the context of his time and render his character so clearly, one can easily understand the logic of this apparent dichotomy.
Sides also brings the Navajo culture into wonderful focus, for it is this particular Indian tribe that has our attention throughout the book. From their beginnings, to their tragic Long Walk and back to their home land, the reader can identify with these people -- not as the mythic "noble savage" but as authentic "warts and all" folks who happened to see the world differently than the "warts and all" folk who wanted to control them. In the course of this saga, Sides describes the dramatic landscape of New Mexico so clearly, you can almost feel the grit of the towering sandstone canyons and thrill at the sight of the ancient Anasazi ruins.
What might be the best thing about Hampton Sides' book is the way he shows, without preaching, the tragedy that occurs when cultures clash because they really don't "get it" about each other. Lot of that going on in the world today. Seems like some things never change.