Hampton Sides,
Blood & Thunder
(Doubleday, 2006)

Hampton Sides has given us a multi-faceted examination of the men and forces involved in the conquest of the American West and the way of life of its original settlers.

At the center is Christopher "Kit" Carson, who was a pivotal figure in the events and whose life has been so distorted by legend that many today have little inkling of just how complex an individual and how heroic -- in the true sense of the word -- the man really was.

There are also telling portraits of others: President James Polk, engineer of Manifest Destiny, who believed it was his nation's biblical right to seize real estate all the way to the Pacific, no matter who else might claim the land; Stephen Watts Kearny, father of the U.S. Cavalry and one of the most underrated officers produced by this country, who Polk used to spearhead his land lust; the equally ambitious John C. Fremont and his father-in-law, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, the apostle of Manifest Destiny; the energetic and interesting Brig. Gen. James H. Carleton, whose well-meaning dream of a refuge for the Navajo led them to Bosque Redondo and near extinction; the great Navajo leaders Narbona, Manuelito and Barboncito, and many others.

Diminutive in stature, Carson was, as Sides describes him early on, "a lovable man ... loyal, honest, and kind. In many pinpointable incidents, he acted bravely and with much physical grace. More than once, he saved people's lives without seeking recognition or pay. He was a dashing good Samaritan -- a hero, even."

In the very next paragraph, Sides says, "He was also a natural born killer."

Carson was all of that -- a humble man, a brave man, loyal to his friends, a demon to his enemies. He was a man of his times, yet stood head and shoulders above many of his contemporaries. Married to a Mexican, he shared the viewpoint of his Hispanic relatives and neighbors when it came to the Navajo and was Carleton's spear in driving the Dine from their homeland and on the Long Walk. Yet he loved the Ute and helped save them from the forces destroying other tribes.

Sides does not romanticize. He is a storyteller, and his words keep one turning the pages; no dry history this. He reveals the good and the bad about all the people in this book. It is a grand book, one that should be required reading in high schools and colleges to inform future generations of how we came to our present place in history.

by John R. Lindermuth
2 December 2006

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