Babylon Nights Tidbit #20 ~ Blood and Thunder

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Babylon Nights Tidbit #20 ~ Blood and Thunder

Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Tue Dec 21, 2010 11:37 am

Pg. 155:
He continued to unpack. She picked up one of his books. Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides.

"Cowboy stuff?"


"Somebody told me you did rodeo."

"It's a way of making up for the shyness."


I couldn't find a better description of the book than this NY Times review.

Published: October 29, 2006

After the journey of Lewis and Clark through the wilderness of the American West, a venture that might seem to us tentative, imperiled and pursued against all odds, there came unstoppable waves of humanity (and inhumanity), driven by dreams of gold and empire, and sustained by a certain sense of the inevitable, a conviction given the name Manifest Destiny. “Blood and Thunder” is the story of the quest for, and conquest of, the American West. It is, as we know, the most romantic of stories, and arguably the most cherished of America’s myths.

Early on, Hampton Sides writes of the mountain men:
“As the forerunners of Western civilization, creeping up the river valleys and across the mountain passes, the trappers brought smallpox and typhoid, they brought guns and whiskey and venereal disease, they brought the puzzlement of money and the gleam of steel. And on their liquored breath they whispered the coming of an unimaginable force, of a gathering shadow on the eastern horizon, gorging itself on the continent as it pressed steadily this way.”

This cryptic passage might serve as a bare-bones synopsis of the book. Sides, the author of the best seller “Ghost Soldiers,” has a talent for encapsulation. His thumbnail sketches of character are comprehensive and concise at the same time. There is, for example, a wonderful portrait of Stephen Watts Kearny, who commanded the Army of the West, in which the whole man appears to be contained and defined in a kind of verbal line drawing: “On innumerable occasions he had smoked the pipe with Indians, learning their manner of speaking, their penchant for metaphor; he once flattered a Sioux chief by complimenting him on the ‘soaring eagle of your fame.’ During a council with Oglala Indians, he heartily partook of the local delicacies — boiled dog and blood-tinged river water from the paunch of a buffalo.”

We see this quality of revelation again and again. There are equally telling sketches of the ambitious John C. Frémont; Maj. John Chivington, the murderous parson; Charles Bent, first the owner of Bent’s Fort and then the governor of New Mexico, and his great adversary, Padre Antonio Martínez, the enigmatic cura of Taos; the Navajo leader Manuelito; the diarist and correspondent Susan Magoffin; and many more. Sides gives us fresh, multifaceted pictures of the Taos revolt and the epic march of the Colorado Civil War volunteers. The cast of characters is large and the landscape vast. We see a panorama and a whole history, intricately laced with wonder and meaning, coalesce into a story of epic proportions, a story full of authority and color, truth and prophecy, a story that is uniquely ours.

Kit Carson is at the center of this book, even as he was at the center of the history it records. Born Christopher Houston Carson in Kentucky in 1809, he grew to only 5 feet 4 inches and was wiry, blue-eyed, soft-spoken and fearless. He had all the instincts of a survivor, and indeed all the qualifications of a hero, as heroism was understood by Americans of the dime-novel era. Like Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok, he filled the pages of blood-and-thunder pulps, but in fact his exploits were far greater than theirs, and his authenticity beyond compare.

It is sometimes difficult to determine what constitutes the stuff of legend, or when a man enters that mythic dimension. For Billy the Kid, say, who resembled Carson in several respects — both men were slight of build, both were nerveless, both were intensely loyal, and both were coldblooded, efficient killers — it might have been a moment after his daring escape from the Lincoln County courthouse, in which he rode out of sight, receding into history, passing from time into timelessness. For Kit Carson the moment came early in his career. As a young mountain man at a rendezvous on the Green River in 1835, he dispatched a French Canadian trapper, Joseph Chouinard, in a duel fought over the beautiful Arapaho woman Singing Grass, who became the first of Carson’s wives. There were other definitive moments in Carson’s life, each revealing another aspect of the legend, and each exacting some price. He suffered wounds and fame alike. Of Carson and the blood-and-thunder phenomenon, Sides writes:

“He was the prototype of the Western hero. Before there were Stetson hats and barbed-wire fences, before there were Wild West shows or Colt six-shooters to be slung at the O.K. Corral, there was Nature’s Gentleman, the original purple cliché of the purple sage. Carson hated it all. Without his consent, and without receiving a single dollar, he was becoming a caricature.”

If Carson personifies the force of conquest in Sides’s masterly retelling of this American epic, the Navajo leader Narbona embodies the soul of resistance. He was born in 1766 and grew up in sight of Tsoodzil, or Blue Bead Mountain, an 11,000-foot dormant volcano sacred to the Navajos, marking the southeast corner of Navajo country. It remains a symbol of the spirit of the Diné, the Navajo people, and of their everlasting and fierce dedication to their land. In his long life Narbona became a great warrior and the pre-eminent leader of his people. In terms of Sides’s epic, he is the incarnation of his people, standing in the way of Manifest Destiny.

“Blood and Thunder” is a full-blown history, and Sides does every part of it justice. Five years ago he set out to write a book on the removal of the Navajos from Canyon de Chelly and their Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo, hundreds of miles from their homeland, where they were held as prisoners of war. But in the course of his research a much larger story unfolded, the story of the opening of the West, from the heyday of the mountain men in the early 1800’s to the clash of three cultures, as the newcomers from the East encountered the ancient Puebloans and the established Hispanic communities in what is now New Mexico, to the Civil War in the West and its aftermath — and all of it is full of blood and thunder, the realities and the caricatures of conquest. By telling this story, Sides fills a conspicuous void in the history of the American West.

The siege of Canyon de Chelly and the Long Walk in 1864 signaled the inevitable and final thrust of Manifest Destiny. The Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee were yet to come, but in Canyon de Chelly the futility of Indian resistance was realized once and for all. Brig. Gen. James Henry Carleton, who conceived the idea of the Long Walk, put it succinctly: “They have fought us gallantly for years on years; they have defended their mountains and their stupendous canyons with heroism; but at length, they found it was their destiny, too, to give way to the insatiable progress of our race.”

Narbona was past 80 when he was killed by cavalry shrapnel at a peace parley. His scalp was taken. Carson, at 53 and ailing, commanded the siege of Canyon de Chelly. It was a campaign of devastation. His men destroyed thousands of acres of crops, an estimated two million pounds of food. In a final, gratuitous gesture, he ordered his captains to chop down every peach tree in the canyon. He died several years later, and is buried at Taos. In 1868 the Navajos returned to their homeland. When they drew within sight of their sacred Blue Bead Mountain, they wept.

It is something of an irony that Kit Carson never entered Canyon de Chelly, but issued his orders from a distance. Perhaps he was superstitious. Perhaps he knew that Spider Woman and the spirits of the Anasazi were there in that vast, foreboding maze of rock, and that they would be there forever.

About the author:


Hampton Sides (born 1962) is an American historian and magazine journalist.

He is the author of several bestselling works of narrative history and literary non-fiction. Ghost Soldiers won the 2002 PEN USA award for nonfiction.

Sides is editor-at-large for Outside magazine and has written for such periodicals as National Geographic, The New Yorker, Esquire, Preservation, Men's Journal, Men's Vogue, and The Washington Post. His magazine work, collected in numerous published anthologies, has been twice nominated for National Magazine Awards for feature writing.

Sides is native of Memphis, and has a BA in history from Yale. He is a past fellow of Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Japan Society, and a media fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. He is an adviser and board member of the Mayborn Journalism School's annual conference on Literary Non-fiction. Hampton has guest-lectured at Columbia University, Yale, Stanford, Colorado College, SMU, the Autry Museum of the American West, and the National World War II Museum, among other institutions. He has appeared as a guest on such national broadcasts as The American Experience, the Today Show, Book TV, the History Channel, Fresh Air, CNN, CBS Sunday Morning, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and NPR's "All Things Considered."

Sides currently lives in Santa Fe with his wife, writer Anne Goodwin-Sides, a journalist and former NPR editor, and their three boys.

Hampton Sides reads from Blood and Thunder.
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming -
Wow! What a ride!

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Re: Babylon Nights Tidbit #20 ~ Blood and Thunder

Unread postby gemini » Tue Dec 21, 2010 5:45 pm

That was very a interesting tidbit and educational for me. Somehow I am not much on the modern day books with the cowboy hero type (sort of like Spandau) but I love the real history, especially when it shows the facts versus the hype of the old west. From the short video it seems that is just what Hampton Sides does. I’ve heard a lot of Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok, but to be honest, I didn’t realize that Kit Carsen was a real person. I thought he was a fictional character when I saw him portrayed on TV.
Hampton Sides looks like he has some Indian ancestry , with his dark hair and high cheek bones.
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Re: Babylon Nights Tidbit #20 ~ Blood and Thunder

Unread postby nebraska » Wed Dec 22, 2010 10:44 pm

So much of Manifest Destiny and the conquest of the West would be much nicer for me if I didn't have Native friends and know how their people and their way of life was destroyed by the conqueror's greed. :-/ But that is pretty much the story of the whole world's history; for every conquering army there is a vanquished nation.

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Re: Babylon Nights Tidbit #20 ~ Blood and Thunder

Unread postby fireflydances » Thu Dec 23, 2010 12:18 am

Agree Nebraska. Also, like Gemini, I truly had no idea that Kit Carson was a real person, so mythical the descriptions I remember as a kid. What he did at Canyon de Chelly really shocked me. Again, I didn't know about this. I visited the area a number of years ago without knowing a thing about this horrific event. Who knew that someone literally drove people away by destroying their crops, their trees -- like something out of Russian history. Native Americans continue to be sidelined in the American story. Hope something changes soon.
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