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Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West    by Hampton Sides order for
Blood and Thunder
by Hampton Sides
Order:  USA  Can
Doubleday, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, Audio, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Too often, because of the way in which it is written, history can be a tedious reading exercise requiring disciplined commitment to the task and single-minded concentration, even for those of us who are passionate about the subject. In the case of Blood and Thunder, however, reading about a fascinating period of America's past is an invigorating experience - filled with pulse-pounding excitement and profound discovery.

Blood and Thunder is the gripping story of white America's mid-19th century expansion, beyond the nation's inevitably temporary mid-western boundaries west of the Mississippi and into the Great Plains, extending into the great expanse of the North American southwest and west. These new regions, the southwestern and western territories, governed and controlled for the most part by Mexico - and, more importantly, occupied by native Americans who had been there for many centuries - became the target of President James K. Polk and the nation's world-altering vision: Manifest Destiny.

Elected in 1844, Polk, as argued by author Hampton Sides, was the most effective and least corrupt president in U.S. history, although Polk was entirely lacking in charm, grace, elegance, and wit. With respect to Polk's effectiveness, though, he had a single-minded determination to expand his country's territorial dominance so that the United States stretched from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans; moreover, the president was convinced that the nation must expand from the already established northern border (with Canada) to as far south and west as possible - going beyond the recently acquired Texas so that the United States could also claim the territories we now know as New Mexico, Arizona, and California. This would require a remarkable strategy and relentless tactics. Certainly Mexico would not cede its territories without a fight, and the Native Americans would - as officials in Washington saw it - have to be dealt with forcefully.

So, the American government - which means Polk, with the complicity of the congress and the military - embarked on a bloody and thunderous campaign. Many thousands would be involved in the campaign, but several - as the focus of Blood and Thunder - are particularly noteworthy.

Stephen Watts Kearny, the consummate soldier and pragmatic disciplinarian, would lead his Army of the West from Missouri to Los Angeles, deep into the American southwest and west, straight through the heart of Mexican territory. In participating in the most audacious and gargantuan land-grab in American history, Kearny would be instrumental in wresting present-day New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California from Mexican and native American control.

Also, John Charles Fremont, the Army explorer and notorious glory hound, would lead multiple expeditions into the northwest and west, and he would ultimately figure prominently - if not always with resounding success - in the conquest of California and Oregon. With Fremont on numerous occasions was one of the most important figures in America's westward expansion, and the central figure in the author's sprawling and spell-binding narrative: Christopher Houston (Kit) Carson.

Every compelling story needs a hero and a villain. Kit Carson is both in Blood and Thunder. A legendary figure in American folklore - as a trapper, scout, and mountain man - Carson became the larger-than-life heroic figure in 19th century pulp novels called 'blood and thunders.' Author Hampton Sides focuses closely on Carson's paradoxical life, his breathtaking adventures, his friendship with Native Americans, and his numerous campaigns against Native Americans, several of which can only be described as cold-hearted massacres.

Ultimately, though, Blood and Thunder is the story of the Native Americans - particularly the Navajo who had thrived under the enlightened leadership of the great chieftain Narbona, until he was brutally murdered by an American trooper in an argument over a horse. Then the Navajo were heroically though disastrously led by the fiery and wily warrior, Manuelito. Lords of huge and inhospitable swaths of desert in the southwest, the Navajo were quintessential horse-people who were strengthened by myths, legends, and gods. Yet the proud and resilient Navajo would ultimately surrender to white American pressure; it would take Kit Carson, a scorched-earth policy, a long siege in 1864, and a forced march of nearly 9,000 captives before the Navajo were finally defeated.

Then, after many years and too many deaths, the southwest was finally tamed, the major obstacles to Manifest Destiny had been subdued or eliminated, and Kit Carson - the national hero in one of the most bloody and thunderous chapters of American history - 'earned a glowing fame that has turned to black notoriety in modern times.'

Blood and Thunder is, as the sub-title declares, an epic of the American west. Richly detailed, exhaustively researched, and written in luminous prose that will keep you riveted to the pages, this is American history at its best. You will be surprised, shocked, and thrilled. Don't miss it!

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