three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
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An Epic of the American West

A-Blood and ThunderThe 19th-century West was a far cry from the romance of Western films. Instead, it was a place of violence, cultural clash, and conquest, a region "so wild, it lacked outlaws, for no law yet existed to be outside of." Hampton Sides offers a panoramic view of the American conquest of the Southwest between the Mexican War and the 1868 treaty establishing a Navajo reservation. While introducing colorful characters such as John C. Fremont, General Stephen Kearny, and Navajo warrior Narbona, Sides focuses on the legendary Kit Carson and his moral contradictions. He was "the prototype of the Western hero" but "also a natural born killer," a soldier, trapper, and scout who married two Indian women yet rounded up the nation for the Long Walk in 1864–65. In this gripping, if shameful story, two decades of frontier history come alive.
Doubleday. 460 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0385507771

USA Today 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Sides offers a beautifully written, mesmerizing account of the greatest American story between the Revolution and the Civil War: the quarter-century-long quest to explore the Western lands and build an American empire that would span sea to shining sea. … Like Shelby Foote, he has mastered the grand, sweeping style without sacrificing the well-chosen characters, events and minutiae that bring history to life." James L. Swanson

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Sides engages readers with his fast-tempo, almost staccato-like chapters that bring much life to these long-gone historical characters. … This great book is the finest telling of Manifest Destiny that has lasting impact on all of us in the American West." Jim Carmin

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It is an exceedingly tangled tale. … Like a Cinemascope western, Blood and Thunder abounds in colorful characters, bristles with incident and ravishes the eye with long, lingering pan shots of the great Southwest." William Grimes

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Though there is an understandable focus on the United States’ misdeeds—because we won and perhaps because of a dearth of records from the Mexican and Indian population—the book does not sugarcoat the unpleasantness that was life on the frontier, both before and after America’s conquest." Joshua Spivak

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Some readers may grow weary at certain points, but those who stay with Mr. Sides until the end will not regret the journey. … But this is storytelling on an epic scale, and epics cannot be rushed." Mark Lewis

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"Sides’s treatment of Carson highlights one of the real strengths of Blood and Thunder: without an apparent ax to grind, his story steers clear of the ideological minefields awaiting any historian of the West. … Had Sides focused exclusively on this culture clash and Carson’s role within it, Blood and Thunder would have been a better book." Mike Fischer

Critical Summary

Hampton Sides’s Blood and Thunder is more ambitious in its sweep than his acclaimed Ghost Wars (2001), a World War II history. His recounting of harsh frontier life and the violent clashes among the Navajo, the Spanish (Mexican), and the U.S. Army offers a gripping epic while enlivening many of the era’s remarkable figures, from soldiers to trappers, farmers, Indians, and pioneer women. Critics especially praised Sides’s nuanced discussions of the Navajo and other Native American tribes, as well as his inclusion of maps that chart key routes and conquests. A few critics cited some factual errors, tangential discussions, and omissions of some key historical figures, but overall it’s clear that "Sides knows how to tell a good story" (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).