One of the first biographies I remember as a lad was about the
western adventurer Christopher "Kit" Carson. That juvenile
biography focused on how smart and resourceful Carson was and how
those attributes molded him into a cowboy legend. To paraphrase a
somewhat vulgar expression, BLOOD AND THUNDER: An Epic of the
American West, yields the same stuff, but with a waaaaay different
In his powerful examination of politics, racism, religion,
adventure and history, Hampton Sides weaves an intricate tale with
Carson as the focal point.
"Carson was present at the creation, it seemed," writes Sides. "He
had witnessed the dawn of the American West in all its vividness
and brutality. In his constant travels, he had caromed off of or
intersected with nearly every major [Indian] tribal group or person
of consequence. He had lived the full sweep of the Western
experience with a directness few other men could rival."
An astute scout and frontiersman, Carson was empathetic with the
plight of the Native American. That does not mean, however, that he
was necessarily their friend. BLOOD AND THUNDER offers extremely
violent and gory detail as the author describes acts of barbarity
by both Indians and whites, particularly the American military
But this is not merely a biography. Sides reports on a group of
dynamic characters, including Narbona, de facto leader of the
Navajo tribe; the ambitious John Fremont, who sought to "conquer"
California; and others, such as President James Polk and General
Stephen Kearny who sought to expand the American landscape. Over
the course of the book, they come inexorably together like spokes
to the hub of a wheel.
Carson was the first hero of the American West, lauded in dime
store novels as a "swashbuckling protagonist," a portrayal he was
long ignorant of and ultimately displeased with. A particularly
wrenching episode occurred when the scout found such a book among
the possessions of Ann White, a woman he had sought to rescue from
"He imagined her reading it while enduring her miserable captivity.
In [the] story, Kit Carson finds the kidnapped girl and saves the
day, fulfilling his vow to her distraught parents....In this
instance, Kit Carson had failed to avert a disaster; he feared [the
author's] fiction may have given Ann White a false hope." Amid such
scenes, one can easily envision BLOOD AND THUNDER as a movie in the
mold of Lonesome Dove; the cover of the book begs for a
sticker denoting "soon to be a major motion picture."
While Sides should be commended for his attention to detail, there
are points in this 400-plus-page volume that become superfluous,
even repetitive, as when he describes Narbona and his influence as
an uber-leader of his people, or the customs of individual tribes
and how the citizens of New Mexico perceived their American
military invaders. The pace alternates, fast and slow. Some of the
minor role players almost seem like red herrings, their
contribution to the overall picture somewhat distracting.
But fans of American history, and particularly the Westward
expansion of the mid-19th century, will doubtless find Sides's
accounts riveting. For one in particular, it brought back memories
of the innocence of early childhood, when the good guys wore white
hats and gunshot wounds never seemed to bleed.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on December 22, 2010