Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West

by Hampton Sides, Doubleday, New York, 2006, $26.95.

You know you’ve hit the big time when The New York Times assigns Pulitzer Prize– winner N. Scott Momaday to review your book. Actually, Hampton Sides found success with the critical and commercial hit Ghost Soldiers (the basis of the movie The Great Raid). And Blood and Thunder, which debuted at No. 14 on the Times bestseller list, merely cements Sides’ reputation as the best narrative historian in America today.

In 2002 Sides set out to write about the tragic fate of the Navajo during the Long Walk and their four-year internment at Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory, from 1864 to 1868. Yet Blood and Thunder grew into something much larger. His 460-page tome chronicles the conquest of the Navajos, beginning in 1846 with the arrival of U.S. soldiers in New Mexico during the Mexican War. In fact, the Long Walk and Bosque Redondo cover only a small portion of the end of the book. Sides is quite correct to begin his narrative much earlier, putting the events in historical context, bringing history to life.

The book centers on diminutive, illiterate Kit Carson, an often maligned historical figure these days, who was a larger-than-life mountain man, scout and soldier transformed into hero of pulp fiction—the so-called “blood-and-thunders” from which Sides derives his title.

“He was the prototype of the Western hero,” Sides writes. “Before there were Stetson hats and barbed-wire fences, before there were Wild West shows or Colt six-shooters to be slung at the OK 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.”

Sides paints Carson as a complex figure, both heroic and cold-blooded, loyal to a fault. He also brings to life other important figures of the period, from Navajo leaders Narbona, Manuelito and Barboncito to controversial white leaders John C. Frémont, Stephen Watts Kearny, John Chivington, James Carleton and even President James Polk, the architect of Manifest Destiny.

In his expansive story, primarily based on original documents and contemporary accounts, Sides covers the Taos Revolt, the Civil War battles at Valverde and Glorieta, the first fight at Adobe Walls, the Sand Creek massacre and many other events, tying these in with his primary subjects—Kit Carson and the Navajos. Sweeping, moving and magnificent, Blood and Thunder might well be the best and most accessible piece of Western history since Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

 

Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here