Two great contributions to Southwestern history and three great western novelists head my personal book recommendation list this year.
"The Comanche Empire" by Pekka Hamalainen. Yale University Press, 2008. PB edition 2009 Lamar Series of western history, winner 2009 Bancroft Prize.
"Cutting edge revisionist western history." — Larry McMurtry. Hamalainen views an era we just now are understanding through a variety of insights. One example — you don't need to build cities to have an empire. Using criteria applied elsewhere, particularly military and economic domination, he maintains that for over a century the Comanche were the most successful empire builders in the region.
Breaking off from the Shoshone in Wyoming at the end of the 17th Century, the Comanche moved to the Great Plains and were the first and most successful tribe to adapt to the horse and metal. One reason they became powerful so rapidly came from a culture and value system that avoided intercine warfare, unlike the Apache who expended much effort killing each other. The reason Apaches live in Arizona and New Mexico now is the Comanche, who slaughtered and enslaved them in Texas.
The Comanche also had superb diplomatic skills and formed alliances with other tribes and various Europeans whenever possible. The maps at the time read "Spain" and "Mexico" but the folks collecting tribute from both were the Comanche.
"Borderline Americans" by Katherine Benton-Cohen. Harvard University Press, 2009.
Benton-Cohen, assistant professor of history at Georgetown, is an Arizona native uniquely qualified to discuss the subject "racial divisions and labor war in the Arizona borderlands."
Focusing on Cochise County, she tells us how truly diverse that relatively small rectangle is. From Tombstone's famous gunfight to the 1917 Bisbee deportation, its racial, ethnic and cultural makeup has been and is as complex as any European nation.
We who live around here notice that Willcox isn't Douglas and neither are Bisbee or Tombstone. Benton-Cohen tells us why. More important, she gives us greater insights into America as a nation by breaking down the many attitudes towards race, class and gender that came into the area. Cochise County may be unique but most of its components are not and have much greater applications.
An understanding of our current border problems is greatly enhanced by this superbly well-written piece of social history.
Three great Western novelists just keep rolling along
Johnny Boggs, current president of Western Writers of America, has a run of great novels, many historical. In "Northfield" (Leisure PB 2008) you'll learn more about the James and Younger boys, the rest of the players and what really happened packed into 258 pages than anywhere else. His latest "Rio Chama" (Five Star, 2009) tops my December reading pile. Website johnnydboggs.com.
They don't get any better than Boggs, but a couple tie him.
Jane Candia Coleman writes historical novels around the women who made the West. We're delighted three are out in new paperback editions from Leisure. "The Bandit Queen" is the real story of Pearl Hart, the first woman sentenced to the Yuma Territorial Prison. "Tumbleweed" is the life story of Virgil Earp's wife Allie and gives a new perspective on the Earp legend. "The Silver Queen" is Colorado's Augusta Tabor. Space prohibits listing Coleman's awards and Pulitzer nominations.
Cotton Smith is a former president of WWA and competes with Boggs and Coleman for the most writing awards and in historic authenticity as well as great characters and plots. He's known for writing gloriously about Texas Rangers and horses. His latest is "Death Mask" (Leisure 2009), which sits next to Boggs on my night stand. Find out about many others at cottonsmithbooks.com.
A warning about these three great writers. They're addictive.