Kit Carson versus the Indians—and everyone against everyone else in the Hobbesian world of the newly conquered American West.
Whereas Bernard De Voto, Wallace Stegner and latter-day historian David Roberts were and are concerned with the ideas and social trends behind historical facts, this author’s chronicle mostly blends just-so stories with human-interest sketches: Americans stream west into Spanish-speaking lands as James Polk (“possibly the most effective president in American history—and likely the least corrupt”) urges them to empire; the Navajo people, a case study in the terrible collision of nations, fight well even though they are culturally indisposed to draw blood; and few in the war between Mexico and the United States are inclined to play by the rules, leading to such little-sung moments as the Battle of San Pasqual, which should make no gringo jingoist proud. Sides (Ghost Soldiers, 2001, etc.) has studied the historical literature diligently and turned up some engrossing tales, from the fate of mountain man Bill Williams to the exploration of the Great Basin to the circumstances of Carson’s first marriage; if the details of native customs and the wealth of future senators are sometimes repetitive, his attention to what motivates people to act is refreshing, and Sides has a fine way of complicating his heroes and villains so that they emerge as flawed humans rather than misty figures of legend. And the flaws are endless, as with one fellow, for whom more than a few points on the map are named, who writes back to Washington following the death of a Navajo leader, “I very much regret that I had not procured Narbona’s cranium, as I think he had the finest head I ever saw on an Indian.”
Popular history in the Alvin Josephy vein. Sides works material well-known to historians, but less so to general readers, into an unchallenging but informative narrative.