The first question to ask about Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend is why no one had written the book before Frankel, a Pulitzer winner, published it earlier this year. To take the vicious, haunted abduction story of Cynthia Ann Parker—who was abducted as a nine-year-old in Texas in 1836 by Comanches, who she lived with for the next 24 years—and tie it to the making of The Searchers, the John Ford western starring John Wayne putatively based on the Parker case, seems like such an elemental, and revealing, idea. It’s a way to tell a story about how Americans tell one another crucial myths about ourselves.
But then you read Frankel’s book and you realize why no one had written it before. Frankel elegantly ties together two stories that have less to do with one another than you might at first think (in fact, Kirkus gave a rare star to the book). For starters, Frankel says it was easier to research an abduction that happened in 1836 than it was the production of Ford’s film from 1956. I first asked Frankel about the epigraph on hope that opens his book and what it says about its two epic stories.
There’s a nice epigraph that opens this book. It’s from “Come Home, John Wayne, and Speak for Us,” by Cynthia Buchanan, and she writes that
Myths are neither true nor untrue, but the product and process of man’s yearning. As such, they’re the most primal thing bonding us to other people. Yet the phenomenon is much more than a snake feeding on its own tail. Myths gather momentum because they provide hope.
But where is the hope in the Cynthia Ann Parker abduction story? It’s a pretty vicious story, right?
It’s a very sad story. There is no redeeming, wonderful moment in the Cynthia Ann Parker story. She was nine years old when she was kidnapped by Comanches in May of 1836, two months after the Alamo, just a few weeks after the defeat of Santa Anna’s forces. She and four other young people were living on a fortified settlement in central to east Texas, but warriors came down and they killed five men, including Cynthia Ann’s father and grandfather. They abducted five young people. Four of the young people were recovered over the course of a year. Two were freed by Cynthia Ann’s Uncle, James, but Cynthia Anne herself spent 24 years with the Comanches, had a Comanche husband, three Comanche children and then she was recaptured by Texas Rangers and U.S. Calvary in 1860. She was miserable when she was restored to her white family. She dies in obscurity and certainly in misery. I saw a tragic figure and someone who was a survivor, but a victim of the Texan-Comanche wars, this 40-year-old struggle.
The only redeeming feature, I think, is the fact that her surviving Comanche son, the only one of her three children to grow to adulthood, was Quanah Parker. And Quanah Parker was a nomadic warrior through his first career. He had a second career, after the surrender in 1875, when he becomes a force of reconciliation, when he becomes the navigator, the middleman for the Comanche nation, which was down to maybe 3,000 people in a much more treacherous position—being wards of the American government—than they ever were when they were at war with the American government.
He helps them navigate and survive, and I think that is a redemption story. And in explaining who he was and why he acted the way he did, he always cited his mother, the fact that his mother was a Texan, that she had come to be part of two cultures. And then he was from two cultures, if you will. He had two different bloods flowing through him. And so he’s one of the people who actually takes the original story of his mother and retells it for his own needs and purposes, to explain who he is and what he’s doing. And as I’ve said, if there’s any redemption, anything, any positive aspect of poor Cynthia Ann’s life, it’s something she never knew because she died before Quanah surrendered, but that Quanah did indeed save the people that she cared so much about.
You’ve written a book about Israel, you’ve written a book about South Africa. What led you to write this book now?
Well, basically, I got back from my second round of being overseas as the London bureau chief in 2006 and I left The Washington Post. I started teaching at Stanford University, teaching journalism. I’m someone who had never taken a journalism course in his life and never taught one, but never mind. And I was looking for an American book. I had written a book about South Africa after I had lived there, and I’d written a book about Israel after I ‘d lived there, and I really felt like I was back home. I still felt a little bit like a foreign correspondent. I had always been interested in The Searchers, ever since I was a child. The movie had a lot of impact; it was very powerful, very scary in a way, very unsettling. And I always had thought I might write about it and maybe there’d be a chapter about captivity narratives or something, a contextual chapter.
I had no idea that I was waltzing out into a story of Cynthia Ann and Quanah as where this thing started. So it was mostly just for that practical reason that I wanted to do an American book, but as I started working on it, it became clear to me that there was something very resonant about this story, even today, about people who cross from one culture to another in dangerous ways and positive ways.
We’re living through an era where we have a president who comes from two cultures and is such an interesting man in part because he is, in some ways, reconciling these things. But I didn’t want to make too much of that contemporary moment. I just thought this was a great American story. I needed an American story. I had wanted an American story. As it happens, the two parts of Cynthia Ann’s family—the Texan part and the Comanche part, descended from Quanah—are still around. They still hold annual family reunions, separate ones. There’s one in Groesbeck at old Fort Parker, in the state park there—that’s the Texan Parkers. And then up in Cache, Oklahoma near Fort Sill, the Comanche Parkers hold an annual family reunion. And they’ve sent emissaries to each other’s families each year and they trade a silver bowl.
I was invited to the one in Oklahoma at first. People were fabulous there. They’re very generous and warm. They do a pow wow in front of Quanah’s old home, the Star House. And then my wife and I went to the Texan one in Groesbeck, Tex. a couple of months later. So there is a contemporary moment, and the book ends with an epilogue about the modern Parker family and who they are. And they too, they take the stories of Cynthia Ann and Quanah and they’re both very proud of them and they retell them. It’s their way of explaining who they are and why they have the attitudes that they have about their ancestors and about being Texans. To be a Parker in Texas is to be a member of a first family—it’s a big deal. And they love to tell that story. So it turned out it did have a very contemporary angle.
The story that is told in The Searchers is sort of, maybe based on the Cynthia Ann Parker abduction case. How did the movie come to be and how faithful is it to the facts that we know from the 19th centur?
The key person in this transition is Alan LeMay. And he’s a classic Hollywood screenwriter—he comes to Hollywood to make a bundle of money and some years he does really well and some years he’s starving but by the early ‘50s he’s fed up with Hollywood. He hasn’t really been that successful. And he’s filming a B movie that he’s directing in the Texas Panhandle when he hears about Cynthia Ann and Quanah. He’s not that interested in the abducted young person. He’s more interested in the uncle who searched for her over the years, Uncle James, who was an interesting, complicated, blustery figure—a drinker but also a Baptist minister: kind of an outlaw, really. And Alan takes this, creates a fictional nephew to go along with the uncle, and he follows them. His interest is in the impact of the abduction and the violence on the family that survives.
He writes a very successful novel. And at this point John Ford’s people come along. Ford was the great director of westerns. He was a very complex guy. If you loved him, he couldn’t really embrace that too well and so he would challenge you. He was physical at times when he was drunk. Maureen O’Hara, in her memoir, tells a story of him punching her over the face at a Christmas party at his house. He was physically abusive to people and there’s some physical abuse in The Searchers, in the film,of the Comanche woman who’s supposedly Martin’s wife briefly. He just was that kind of person. But these folks kept working with him, and the reason was because they had some respect for him, or some affection for him. John Wayne didn’t need John Ford. By that point, we’re talking 1955, Wayne is the biggest box office attraction in America. He’s doing Ford a favor. But whenever John Ford called him up, whether it was to make a movie, or to appear in the Christmas pageant at some hospital (and there’s this great photo in the book of Ford, Wayne, and Santa Clause on stage, and I captioned it something like “Ford, Wayne, and a friend”), Wayne would go. Whatever Ford wanted, Wayne would hop to, and that was because Wayne was an incredibly generous person and incredibly loyal, but also because he knew when he was working with John Ford, he stretched and did his best performances.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.