Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Hampton Sides

I continue to enjoy Hampton Sides's Blood and Thunder. Sides' skill is not in reframing our understanding or unearthing new information. Instead he is storyteller and in this he succeeds brilliantly. He provides excellent descriptions of the land and the environment in which his characters live. You can really feel the change in the land as Kearney's army marches from Missouri to New Mexico to California.

He also provides engaging character sketches. Like HW Brands, Sides uses a few individuals, in this case Kit Carson, General Kearney and Navajo leader Narbona to tell the overall story. There is a downside to this approach. It overemphasizes the role of a few individuals in the overall story and underplays social, political and economic trends. Sides balances his character focus by providing frequent context. Still, it wouldn't be surprising if some readers took away the idea that none of this would have happened without Kit Carson.

Sides keeps the reader engaged with detailed action scenes. He will quickly move the action from the overall story to a minute by minute account of a battle or massacre (and what is amazing is the general level of atrocity.) His description of the small battle of San Pasqual was a highlight.

I think this book is even better than his excellent prior book Ghost Soldiers. That book has a simpler subject, the rescue of American Bataan Death March survivors in 1945, but has the same level of intensity and excitement. I was less enthused by his Americana. That book is a collection of his writings for Outside, NPR and other outlets. These compilations feel like the bloated multi-CD collections that exploded in the 90s. You get a few hits, a number of items included for historical reasons and lots of filler. I liked some of them, but gave up on the book overall as too many weren't working for me.

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