Hero or Hatchet Man?

When you pick up "Blood and Thunder," Hampton Sides's new history of how the U.S. government almost destroyed the Navajo Nation in the 1800s, you can't help thinking, "Here we go again" All the usual suspects are present. Again, government and military leaders, besotted with the idea of Manifest Destiny, are unapologetic land-grabbers, and the Navajos are victims of the white man's treachery. But Sides, to his credit, doesn't stop there. Resisting the impulse to think that he's wiser than the people whose story he narrates, he concentrates instead on the mysteries and contradictions in human behavior that compose the heart of all good story-telling. He points out, for example, that the Navajos, while admirable in many ways, were notorious livestock thieves. And they had no problem with slavery, as long as they were doing the enslaving. So things get complicated in a hurry, and in this story, complicated is good. And the man at the heart of it was as complicated as they come.

Christopher (Kit) Carson was legendary almost before he was out of his 20s (he even gets a shout-out in "Moby-Dick"). A skilled hunter, trapper, scout and explorer, he guided John Charles Fremont on the exploratory expeditions that earned Fremont the nickname "The Pathfinder" (when the true pathfinder was Carson). He admired the Native Americans he lived among (two of his three wives were Indian), and they in turn respected a man who took the trouble to learn their customs and languages. One Navajo called him "a very pure White Man." And yet, he was not just a more than occasional--and completely remorseless--Indian killer, but the point man for the Navajos' removal from their lands. He was truly a man caught between cultures. Though able to "read" almost any landscape in which he found himself, he was illiterate. Confident in the wilderness, he floundered in a city, such as Washington, where his insecurities put him at the mercy of men who were in no way his equal. No man ever loved the wilderness more than Carson, and no one ever did more to help, unwittingly, to destroy it.

Whenever Carson appears, "Blood and Thunder" takes off. When he exits, it drags. Sides never settles for one word or one anecdote when he can use two or three. But verbosity is a minor sin when set against his superb description of a government's arrogant invasion of foreign territory, and its subjugation of people it never bothers to understand. This is a cautionary tale with no expiration date.