Reading, reading about a different America

Massachusetts with its seven million inhabitants is slowly opening up after two months of serious lockdown and 87,052 coronavirus cases and 5,862 deaths, 37 of them here in the Berkshires in the western part of the state, where I live, which has seen an unchanged number of deaths for thirteen days.

That’s encouraging. Still, the reopening will last over four phases over several months. We are treading carefully, seeking to avoid a second virus wave. Eventually, our little town, where almost everything has been closed except the supermarkets and the liquor stores, the hospital and the gas stations, will come alive again. I look forward to seeing people, who are not afraid of each other, to having a drink at a bar surrounded by noisy customers, or ordering a favorite Neapolitan pizza, to going to the movies or a museum.

Spring has been unusually cold but, finally, this week has warmed up and summer is approaching. But it will be a summer like no one else, at least for a very long time, for it will be a summer without all that the Berkshires ordinarily has to offer: the Boston symphony at Tanglewood, serious dance at Jacob’s Pillow, museums like MassMoca, theater like Shakespeare & Company – all closed and with cancelled summer programs.

It’s been quiet here for the past months and it looks like it will continue to be quiet for quite some time. Actually, I have not minded the quiet, cooking and eating well, taking a walk, obsessively following the day’s corona news, and then reading and reading…The bookstores and the libraries have also been closed, but I have called Matt at his “The Bookstore” in neighboring Lenox and ordered books, to pick them up curbside a couple of days later.

And so, I have and have made a big, new discovery — Pekka Hämäläinen — about as Finnish a name as there is. Born, raised, and educated in Helsinki, Finland’s capital, he somewhere along the way became interested in early North American history, particularly Native American history, taught at universities in Texas and California before becoming Rhodes Professor of American History at University of Oxford and conducting research on nomadic empires in world history.

His two books, Comanche Empire from 2008 and Lakota AmericaA New History of Indigenous Power from 2019 — both published by Yale University Press — have been true revelations and given me a new and different perspective on America and American history.

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Comanche Empire, which won the 2009 Bancroft Prize in American history, has been called “revisionist” history, revisionist, maybe, because it looks at American history from the point of view of its original people, the American Indians. It’s about an empire, Hämäläinen writes, which did not exist according to conventional history, but, in fact, ruled the southern plains in the American Southwest (Texas, New Mexico, northern Mexico) in the 18th and 19th centuries, defeating all the other tribes, including the Apaches, and restraining and overshadowing the Spanish, French, Mexicans, and Anglo/Euro-Americans. The Comanches formed an “interregional power with imperial presence” reaching “unparalleled heights of political and economic influence, material wealth, and internal stability” until their final defeat in the Texas Panhandle in 1875.

That defeat occurred just a year before the American Indians’ last big victory, up north at Little Bighorn in Montana, when the Lakota/Sioux-led forces killed General Custer and all his two hundred men. That victory, “Custer’s Last Stand,” led, in 1890, to the Wounded Knee Massacre and the final end of Lakota power in the West. The story of the Lakotas, as Hämäläinen tells it, from their beginning around the Great Lakes to rulers of the northern plains led by famous chiefs such as Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse, is perhaps more widely known than the story of the Comanches, but it is just as riveting and just as impressive as a scholarly endeavor.

Both are, simply, beautiful books, and my biggest reading discovery during these days of coronavirus. Thank you, Pekka!