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Arts History with the gloves off

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Larry McMurtry explores an America haunted by massacres

“If we know anything about man,” writes Larry McMurtry in this grim but stirring little book, “it’s that he’s not pacific.” As evidence, the Pulitzer Prize-winner points to six famous massacres that took place in the West after 1830, beginning with the Sacramento River Massacre of 1846 and ending with the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Drawing on his prodigious reading and the memory of growing up in Texas, McMurtry brings these terrible times back to life, gory deathbed scenes and all. “What massacres usually do,” he writes straight off, “is reduce human beings to the condition of meat, though the bits of meat will be less tidily arranged than the cuts would normally be in a decent butcher shop.”

It sounds like hyperbole, but Oh What a Slaughter bears out this description with its synthesis of history. The Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred when a wagon train passed through Utah and was ambushed; 140 people were killed, some of them children. The event has recently re-entered the news, thanks in part to a flurry of new books on the subject, including Sally Denton’s American Massacre and Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. Summarizing his reading, McMurtry writes that “These various studies also attempt to determine why the massacre happened and—biggest and most intractable question—who, if anyone, in the Mormon hierarchy ordered the killing. For nearly 150 years the finger of inquiry has been pointed at Brigham Young.”

“What massacres usually do

is reduce human beings

to the condition of meat.”


– Larry McMurtry

Kick the dirt aside with your boot and the stain of murder is everywhere in the West—and toward the end of the century much of it involved forcibly removing Indians from their land. The Wounded Knee Massacre was an instance in which the fear of Indian uprising was so powerful it led to wholesale killing. One hundred Indian warriors camped in the same spot was about 100 too many. And “Once the soldiers began to fire into the crowd, a frenzy developed that was not much different from the killing frenzies at the other massacres,” writes McMurtry. “Fear, nervousness, blind rage all contributed to a force that was soon unstoppable ... it takes only one vague, perhaps accidental, action to start a violent spasm of killing.”

Oh what a Slaughter:
Massacres in the American West:
1846-1890


By Larry McMurtry

Simon & Schuster
$25, 178 pages
ISBN: 074325077X

In moments like these, one understands why it is important for novelists to try their hand at history—something McMurtry has been doing for years. As fans of his tremendous fiction know, he has an eye for detail and sympathy for human suffering. Though this book isn’t a comprehensive study—the Marias River Massacre gets a scant four pages—it puts enough information on this battlefield for the reader to understand why these events still haunt the earth so.


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