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A Pulitzer Prize Winner Searches for the True Story Behind America’s Greatest Western

by Published on

glenn_frankelTexas’ larger-than-life identity is founded on a number of myths, and few are more compelling than the story of Cynthia Ann Parker. In 1836, the nine-year-old Parker was taken from her north-central Texas home by Comanches, who had raided the Parker homestead and killed her family. She lived with them for 24 years, wedding and giving birth to three children, before being recovered and returned to her family by a group of Texas Rangers.

It’s an old trope–the maiden in distress–but the reality of Parker’s story is infinitely more complex. Pulitzer Prize-winner and director of the University of Texas School of Journalism Glenn Frankel seeks to untangle the complex knots of truth and myth in his recent book The Searchers.

Parker’s abduction would inspire countless retellings, most notably Alan LeMay’s classic 1954 western novel The Searchers, which in turn inspired the 1956 John Wood movie by the same name starring John Wayne. With each retelling, the story changed, got bigger, and more symbolic of Texas identity.

Frankel traces the evolution of the Parker story through the pride and politics of Texas’ pioneer era, poring over early retellings of Parker’s abduction, and follows its ultimate journey to the myth-making machinery of the pulp novel industry and golden-era Hollywood. Throughout, he tells the stories of the people behind the myth, from Cynthia Anne  and her son Quanah Parker, who went on to become famous in western lore as “the last free chief of the Comanches,” to filmmaker John Ford and John Wayne, whose legends are as tied up in the story as the Parkers’ are.

Frankel unwinds the story with a delicate balancing act between the facts surrounding Parker’s abduction and return and an appreciation for the mythology that has grown up around them. This isn’t just an attempt to tell the “true story” of Cynthia Ann Parker–it’s an exegesis of the way myths are made.

The book has been getting rave reviews, with The New York Times calling it “vivid” and “revelatory.”  The Washington Post was similarly impressed, as was CNN, which has an interview with Frankel here.

It’s an especially interesting topic for Texas, and one worth hearing Frankel speak about. He’ll be at Brazos Books in Houston on Thursday the 18th at 7 PM to read from the book and talk about how Texas makes its myths.

  • Adrienne

    This should be interesting reading. I attended Cynthia Ann Parker Elementary in Houston and was always taught the standard tale. However, even as a child, I recognized that she had been among the Comaches longer than she’d been with her white family, and wondered how she truly felt about being ‘rescued’ from the life she’d come to know.

  • bobskis

    The Parker story is also central in Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne: http://www.amazon.com/Empire-Summer-Moon-Comanches-Powerful/dp/1416591052