The word epic could eventually suffer the fate of the word awesome: overused to the point of banality, losing its original meaning, trivialized by becoming adopted by popular culture and seeping into the vernacular. In its true sense, epic means of unusually great size or extent. That being the case, George Black’s book Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone lives up to its title, spanning decades, crossing cultures, and describing some of the most spectacular scenery ever beheld. With an unparalleled ability to weave together multitudinous facts and points of view into a compelling and cohesive narrative, Black’s book comes off with the same grandeur as the landscapes he describes and the personalities he brings to life.
This is not just a book about the discovery and exploration of what became Yellowstone National Park; it provides a rich, broad, and deep backstory that gives one a fuller understanding of what, besides its natural wonders, makes Yellowstone such an incredible place. The land of Yellowstone is vividly described as a land of contrasts, from soaring peaks to deep canyons, from monumental and breathtaking cascades to hellish and diabolical landscapes. Likewise, the story of Yellowstone is one of contrasts, with characters both noble and deeply flawed, events both heroic and terrible, and trade-offs of both monumental sacrifice and tragic injustice.
Contrasts and ironies abound. People such as Nathaniel Langford and Lt. Gustavus Doane inspire both veneration as well as condemnation. Doane, the aspiring explorer and intellectual, follows his participation in one of the greatest Indian massacres in United States history – the Marias Massacre of 170 or Blackfoot Indians, mostly women and children – with some of the most soaring descriptions of the awe-inspiring beauties ever penned during the first major exploration of the Yellowstone region in 1870. This exploration was made possible by the massacre, removing the final impediment of Indian opposition that had, in part, plagued earlier attempts. Langford, an ambitious businessman and prominent Montana citizen, is both likable because of his multitudinous talents as a jack-of-all-trades and abhorrent as one of the cruelest vigilantes in the region he was trying to establish and civilize. Black’s robust portrayal of these and other larger than life personalities gives the book its flavor and creates a multi-dimensional depiction of this era of history that mirrors the world of then and now.
One of the most intriguing themes of the book is the depiction of noble ideals achieved through dubious means. The figures in this story are admirable but flawed, and Black makes these people come vividly to life in the great tradition of historians like Shelby Foote and David McCullough. Noble ideals, yes, in the establishment of the world’s first national park; dubious means, in the violence and cruelty suffered because of the clash of civilizations and the triumph of one at the expense of the other. The predominant 19th century themes of exploration, violence, and civilization eventually come together to form a nexus, all three on an inevitable collision course that makes the realization of the establishment of Yellowstone National Park a bittersweet accomplishment, giving one a fuller appreciation of what it took to preserve the beauties of the park and causes one to shed a tear or more when realizing how much blood was spilt and how many injustices committed to obtain this natural wonderland.
Black mixes a tireless and indefatigable tendency towards thorough and critical research (almost 100 pages of notes and bibliography) with an amazing ability and talent as a storyteller of the first rate. His ability to combine the two makes for a riveting, compelling, story that is an absolute must for any library. The breadth of its scope provides not only a history of the Yellowstone which is its main object, but a sweeping view of the history and settlement of the 19th century American West. One of the best books this reviewer has ever read.
This book is recommended to all college libraries and public libraries, especially those with a strong concentration of materials in history of the U.S. West.
Christopher N. Fox is the Catalog Librarian at Brigham Young University-Idaho.