For 28 years, the Berlin Wall was more than just the defining feature of a divided city and a divided country; it was the physical embodiment of the conflict between the Eastern and Western worlds. Peter Schneider’s “The Wall Jumper” goes beyond the politics of the wall to explore the historical phenomenon through a different, more personal lens. It reads almost as a series of short stories, narrated by an unidentified man who has lived in West Berlin for 20 years. Initially, he came to the city for work and for a girlfriend but stayed because all the other cities in West Germany now seem to him “artificial” – ironic, considering the man-made structure that splits Berlin in half.
This book is very clearly not just about physical barriers but psychological ones too. At the outset, the narrator describes feeling more affinity with the people who live in New York than with those in the other half of the city he’s lived in for two decades. He also tends to attribute certain qualities to East Berliners – to the annoyance of his friend Robert, who’s from the East but now lives in the West. Robert is described as a “boundary-walker,” someone who rejects both of the identities ascribed to him by the divided city and feels most at home on the border. “The more he crosses from one half of the city to the other,” Schneider writes, “the more absurd the choice seems.” Indeed, there are many wall jumpers like Robert in this story – and not just those who cross the border legally. They include people like Kabe, who lives in West Berlin and has jumped over the wall 15 times, apparently just out of boredom.
It’s almost incomprehensible now that Berlin, the capital of present-day Germany, could be split in two for nearly three decades. Published in 1983, “The Wall Jumper” gives readers some idea of how that separation was possible and captures the mood of the time extraordinarily well.
Valentina Jovanovski, editor
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
By S.C. Gwynne
I find myself rereading S.C. Gwynne’s “Empire of the Summer Moon” every couple of years. It usually happens after, say, a camping trip beside what was once a spring-fed Comanche forward operating base in the Texas Hill Country, or a drive across the Llano Estacado and up Colorado’s Front Range, where Comanche mastery over distance and privation built a true empire. More than once, it’s happened after being chastised for lecturing, with too much graphic detail and zeal, my nine-year-old nephew on what his school isn’t teaching him about the tactics and savagery of the zero-sum battle for the American West. But it’s an exhilarating story that’s indispensable to any account of the roots of modern American power – and one best told, as Gwynne does, unvarnished.
The rise and fall of the Comanche empire is pure geopolitics. The Comanche mastered a new technology (horses) to exploit the one great tactical advantage of the geography of the Great Plains (distance) and dominate its greatest natural resource (the American bison). Their Spartan society rested on these three pillars, enabling them to develop a Mongol-like strike range spanning from Wyoming well into Mexico. The Comanche halted the northward march of the Spanish and westward expansion of the French and subjugated all tribes across an area nearly as large as Western Europe. They saw the inexorable encroachment of white frontiersmen as an existential threat but managed to embarrass Texas settlers and the U.S. military for half a century. And as stories of their tactical brutality filtered back East, they succeeded even in briefly rolling back the frontier.
Once the U.S. military finally caught on to what the intrepid Texas Rangers had long before discovered, the playing field was leveled. With the Comanches already reeling from disease and the wholesale slaughter of the bison, this proved enough to compel holdout bands to cede to Manifest Destiny. The frontier marched on.
Phillip Orchard, analyst