Brands tells the story of the settling of the American West. He takes readers from John Jacob Astor's fur trading outpost in Oregon to the Texas Revolution, from the California gold rush to the Oklahoma land rush.
All this nipping and tucking can give the book an episodic feel at times, as we skip from subject to subject, but it does make for a lively pace. And Mr. Brands’ economical, conversational prose serves him well. A professor of history at the University of Texas, he is also a best-selling author and knows how to write in a popular style that draws us in and holds our interest ... The so-called winning of the West is one of the fundamental dramas in American history, and Mr. Brands makes the most of his subject by quoting extensively from the participants’ own accounts ... Mr. Brands also pauses to make some thought-provoking insights, which round out the narrative and present his subject in a fresh light ... Mr. Brands takes pleasure in explaining how things work and has studded the book with illuminating asides ... This isn’t a book of white hats and black hats. Neither does Mr. Brands shy away from the less heroic episodes of western history ... is not intended as the final word on western history. But it is an engaging, eminently readable introduction. Mr. Brands has packed his wagon well. Like a wise westward-bound emigrant, he has taken on board enough beans to sustain us over the long journey, but also left room for a guitar—and plenty of books—to nourish the spirit and mind.
Brands’ sweeping new overview tackles familiar shibboleths but wears its revisionism lightly and never becomes pedantic. Despite the book’s ambitious subtitle, it is not a textbook-style synthetic history...Instead, it is a tapestry of many stories, some familiar and some representative ... In telling familiar tales in new ways, Brands succeeds at something that is hard to do – he provides a broad overview of a complex subject that doesn’t disintegrate into a mélange of disconnected anecdotes. Brands has a writer’s nose for good stories and a historian’s eye for connecting stories together. Along the way, he leads readers through mountain snowstorms, across endless grasslands, and down the rapids of the Colorado River. Dreams of El Dorado is a fantastic place to begin for readers who crave a picture of Western development peopled with famous characters and events, and it’s a fun overview for those familiar with the subject who want to watch a master historian sort fact from fancy.
Although the book’s publication date is in October, Dreams of El Dorado has the feel of a book crafted for the Father’s Day market. Brands’s has a deft narrative touch and a talent for highlighting the human drama undergirding historical events. But Dreams of El Dorado is not challenging history. It is scholarship as entertainment, history as adventure story. The book’s purpose is not to cause the reader to rethink their conventional understanding of the American past, but rather to affirm what on some level they already know. Brands is Cody-like in his treatment of history as a vast theatrical pageant, and unfortunately Turner-esque in consigning the violence against indigenous people to the historical background ... Brands’s book appears on the heels of several other books by popular historians, both inside and outside the academy, that have struggled with making North America’s indigenous peoples meaningful actors in the past ... Brands is too smart a scholar to ignore Native Americans or to reduce them to cardboard stereotypes. But they exist nonetheless as foils to what in his telling emerges as the real story of the American West: white settlers exploring a new landscape and making it their own ... the West was not only won; it also was lost. The place we know today was constructed atop a preexisting indigenous world with a terrifying degree of violence and environmental destruction.