BOOK REVIEW — Being in the Christmas reading spirit and all, I thought a second chance for Larry McMurtry’s Custer was in order.
It’s every bit as disappointing now as it was last summer when I first read it.
Keep in mind I’m a major McMurtry fan. Lonesome Dove, The Wandering Hill, Streets of Laredo, Anything for Billy, Buffalo Girls, Dead Man’s Walk — I’ve read them all, and more.
McMurtry should have left Custer alone unless he was going to weave another work of historical fiction. For whatever reason, he decided instead to attempt a non-fiction treatment of George Armstrong Custer’s character and untimely demise.
It’s been done many times before, and much better. I’m by no means a Custer expert, but I’ve read a few Custer biographies, including Killing Custer by James Welch, Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen E. Ambrose, and what is arguably the most in-depth and scientific examination of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the events and politics preceding it — Centennial Campaign – The Sioux War of 1876 by John S. Gray.
I even have a dog-eared paperback copy of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee from the 1970s, and once took a road trip to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (and have a T-shirt to prove it).
All of which gives me just enough knowledge of Custer to know when he’s getting the bum’s rush.
McMurtry’s problem, I think, is that he figured he needed to do something different, to reveal the “real” Custer. In trying to explain his purpose, McMurtry writes, “A historian, of course, can be clear and wrong, but clarity, in my view, is the one thing the historian or biographer owes his or her reader. I hope I can achieve it here.”
What McMurtry achieves instead is a muddy and stereotypical perspective of Custer as a reckless, ruthless glory seeker leading his troops to slaughter. Others, especially Gray, have demonstrated much more clearly what actually happened and why, but it’s not so much McMurtry’s opinion of Custer that’s frustrating as his haphazard method of stating it.
He inserts comparisons with contemporary military leaders that are of no consequence or help in understanding Custer. He jumps around from decade to decade, personality to personality, and focuses way too much attention on belittling Libby Custer’s lifelong defence of her husband.
McMurtry’s cryptic, folksy writing style, which works so well in fiction, feels odd and often insubstantial in a book that’s supposed to provide us with insights into one of the most famous characters in American history.
His conclusion is that the Battle of the Little Bighorn “was really the beginning of the end for Native American culture.”
Hardly a revelation (though a reading of Bury My Heart suggests otherwise), and certainly not anything that lives up to the cover promo’s promise of “an expansive, agile, and clear-eyed reassessment of the iconic general’s life and legacy.”
The best thing about McMurtry’s Custer is the photos, which make it an OK coffee-table book but not much more.
Custer, by Larry McMurtry, Simon and Schuster, 173 pages.