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Editorial Reviews

Nathaniel Philbrick’s brilliant book concludes with an epilogue surveying the historiographical pendulum-swing undergone by the reputation of Colonel Custer and received wisdom surrounding his fate and the battle of Little Bighorn. The Last Stand is as much an investigation into myth-making as it is a straightforward history, and Philbrick charts a course between different extremes of opinion, allowing for a three dimensional portrayal of both sides. Philbrick compares several historical accounts and while not dismissing any nor presenting a definitive revision, he clearly describes the ambiguity around different points in the story, and leaves the decision-making up to the listener’s informed imagination.
Philbrick has achieved one of two great things with this book. The first is his masterful handling of the material at his disposal, and his ability to spin the narrative thread through the build-up to Little Bighorn and the chaos and confusion of the climactic battle. With the help of George Guidall’s assured delivery, the listener never loses sight of the battle’s development, even though the author has a habit of suddenly shifting the narrative back and forth in time and pausing the action to delve into the back stories of even the most minor character.
His other achievement is to bring nuance to the experience of the Sioux and Cheyenne Indian nations – this is, of course, as much their story as it is of western expansionism. His depictions of Sitting Bull, as well as the trackers, warriors, wives, and daughters are all embraced into the main storyline. Hand in hand with this approach is Philbrick’s evocation of the landscape; the nautical theme of his previous books means that he can here write of the Great Plains as if he’s describing the shifting moods of the sea. Again, Guidall delivers these passages beautifully, highlighting the timelessness of the setting, and reinforcing our continued fascination with this epochal page in history.
“Hindsight makes Custer look like an egomaniacal fool,” Philbrick writes with understatement, “but...he came frighteningly close to winning the most spectacular victory of his career.” Note the use of “frighteningly” — it’s that ambiguity towards Custer’s story that gives depth to this book, a trait shared by most great histories, of which this is certainly one. —Dafydd Phillips
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Publisher's Summary

The best-selling author of Mayflower sheds new light on one of the iconic stories of the American West.
Little Bighorn and Custer are names synonymous in the American imagination with unmatched bravery and spectacular defeat. Mythologized as Custer's Last Stand, the June 1876 battle has been equated with other famous last stands, from the Spartans' defeat at Thermopylae to Davy Crockett at the Alamo.
In his tightly structured narrative, Nathaniel Philbrick brilliantly sketches the two larger-than-life antagonists: Sitting Bull, whose charisma and political savvy earned him the position of leader of the Plains Indians, and George Armstrong Custer, one of the Union's greatest cavalry officers and a man with a reputation for fearless and often reckless courage.
Philbrick reminds listeners that the Battle of the Little Bighorn was also, even in victory, the last stand for the Sioux and Cheyenne Indian nations. Increasingly outraged by the government's Indian policies, the Plains tribes allied themselves and held their ground in southern Montana. Within a few years of Little Bighorn, however, all the major tribal leaders would be confined to Indian reservations.
Throughout, Philbrick beautifully evokes the history and geography of the Great Plains with his characteristic grace and sense of drama. The Last Stand is a mesmerizing account of the archetypal story of the American West, one that continues to haunt our collective imagination.
©2010 Nathaniel Philbrick (P)2010 Penguin
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
3 out of 5 stars
By N. Rogers on 07-03-17


I expected to like this book more. It appeared to be well-researched, but the narrative itself was disappointing. Somehow I didn't engage. I listened carefully and found it somewhat interesting, but an episode in history that should have been truly exciting was instead a slog.

I felt the same about Mayflower by the same author, so perhaps my issue with the book is a matter of style. I was highly interested in both subjects so I'm sorry that I wasn't more enthusiastic while listening to it. The narrator was very good, but he wasn't able to overcome the writing.

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11 of 15 people found this review helpful

3 out of 5 stars
By Ross on 12-01-16

Interesting, but uncharacteristically weak

I have, over the past several months, become an ardent fan of Nathaniel Philbrick. He has a gift for weaving astonishing amounts of information together in a way that is convincing, fascinating, and deeply human.

I had high hopes for Last Stand after Philbrick's spectacular work on Valiant Ambition and In the Heart of the Sea. Philbrick's talent for storytelling combined with one of the most famous stories in American history seemed like a perfect union. I'm sad to report that the book did not meet my expectations.

To start, the book does a poor job of humanizing George Armstrong Custer. While Philbrick typically develops his characters rather deeply by delving into often unknown areas of their pasts, Last Stand spends only a minimum amount of time doing so for Custer. There is little mention of his childhood, his time at West Point, or his experience during the Civil War. These things are mentioned, but mostly only in the form of anecdotes--thin snapshots of Custer's deeper story. In fact, the book does a considerably better job of humanizing Custer's (admittedly fascinating) wife, fellow officers, and opponent, Sitting Bull. I appreciated these efforts, but I would have liked to delve deeper into Custer himself. By the time Custer died toward the very end of the book, I still felt disconnected from him in a way that greatly lessened the climax's impact.

Speaking of the battle, Last Stand takes an extraordinarily long time to arrive at the titular moment on the banks of the Little Big Horn. That delay would be fine if the chapters leading up to the disaster were focused on setting the stage for an emotional punch, but, with a few notable exceptions, they are not. Instead, Philbrick, a man with an innate talent for distilling vast quantities of information into digestible morsels, seems to get strangely lost in minutia--and especially geographic and hierarchical minutia--that left me feeling lost, out of my depth, and somewhat frustrated. Perhaps this complaint is simply a function of my own ignorance, but it's a significant enough departure from Philbrick's usual flow to merit a mention.

The good news is that the last section of the book about the battle itself is spectacular. So spectacular, in fact, that it actually amplified my frustration with the book's slow, meandering method of arriving at the event itself. Here, in the dusty, blood-soaked hills of Montana, Philbrick is at his best. And his best is so good that I would still recommend this book to those interested in the Battle of the Little Big Horn despite its shortcomings.

As a final note, I found the narrator adequate. Not spectacular, but adequate. His voice and inflection don't fit Philbrick's writing as well as those of Scott Brick, who narrates many other Philbrick audio books, but he does a decent enough job to avoid being a distraction.

I enjoyed Last Stand in the end, but I had to work for that enjoyment more than I would have liked. It's definitely not Philbrick's strongest showing. That said, it's still a cut above the average historical tone. Western history buffs should definitely take a look.

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11 of 15 people found this review helpful

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