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