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.
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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Interesting, but uncharacteristically weak
Fascinating, Eye-opening, Tragic
This is a gem of a book that really brings history to life, exploring the complexities of the players and circumstances surrounding a legendarily horrible event, one that often gets flattened to cartoon dimensions. Philbrick avoids the pitfalls that usually attend works on this subject, neither demonizing Custer nor painting him as a superhero. The personalities and motivations of both Sitting Bull and Custer are examined for flaws and virtues, at least as far as the evidence we have will allow, although the author makes it clear that much about the events of June 1876 at Little Big Horn will always be a mystery. The eyewitness accounts of surviving US soldiers and Lakota warriors leap off the page and rattle the bones. If only American history classes were taught with this much thoughtfulness, insight and plain old drama, we'd all be wiser and better off.
And need I even say it? . . . The Great Guidall reads this book as nobody else could!!! As usual his reading is so well crafted that you don't realize you've been under his spell until it's all over. Magic.