Restless Indians meet hard-bitten pioneers, bluecoats, and bureaucrats.
The hero is again Doc McGillycuddy, introduced in O’Brien’s The Contract Surgeon (1999). He’s been roaming the Great Plains for a few years and seen his fair share of battle and scrapes, including the fresh aftermath of Little Bighorn. Now, he’s ready for a regular salary in order to provide for his ailing wife, so he heads back to Washington to apply for the medical corps of the regular army—and gets more than he bargained for. Having issued his opinions on the need to turn the conquered Plains Indians into good citizens of the United States (“most Sioux . . . would like to put the past behind them and move, as they say, down the white man’s road”), he’s pressed into service as the Indian agent for the newly created Pine Ridge Reservation—formerly the Red Cloud Agency, so named after a particularly troubling leader, who lately has been up to his plotting again. O’Brien peppers his narrative with useful bits of history and anthropology, and his story moves easily along a course fraught with peril for most of the principals as Red Cloud’s followers begin to drift northward to start a new war against the whites, who have been pouring into the Black Hills in search of gold. After McGillycuddy has armed a band of Sioux policemen to serve as his lieutenants, O’Brien writes that “There were a thousand possible sparks in this wild landscape, and McGillycuddy, who . . . was entrusted to predict where those sparks might be and to douse them quickly, wondered if he had not fanned one instead.” A great prairie fire does indeed ensue, the product of contemporary politics and no end of cultural misunderstanding, all of which O’Brien does a good job of explaining.
A capable western in the vein of McMurtry, not L’Amour. Well suited to those who like their historical fiction more historical than fictitious.