Blood is thicker than water, but friendship is perhaps thickest of all, particularly when it acts as a poultice for seemingly unhealable wounds.
Relating large events in the guise of paired persons, friends or enemies, is an old storytelling strategy, not much used these days. Stillman (Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History, 2012, etc.) neatly revives it in this portrait of the uncomplicated, mutually admiring friendship of the Lakota leader Sitting Bull and William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill. Adding a third to them in the form of the sharpshooter and all-around interesting person Annie Oakley, the author looks at the clash of cultures and how each character resolved or sometimes ignored differences to form bonds of respect. Along the way, as is her special talent, Stillman places these and other characters at the center of major events that they perhaps did not know were major at the time. In one fine moment, she profiles Custer’s horse, Comanche, noting that the poor beast, drafted onto the pack train “in spite of retirement,” was also an unwitting witness to the massacre of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee. Acknowledging the terrible coincidence that terrible things have tended to happen to Native people at the time of “important holidays of the white man,” Stillman gives an account of the tragic murder of Sitting Bull that’s as good as any in the literature. She closes by observing how the lives of her three principals can be seen in the context of the still ongoing “journey of healing our original sin—the betrayal of Native Americans,” a journey that requires continued goodwill, to say nothing, perhaps, of a revival of the Ghost Dance to sing peace into the world.
Thoughtful and thoroughly well-told—just the right treatment for a subject about which many books have been written before, few so successfully.