The lives of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, his wife, Libbie, and a 15-year-old Kansas farmer’s daughter converge in this historical novel about the American frontier.
Soli (The Last Good Paradise, 2016, etc.) writes of an angsty Gen. “Autie” Custer pushing into the American West in the post–Civil War era, looking to retain his glory in a new kind of battle. Soli’s braided narrative includes the historical figures of Custer and Libbie and opens with Anne, a fictional 15-year-old who was captured in an Indian raid on her Kansas homestead, where “it was necessary to work the fields with hoe in one hand and rifle in the other.” The frontier is rough, especially for women. Anne’s family is murdered, and she is held for years by the Cheyenne; Soli’s writing is unsentimental about life in captivity, where Anne is starved and raped. The book is written in alternating chapters told from the third-person perspectives of Anne, Libbie, and Autie. Both Anne's and Libbie’s lives are harmed by the ambitions and passions of men on both sides of the American/Indian conflict. Anne suffers at the hands of the Cheyenne, but as she bears children, she comes to identify with the Indian way of life. Early in her marriage, Libbie gets an “inkling that her savior might also be her tormentor,” but she's drawn to him. The Custers' is a marriage fraught with doubt and long periods of absence while Autie leads campaigns on the American frontier, and Libbie is filled with “constant, rational dread.” Autie is unquestioning of his duty but a man of impulses: “During the war he could have just as well fought for the Confederate cause; he had as many friends on both sides. Now he did not know why he fought the Indians, some of whom he also counted as friends, except that he was told to do so.” Anne prays for rescue, but when it comes, it brings more heartache and men who want to use her.
A sober and memorable take on the American West: its opportunities for men to wage war against each other and the land and the devastation the men’s ambition wrought upon women’s lives.