A spiritual swan song in the Plainsmen series from frontier novelist Johnston (Wind Walker, 2000, etc.), who died March 25 in Billings, Montana. Bittersweet about the West, and with a heart ripped from a bloody Big Sky sunset, Johnston conveys in steely prose a chill, rain-bitten vision of overarching tragedy. It’s 1877, the old hunting grounds have been surrounded and stripped of buffalo, and there’s little left worth fighting for after Crazy Horse’s defeat of Custer at Little Big Horn. Seeking to understand Crazy Horse at a more complex level than the traditional portrait of a strange mystic granted a tragic vision quest, the author retraces his subject’s footsteps and sucks up his life from the deep snow and the land itself. He goes beyond the image of the undefeated leader who in triumph surrendered his Lakota to the Army to find the flesh-and-blood man, who nonetheless looms larger than a mere mortal and in no way surrenders his mythical status. Every wise word Crazy Horse speaks seemingly comes through a fist pressed hard against his chest. The story turns on his death, variously reported, which Johnston renders as a tragic passion play, with Crazy Horse bayoneted from behind, “the crimson of sunset” on the guard’s blade.
Says Johnston: “He is a thousand winds that still blow.” Can’t beat that.