A debut historical novel from U.S. Marine Sumrall that retells the story of Custer’s “Last Stand” in savage detail.
Little Big Horn is as familiar a battle as any in American history. The utter failure of the 1876 campaign, in which U.S. Army Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led a force of some 700 cavalry soldiers against a much larger number of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors, has lodged it in the nation’s mythology. It stands out against its larger historical context, the Great Sioux War, which was actually a total victory for the American government. Still, the conflict made heroes out of some Native American leaders, including Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota holy man whose showdown with Custer lies at the center of this novel. Sumrall’s version of Sitting Bull is drawn straight from legend; he’s a powerful magician who, through ancient rites, can channel gods and see the future, and he spends much of the book in a trance, mutilating whatever is at his disposal. The novel gives Sitting Bull’s warriors similarly dramatic treatment, and, with a few exceptions, they are more creatures than men: muscly, painted killers who feast on human flesh. Custer, on the other hand, is all-too-human—an egomaniac with presidential aspirations. Although readers are told that Custer is a great war hero, Sumrall makes no effort to make any of the lieutenant-colonel’s command decisions seem reasonable. The book distractingly focuses on sexually transmitted diseases; Custer himself has a gonorrheal infection, and the rest of his command is syphilitic. One very exciting battle scene is interrupted when a soldier leaves his post to painfully relieve himself. The novel does contain some engaging historical details, such as a description of the Far West steamboat (“The Far West had set numerous speed records and had the ability to crawl over sandbars by use of steam capstans and spars”), as well as a few memorable images that stick in the imagination, as when Maj. Marcus Reno, with brain matter and blood covering his face, refuses to dismount his horse when faced with a charging band of warriors. However, the novel is too poorly structured for these moments to coalesce into an intelligible whole.
novel about a landmark battle that’s too disorganized to make anything of its