On a hot early summer day 142 years ago, a column of soldiers led by a daring cavalry officer known to his friends and family as Autie filed into a Montana coulee. None of them emerged, felled to a man by a confederation of Cheyenne and Sioux warriors. The column’s Indian scouts had foreseen the slaughter, saying that the medicine against the whites was too strong. “‘Ridiculous,’ Custer said, but he knew the opposite.”
So writes Tatjana Soli toward the end of her new novel, The Removes, a reimagining of life on a violent frontier as led by very different characters. At the heart of the story is George Armstrong Custer, whose name, all these years later, remains a byword for arrogant foolhardiness. Other characters included Custer’s wife, Libby, who lived out a long life in the shadow of his death, as well as a young white woman called Anne, taken captive by the Cheyenne and later “rescued from the heathen inferno,” as an insistently pious preacher puts it. All come together on the vast canvas of the prairie, where death and travail await them under the burning sun.
“When I write about history,” Soli says, “I often think about things that are going on today. We see many of the same things happening today as were happening in Custer’s time, war and racism and violence, a huge divide that doesn’t seem to be healing. You can see the roots of other tragedies in Custer’s story, which come from our insistence on riding roughshod over other people with our ideas of what should be.” For that reason, she says, she sees Custer not as that byword or as a symbol, but “as an actual human being.” She adds, “Was he a great guy? No. He was a flawed and vain man, but not a monster.”
Soli’s debut came only eight years ago, with the publication of The Lotus Eaters, a novel set in the context of another kind of Little Big Horn, the war in Vietnam. The spirit of that novel, she says, owes much to a mentor, Robert Stone, whose work she regards as a model of writing at the intersection of fact and fiction.
But The Removes links to Vietnam in another way, for as she researched her first novel she found references to the Seventh Cavalry, which had moved from horses to helicopters a century after the annihilation of Custer’s command and was fighting in what the soldiers still called Indian Country. The connection, she found, was too strong to dismiss, and so she traveled back in time, reading Custer’s own memoir Life on the Plains, captivity narratives, and other accounts. While the history in The Removes pays careful attention to the evidence, her effort to get inside the difficult, angst- ridden mind of Autie may not pass muster with hard-nosed Custerologists—there is such a thing, really—for making such imaginative leaps. Still, it’s precisely Soli’s blend of fact and speculation that provides a useful bridge between our time and his, a shaping of otherwise dry facts into lucid, moving story.
With The Removes, her fourth novel, one goal still eludes Tatjana Soli: “I keep wanting to write the perfect short novel, perhaps a novella,” she says. “The Removes was supposed to be a short novel, but it just kept growing.” She promises to try for it again with her next book, now in progress, a story set in—well, yet another death-haunted place, Iraq. Watch for it in a couple of years.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.