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Big Horn Tale 

Glenn Boyer uses the historical novel format to tell a story of George Armstrong Custer's life

Those familiar with Glenn Boyer know him as a major chronicler of the Wyatt Earp legend and, less controversially, the author of a series of well-researched Western novels involving actual people and events. Boyer now takes the meticulous research and the controversy to a new topic--George Armstrong Custer.

The charge of "revisionist history" will be leveled. Any history that brings forth new material or viewpoints is always "revisionist." Losers don't write history, but sometimes, future writers re-examine popular myths.

No one has gone through more myths than George Armstrong Custer. From superhero to super villain, from great cavalry leader to military dolt, from well-liked commander to hated martinet, there are almost as many Custers as there have been books written and movies made about him. Boyer's Custer is far closer to the earlier Errol Flynn version than the many of the pathetic caricatures drawn since.

Boyer has chosen the historical novel to tell the story, as he did before with Wyatt Earp's Tombstone Vendetta, and he again does so through the eyes of a fictional character. Tom Ballard is Boyer's device to place you at critical moments at the Battle of the Little Big Horn and to assess the major players.

Ballard is a young Minneapolis street urchin almost killed by a coach propelled by Gen. Alfred Terry. Terry, John Gibbon, George Crook and Custer were just some of the generals reduced in rank after the Civil War, trying to get their stars back, who would be part of the Sioux campaign of 1876.

Terry makes young Tom his ward, and the kid gets a dose of Army life, along with the characters who make it up. Through Tom, you get Boyer's view of the dramatis personae of the gringo side of the Little Big Horn and other neat Western lore about everything from guns to horses.

Tom grows wealthy, lives long and investigates what really happened that day. This is presented through a series of flashbacks from 1945, including the wild-but-plausible act of dropping a commemorative wreath from a Jenny over the battlefield site for the 50th anniversary in 1926. (There was an actual reunion there with the survivors of the campaign. Most Indians stayed away, fearing retribution.)

Boyer isn't the first Tucsonan to publish a major Custer novel. Michael Blake, better known for Dances With Wolves, chose a fictional, first-person journal kept by Custer in Marching to Valhalla. Like Boyer, Blake understands the scapegoating and scurrying that occurred after the debacle and believes Custer got a bad rap.

Ballard presents Terry, Custer's commander, as a dandy not into field service. Gibbon was honest, but acted like an old lady. Crook was inept. President Grant couldn't keep track of all the sleaze in his administration, including that generated by his own Army officer brother. And Grant wasn't pleased about the potential testimony of his once favored subordinate Custer on the subject.

Ballard loved all the Custers, with a special warm spot for Liddy (the widow who lived until 1933 and tirelessly promoted her husband's memory). Like most, he spotted the craven streak in Major Reno, but unlike others, his heaviest hits fall on Captain Frederick Benteen.

Benteen has always been treated well as the man who bailed out the survivors after Custer's fall and Reno's failure. Not so here. Ballard is merciless in dissecting him and the others who tried to lay the whole debacle on Custer, as well as analyzing the depth of Benteen's dislike of Custer and its impact on his actions.

Had Benteen and Reno performed as Custer expected and ridden straight to the sound of the guns, would the Indians have behaved differently and ran, as they had so many other times? What if Terry and Gibbon had been a day's march closer, as Custer thought? Or what if Terry had let Custer know where he was, or if Crook had let everybody know that he'd almost been wiped out himself earlier? Custer has been criticized for years for dividing his force into three parts. Yet his commander, Terry, did exactly the same.

All that and much more makes this great suppositional history. More important, it's wildly entertaining. Custer groupies will either love or hate it. Those who just like a well-told story will simply enjoy it. And its theses will have an impact on the Custer legend.

More by Emil Franzi

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