'Marching to Valhalla,' by Michael Blake. Random House. Hardcover, $23.
By Emil Franzi
CURRENT VAIL RESIDENT Michael Blake's latest historical novel is an imagined journal written by General George Armstrong Custer in the days immediately preceding his death at Little Big Horn. It is, surprisingly, a sympathetic portrayal and accomplishes what Blake states he set out to do--humanize Custer, whose reputation has fallen into great disrepute.
Blake, you may recall, not only wrote the novel Dances with Wolves, but the screenplay for which he won an Oscar. This time he does a much better job of telling what Frederick Remington called "the truth of other times," the yardstick used in judging any historical fiction. Dances with Wolves sucked.
The screenplay, at least, exemplified the same problem from which White Men Can't Jump suffered--both pander to what liberal white folks think another culture is all about. Dances with Wolves was so biased towards the Sioux that the Crow Nation publicly called it racist. It was Kevin Costner, Blake's long-time friend, doing a Chuck Norris/Israeli flick with the Crow as the Palestinians. Those who think it broke new ground in sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans missed most of John Ford's career--try Cheyenne Autumn. Hell, try She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.
But Blake did his homework this time. He'll probably have some militants on his tail for daring to make Custer look human and a reasonable man placed in unreasonable situations. The device Blake chose--a first person narrative--is exceedingly difficult when using an historical figure. The problem is not only the language, but the values that language conveys. What makes the Napoleonic sea novels of Patrick O'Brian or Michael Shaara's Gettysburg of The Killer Angels so magnificent is their authors' total immersion in the era they write about. Blake comes damn close.
There are some minor slips--no one writing in 1876 would use "humankind" in place of "mankind." But Blake did read much of the Custer literature, which is mammoth, including Evan S. Connell's superb Son of the Morning Star, which he fully credits.
Blake gives us in Marching to Valhalla a clear view of what it was like to serve at a high level during "The Indian Wars." That there are clear comparisons to the Vietnam era is Blake's admitted intent. Those in charge in Washington during both periods had a series of policy waffles. They never reconciled the two stated goals of total war with ultimate assimilation. Other options weren't considered. This was clearly difficult for those administering policy, mainly the army. Blake, through Custer's eyes, gives us a view of that frustration.
Blake makes it clear that any policy collapsed over Indian non-compliance. And, unlike Dances with Wolves, this time he discusses the reality that the plains tribes were warrior cultures who thought they could physically stop white encroachment. They didn't petition grievances, they burned farm houses, farmers, and their kids. The genocide went both ways.
Many tribes practiced genocide on each other. That's why Crow and Pawnee scouts worked for the army against the Sioux. The greatest blot on Tucson's history of Native American relations is the Camp Grant Massacre, ably presented by Sinclair Browning in her under-rated novel Enju. While white Tucsonans planned the killing, willing Tohonahs did the actual butchering of Apache children.
One major accusation against Custer is revised fairly. The attack on a Cheyenne village on the Washita in 1868 has given Custer the reputation of being a woman and baby killer. While 103 Cheyenne of all types were killed, 53 were captured and the standing orders were that non-combatants were not to be harmed. When the village of a warrior culture is attacked, expect women and larger children to fight back. Twenty-three of Custer's troops were killed in that action, so it was not exactly a Mai Lai.
Blake takes Custer's "memoir" into other areas: his Civil War service and early success in becoming a general at age 23, his incredible personal bravery, and his devotion (with a major indiscretion involving a Cheyenne woman) to his wife Elizabeth. Libby Custer lived until 1933 and was responsible for much of her husband's long, untarnished image.
Blake is also aware of those other revisionists who claim the Custer massacre resulted from more than personal blunder. The entire campaign was ill-planned and others of higher rank bore much of the responsibility, which the higher-ups successfully pinned on a dead man known for impetuous behavior.
New Line Cinema will make Marching to Valhalla a major film, with Brad Pitt playing Custer. One hopes this screenplay won't be as warped by the politically correct. And Blake is working on a sequel to Dances which I hope will continue to expand his insights into what really happened in the American West. Not bad for a guy who was washing dishes in Bisbee a few years ago.
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