Larry McMurtry calls his "Custer" a "short life," as opposed to a full-fledged biography or history, the advantage of the short form being that "plain speaking is usually required" from the author.
And it is plain speaking that McMurtry delivers in this modest addition to "Custerology," the same laconic, whimsical voice that makes his novels so entertaining and readable. The effect is as if one is sitting in a small lecture hall, listening as McMurtry tells his stories from a few notes in a rambling style, the account larded with asides but always returning to the central character, of whom it is often revealing and insightful as well as wry and funny.
The book, lavishly illustrated with more than 100 period photographs, paintings and sketches, is built in the usual McMurtry style, with chapters no more than two or three pages long, sometimes shorter than a single page. He frequently diverts to bits of trivia he finds fascinating -- Sitting Bull's obsession with Annie Oakley, for example, and Buffalo Bill Cody's killing of a Cheyenne warrior in Nebraska shortly after Custer and his men died at the Little Big Horn. Cody scalped the Indian, "the first scalp for Custer."
There are asides on Crazy Horse, Gall and Black Kettle, on Fremont and Sheridan and other Indian fighters, on Libby Custer and her complex relationship with George Armstrong Custer and her spirited defense of him after his death.
McMurtry writes that he long has had an interest in Custer and that this book had its origins in the time he spent in Montana in the 1970s. He examines the Boy General's character, his pride and dash and need for glory, but he concedes that this is neither biography nor history. "Bookman" that McMurtry is, he points the reader to a great many fine works that do fit those categories. But he warns, too, that much of the mythology -- such as the report that Custer was smiling when he died -- can be attributed only to "the vast amount of accumulated gossip" about the man, the times and the fateful battle.
The battle of June 25, 1876, when Custer ignored his scouts' warnings and led his 7th Cavalry into the valley of the Little Big Horn, where thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne waited, was indeed a significant historical event, McMurtry writes, worthy of remembrance and reflection.
"The Little Big Horn ... was really the beginning of the end for Native American culture, while at least allowing them one last surge of native pride," he writes. It left Custer dead but made him bigger than life, a Western hero immortalized by crazed press coverage and the quick, wide availability of photographs of Custer, Sitting Bull and other principal characters -- and the mythic, panoramic painting, "Custer's Last Stand," given away by the thousands by the St. Louis brewing company Anheuser-Busch and "hung in virtually every saloon in the land."
Chuck Haga, a longtime writer and columnist for the Star Tribune, lives in Grand Forks, N.D.