Monday, June 10, 2024

Dee Brown - Showdown at Little Big Horn

I knew of Dee Brown as a historian of Native American peoples. His most famous book is, of course, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Some years ago I also read his excellent account of the Fetterman Massacre. When I recently visited the site of the Little Big Horn battle, fulfilling the ambition of a lifetime, I came away with quite a few souvenirs and several books. Among them was this short work by Brown, which I bought on the basis of the author.

I was surprised to find out that it was not an explicity work of history. Rather it is a fictionalised account of the lead up to the Battle of the Little Big Horn based on testimonials, memoirs and contemporary accounts. After overcoming my surprise, and learning that Dee Brown was also a novelist, I dived in.

The book itself is interesting, but perhaps a little dated. For those not versed in the story of the Little Big Horn it might serve as a good starting point, but the nature of the novel means that it doesn't give any real context. Read a decent history of the Battle and its location within the wider project to destroy the Native Americans in Montana territory first if you want to appreciate the material that Brown uses.

He begins with some relatively minor characters. The journalist Mark Kellogg, who produced a diary and sent regular reports Eastward as Custer's troops travelled. These form the basis of a surprisingly detailed account, as Kellogg wrote almost to the end. Of course Brown has to embellish things with descriptions and context, but it works well. Not all the characters are Europeans. Sitting Bull is one of the more well known historical individuals given a chapter here, but so are less well known ones, such as Bobtail Horse who, with three other Native Americans are said to have held off Custer's troops charge down the Deep Ravine.

Oddly for Dee Brown, the book devolved into sentimentality at the end, with the final viewpoint being that of Comanche, Captain Keogh's horse. The sentimentallity lies mostly of course, with the US Cavalry who lacking any other hero on that field commissioned the horse second in command of the Seventh Cavalry. The irony was not lost on anyone.

Showdown at Little Big Horn is not a particularly great work. Younger readers might find it more interesting, but it lacks Dee Brown's historical knowledge, while retaining his desire to give the Native American people a voice.

Related Reviews

Brown - The Fetterman Massacre
Donovan - A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn
Hämäläinen - Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power
Estes - Our History is the Future
Philbrick - The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties

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