Snapshots Of General Custer

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Evan S. Connell’s best-known novel, Mrs. Bridge , published in 1959, is a portrait of a Midwestern wife and mother of the 1940s whose complacent certitudes inexorably isolate her first from her own children, then from the increasingly uncertain world beyond her tidy Kansas City neighborhood. Toward the end of the book, her son and daughters gone, her husband dead, Mrs. Bridge finds some solace in a family album containing snapshots of the single European trip she and the late Mr. Bridge had managed to take:

“I don’t know whether this would interest you or not,” she would say to guests, picking up the album in both hands, and as she deposited it on her visitor’s lap she would say, “Now, just look at them until you get bored, but for heaven’s sake don’t feel obliged to go through them all.” And she would then hover nearby, anxious to know which pictures were being looked at. Often she would be unable to sit still; she had to look over the visitor’s shoulder, reaching down now and then to say, “That’s the famous old cathedral you’re always hearing about.” Or, “That’s the ocean, of course.” Or, “This was taken from the steps of the National Gallery, and right there—directly behind the man on the bicycle—is where we ate lunch.”

Mrs. Bridge is both funny and harrowing, a mosaic of shrewdly observed, flatly rendered details—her awful discovery of a girlie magazine while putting away her son’s folded shirts, her too adventurous attempt to bake pineapple bread for her husband on the cook’s day off—whose dispiriting pattern she never discerns but which the reader cannot miss.

In recent years Connell has produced two volumes of eclectic historical essays— A Long Desire and White Lantern —in which he employs something of the same technique, spinning colorful versions of explorer’s adventures and scholarly feats out of seemingly disassociated facts, but embellished now with his own observations. Last winter he published Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn . Like Mrs. Bridge , it is filled with wonderful detail. Readers interested in Western history will certainly not be bored with it, though they may be baffled and frustrated. For, despite the energy and elegance of Council’s writing and the diligence of his research, this volume, like Mrs. Bridge’s photograph album, remains finally a collection of raw material for a moving story its compiler evidently could not find a coherent way to tell.

 

The book begins and ends on the Custer battlefield, but in between it twists and meanders and turns back upon itself as bewilderingly as the Little Big Horn. Nearly everything Connell gleaned from his reading seems to be included, and he read a great deal: his bibliography lists upward of 420 titles. There are disquisitions on every imaginable aspect of the Custer campaign; of the Plains Indians wars of which it was the most memorable event; of the lives led by the various tribes against which those wars were waged; and of the myths that have grown up over the intervening decades. Among a thousand other things, we learn that roasted puppy tastes like porpoise; that Sitting Bull’s name more properly signifies “a wise and powerful being who [has] taken up residence among them”; that life for the troopers between punitive expeditions was so empty that they got up battles between colonies of red and black ants (the red ones were fiercest, the author reports).

Much of this material is riveting, if tangential to the story of the Custer fight. There is, for example, the tale of Mrs. Nash, a 7th Cavalry laundress at Fort Abraham Lincoln who married several troopers in succession over a number of years. While her final husband, a private named Noonan, was away on a scouting expedition, she fell ill and died. Friends preparing the body for burial discovered she had been a man. When Noonan returned and heard this astonishing news, the grieving husband bravely maintained for a time that his wife had been of the proper sex, then shot himself.

Connell’s eye for telling detail is as sharp as ever, though he too often vitiates its raw power with his own arch and anticlimactic commentary; like Mrs. Bridge, he can’t resist peering over the reader’s shoulder, pointing up the obvious. Again and again, however, he does spot the little vivid things that traditional historians rarely see but which can help make the difference between literature and mere scholarship. Describing the Medicine Lodge Creek conference, for instance, a gaudy in-gathering of some five thousand Indians of the Southern Plains tribes for peace talks in 1867, he notes that “after Missouri senator John B. Henderson finished embracing various Indians his nose was yellow, one cheek retained a red streak, and the other cheek had several green tattoos.” He reports that one of the verminous soldiers’ brothels that stood on the mud flat across the Missouri from Fort Lincoln was called “My Lady’s Bower”; that Comanches especially liked sugar and, when they could get it, used half a cup in every mug of coffee they drank; that Custer’s favorite staghound, Bl’fccher, was a casualty of his 1868 assault on Black Kettle’s Cheyenne village on the Washita. (Excited by all the noise and action, the big, overeager dog “decided to join the Indians,” Connell writes, “and got an arrow through the ribs.”)