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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/10/09

Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn, by Evan S. Connell

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Message GLloyd Rowsey
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I enjoyed Son of the Morning Star so much, I read it twice. And around the same time, I read two other books that were similar - Black Sea by Neal Ascherson, and And No Birds Sing by Mark Jaffe. The three books are similar, although it's hard to say exactly how. The best I can do is to describe them as non-academic histories which are so well-written and have such compelling central themes that you can't put them down. They're also similarly filled with digressive narratives and descriptions of subjects peripherally related to their main themes, meanderings dear to the heart of fact-freaks like myself. Son of the Morning Star is the name the Sioux gave to George Armstrong Custer, and Evan Connell's near-masterpiece is the best of the three books.

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It resembles an academic book, with an extensive bibliography and useful index, but Connell is not an academic. He's simply a writer of marvelous non-fiction, with varied interests, and there's an entry for him at Wikipedia. Click here. Connell's Custer book is not only a biography of the brilliant Union cavalry officer turned Indian-killer, but a treatment of the historic causes, and many of the historic consequences, of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

I do have one problem with Son of the Morning Star, which incidentally was described as a "masterpiece" by Larry McMurtry in a letter to the New York Review of Books in 1999, a long ten years ago and fifteen years after the book was published. Evan Connell has a lot to say -- and a lot with little good -- about soldiers, the U.S. Government, Indian Agents, Indians themselves, settlers and gold rushers, and the American public. And as a dedicated misanthropist, I thought I had recognized a fellow soul in the author. Until I read Connell's characterization of the "constellation of traits in Custer"...(like)..."a demigod... Siegfried, Roland, Galahad."

Now, I can go with Siegfried and Roland, but Galahad? Of the very few references to women other than Elizabeth Custer in the book's Index, there's Clara Blinn, a kidnapped white who with her infant son was in Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle's village by the WashitaRiver when the Seventh Cavalry massacred it in 1868. Subsequently, the Blinns' bodies were found near the village, the mother shot twice through the head, the infant's body so "little marked" that Connell surmises he was slung against a tree. Mrs. Blinn had got out a note to the U.S. Army pleading to be rescued but as Connell writes: "If Custer knew about this frantic plea, it made no difference...His concern was"the destruction of an enemy stronghold." Custer loved children and animals, fine music, books, and battle, but from the evidence in Son of the Morning Star, he paid very little attention to women, including his dear wife Elizabeth. And that's not my idea of a Galahad.

Maybe I'm picking nits here; maybe that's the way it was out West then; maybe the author's subject was really the battle in some sense, and not George Armstrong Custer. But my overall impression remains: Connell treated Custer considerably more favorably than the groups mentioned above. Accordingly, I think the book contains Custer-puffing and I'd hold back the word masterpiece from describing it.

Nonetheless, this almost-masterpiece by Evan Connell is a hell of a read, and I recommend it unreservedly.

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I have a law degree (Stanford, 66') but have never practiced. Instead, from 1967 through 1977, I tried to contribute to the revolution in America. As unsuccessful as everyone else over that decade, in 1978 I went to work for the U.S. Forest (more...)
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