on 25 June 1998
Sandoz does in this book what a hundred modern authors bound by Political Correctness could never accomplish. She puts forth a well written and never-flinching story about the terrible final moments of the Northern Cheyenne. Excellent book. See also: Crazy Horse: Strange One of the Oglallas, another feat.
Ever since I saw the film Little Big Man as a child, I have wanted to read more about the Cheyenne. It was for this reason, with very high expectations, that I bought this book, now as an adult fascinated by history. It was completely satisfying, with clues about their culture, their fate, their system of values, and their behavior. The best part is: I feel very hungry for more.
The story begins a few years after the battle of the Little Bighorn, when the Cheyenne have been taken to a reservation far to the south. They are starving, dying of malaria in a foreign climate, and bitterly disillusioned. On the strength of a promise that they could always leave - which was explicitly denied them when they tried to claim the right - they set out secretly to return to their homeland. The result is a brutal journey that essentially marks the end of their way of life, though some survived to live on reservations. As vengeance, they kill on their way, taking what they need, waging war in accordance with their codes, and suffering mightily in their vain search for freedom and their past way. It is what it is, the final clash with the white man's culture and not sugar-coated or romanticized in the slightest.
This is a very difficult book, in large part because the language is masterfully crafted to reflect the rhythm and manner of Cheyenne speech. It must be read slowly and carefully, almost out loud and perhaps multiple times, like the best Nabokov novel, for narrative texture and aesthetic. There are also very many characters who appear, disappear, and then reappear, which is hard to keep straight. But they are brilliantly drawn, subtle yet consistent, and representatives of pieces of a vanishing culture.
According to the introduction, Sandoz was scrupulous in her desire for accuracy, though many of the supporting documents - some the only copies in existence - were destroyed in fire. It is horribly bleak.