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A Nonfiction Notable–“The Last Stand” by Nathaniel Philbrick

I heard Nathaniel Philbrick speak in June, and so I was especially interested in reading his “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Big Horn,” one of the nonfiction titles on this year’s Notable Books List.

The Last Stand presents a daunting narrative–the history of US treatment of Native Americans, especially those of the Northern Plains, of Chief Sitting Bull, of General Custer, of the officers under Custer’s command, of the thousands of people who were in Sitting Bull’s village along the Little Big Horn, of all of the movements of officers and Native people.

I’m not familiar with the details of the Last Stand, and found it difficult to keep up with descriptions of the military movements. My guess is that those who’ve studied it previously would not have difficulty here.

As a general reader, my main complaint is that I didn’t sense a strong enough narrative thread. Philbrick has so many people and actions to describe that it was hard sometimes to stay connected to the story.

That said, I learned a lot. Among Philbrick’s themes are the remarkable jealousies in Custer’s officer corps, the clear sense of an impending “last stand” for Sitting Bull’s people given the demise of buffalo herds, and the overall impact of a flamboyant personality such as Custer’s at the helm. While Philbrick includes the narratives of Sitting Bull and many Sioux people, I sensed the story as primarily Custer’s. And even in the middle of the battle, people were beginning to shape how that story would be told.

I was reflecting on what Philbrick said in regard to writing this book, and I was especially struck by his descriptions of studying the battlefield from horseback, getting a sense of how a person of the time would have seen the land.

I’ll recommend this to people who enjoy American history, especially history of the Plains, of Native Americans, or of the nineteenth century.

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