Evan S. Connell is a respected novelist, and he tells the story of George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn with a novelist’s eye for detail and drama. He begins with the aftermath of the event, describing how the news of the disaster slowly made its way to unbelieving ears.
Once the magnitude of the defeat is established, Connell sets about explaining how the battle was lost. To do so, he looks at the events from both the soldiers’ and the Indians’ point of view. He draws on many accounts, interviews, journals, and reminiscences left by the participants. Connell never accepts any of these accounts at face value; rather, he compares, weeds out the inconsistencies, questions the unlikely, and challenges the obviously fraudulent.
Although Custer is the central and most intriguing figure in the book, Connell peoples his story with many other fascinating characters, ranging from major figures such as Marcus A. Reno, whom many blamed for not rescuing Custer and his men, to minor ones such as Kate Bighead, a Cheyenne woman who watched the battle and recorded her version in 1927. For each person, Connell gives a biographical sketch to show what events led him to the day of June 25, 1876.
Connell tells his story in an understated fashion, most often allowing the events to speak for themselves. He does, however, at times interject his own opinions, and he makes it clear that his is a modernist perspective: The battle is finally more absurd than heroic, more pitiful than romantic. Yet Connell never detracts from the horror of the battle. Indeed, his quiet accumulation of facts creates a sense of awful futility that is impossible to ignore. His book is a magnificent achievement.