It is always cause for celebration when a debut author bursts on the scene with an original and whimsical novel that is bound to capture attention. And this novel -- Major Pettigrew's Last Stand -- has much to recommend it.
Major Pettigrew is a very proper and delightfully droll widower of 68 who resides in the quaint village of Edgecombe St. Mary in Sussex, England. He is the father of Roger, a posturing and preening young man who has incorporated none of the values of his dad. And he is also the accidental suitor of the proprietress of the village mini-mart, Jasmina Ali, a 50-something Pakistani widow who shares his love of Kipling and his wry look at the world in which they both reside. The two of them -- the quintessential local and the attractive outsider -- must navigate the gossip and outright prejudice of their stilted society. Helen Simonson writes, "He (the Major) had always assumed gossip to be the malicious whispering of uncomfortable truths, not the fabrication of absurdities. Was a life of careful, impeccable behavior not enough in a world where inventions were passed around as facts?"
This is by no means "chick lit", nor is it hard-hitting politically correct narrative, couched in fiction. It is a charming English comedy of manners -- in places, a laugh-out-loud comedy. A scene, for example, where the atrocities of Pakistani Partition are reduced to a bad-taste dinner show or where the favored ducks of schoolchildren are chosen as prey for a duck hunt are satirical and spot-on.
Yet despite its gentle humor, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand touches on many of the big issues: the clash of culture and religions, the greed of unbridaled globalization, the tension between fathers and sons...and families in general. At its heart, though, it is an old-fashioned love story. I couldn't help but stand by the sidelines rooting for the Major and his lady and keep my fingers crossed for their eventual coupling. The book is an ode for anyone who refuses to give up on life or love at any stage of life. For those who love the charm of the "Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society", you're in for yet another treat.
I got this as an advanced reading copy from the Amazon Vine program, and didn't know anything about it except the brief synopsis from the Vine newsletter. I am fond of reading "gentle" novels that take the reader into the hearts and lives of people in a community, and this novel didn't disappoint me. It has a slow start, but builds up to the point where you can't put it down because you just have to know what happens next. It is a combination of romance, a comedy of manners, a statement on prejudice, a look at family and community relationships, and a reaffirmation that love is ageless. The hero, Major Pettigrew, is widower in his 60's who has become complacent about his quiet existence as a retired Army officer. He is shocked out of his routine by the sudden death of his only brother. He has known the heroine, Jasmina Ali, for quite some time as the wife and then widow of Pakistani shopkeeper in his community. As the Major and Jasmina become closer due to their shared griefs and their common interests, both of them are challenged to look at their own world views and to face the discrimination and shallowness of some of their friends and relatives. There is a nice chemistry between the hero and the heroine. When they become physically intimate, it is done in the "now dear reader, we will close the bedroom door" type of approach, which is fitting for the type of novel that it is. Although the novel isn't religious in tone, the characters and the style reminds me favorably of Jan Karon's Mitford series of novels. That is why I am hoping that the author has more novels about the little English community that is home to the Major and Jasmina. I want to know what happens next. I am a picky reader when it comes to writing style and I particularly like the way that the author handles prose and dialogue. She uses similes and other literary techniques judiciously--just enough but not too much. One example that sticks out in my mind was her description of an elderly Pakistani couple as having the symmetry of two wrinkled halves of a walnut. Very descriptive, and not something I've read before. While there are some underlying political, religious, and moral issues in this novel, the author doesn't force the reader to take sides. The novel reflects that there is a lot that is uncertain in life, and that "good" people can make mistakes and continue to grow. There is a bit of suspense and action in the novel, but it is mainly character-driven, which is my favorite type of novel. I didn't want the book to end. The mark of a good book, in my opinion, is whether or not I would want to re-read it, and this book is definitely going on my "keeper shelf," hopefully to be joined by more books by this author in the future.
Nathaniel Philbrick is normally associated with nautical history, so it might be something of a surprise that in "The Last Stand" he has chronicled the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a military event that took place about as far from the ocean as you can get. But, it might be remembered that a large part of his "Mayflower" book was focused on the violent relations between the Pilgrims and Indians and on the slightly later King Phillip's War. Here in "The Last Stand", the author has returned to the subject of white-Indian relations and has created a vivid, engaging book.
Philbrick's "The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn" quite naturally invites comparison with 2008's "A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn" by James Donovan, about the same subject. Although both volumes present lengthy, quite comprehensive narratives, they do differ significantly. Donovan's book takes a more straightforward approach, while Philbrick's is more consciously "literary" in style, filled with numerous colorful incidents almost cinematic in impact. Additionally, Philbrick's "The Last Stand" devotes somewhat more attention to the Indian side of the story than does Donovan's volume.
Which book is "better"? The answer to that undoubtedly depends on the reader and his/her needs and expectations. Philbrick's volume is perhaps the more suited for random browsing or reading a chapter at a time, while Donovan's is probably better suited for focused, prolonged study. I personally enjoyed both Philbrick's and Donovan's volumes. Both books are representative of a much more balanced, even-handed approach to the Little Bighorn battle than had been characteristic of the past. Originally, accounts tended to overly laud Custer and his soldiers as peerless representatives of Civilization, done to death by a savage, scarcely human foe. By the latter part of the Twentieth century, however, it had become commonplace to reverse roles, depicting Custer and his men as mindless murderers and the Indians as peaceful, innocent victims. We now seem to have finally reached a point, as demonstrated in both Philbrick's "The Last Stand" and also Donovan's "A Terrible Glory", where the participants on both sides can be depicted as three-dimensional, realistic blends of virtue and flaw, neither demons nor angels.
Any serious student of the Little Bighorn battle - I count myself among them - can find elements in Philbrick's book (as in Donovan's) with which to disagree. The events are complex enough and the evidence sufficiently murky that this is inevitable. I cannot say that I learned anything wholly new here, but then again I've been studying the Little Bighorn battle for more than 40 years. An intelligent general reader, previously uninformed about the details, can come away from "The Last Stand" with a good understanding of the events and the people involved on both sides. If that reader should wish to proceed further with studying the battle, Philbrick supplies detailed notes and source lists.
"Last Stand" is a wondrous novel- a debut by author Simonson written with extraordinary insight and with vivid crackling descriptions so apt you'll find yourself reading slowly so you won't miss any of them. Wry and witty, the book is frequently hilarious and I often laughed so hard the tears were running down my face. The ending of this love story will leave you with a feeling of contentment but most of all the book is a paean to the human spirit that will warm the shackles of your heart.
The novel takes place in the little English village of Edgecombe St. Mary and the prejudices, and race and religious intolerances endemic in a small town are alive and well.
Major Pettigrew, a pukka sahib if there ever was one, is the endearing hero and he finds an unusual soul- mate in Jasmina Ali. The Major has a clipped grey mustache and twinkling blue eyes, and Mrs. Ali. who is Pakistani, has shiny black hair coiled into a bun and her dark brown eyes don't miss a thing. Seemingly yin and yang are these two- seemingly. Under the surface they discover a huge rapport. The Major and Mrs Ali are both widowed; the Major has an obnoxious son, Mrs. Ali has an obnoxious nephew. But it's their love of literature that really bonds them together as well as the fact they are both kind, caring individuals with fine senses of humor bubbling just beneath the surface.
The story is not sentimental or mawkish, it's sparkling and lively. True love will find a way but there are many thorns along this particular rocky path and the book builds up to a crescendo of a climax while you the reader are terrified something awful is going to happen to either the Major or Mrs. Ali.
To make yourself just feel good and indulge in a good laugh, grab this charming book! You'll love it, trust me!
on May 25, 2010
As the owner of over 40 books on the Little Big Horn, I found this book to be a nice, reasonably "light" treatment of the Little Big Horn. If you are new to this particular event in our history, this is certainly a decent primer. I would also recommend "A Terrible Glory" by James Donovan, and "Son of the Morning Star: Custer and The Little Bighorn" by Evan S. Connell which was reviewed (quite favorably) in Time Magazine when originally released.
If you aren't new to this topic, and are looking for new insights - they are not here (in my opinion).
This is a well written, pleasant book and recommended to those who have little knowledge of the topic. Recommended for those folks.
on May 24, 2010
This is a difficult book for me to evaluate because I'm not exactly sure how I feel about it. For starters, I can't join all the rave reviews that have been written, or the group of readers who have placed the book on the NYT extended best sellers list. Yet, I recognize that it is very well written and narrated. My problem with it is that is was really slow going; the plot progressed reluctantly and predictably. It was, however, sufficiently engaging so that I did finish it, but was somewhat relieved when it was over so that I could proceed to other books. I was happy for the happy ending, a rarity these days. But, as a reader, I have many choices, and for truly magnificent novels of English village life, I would rather spend my time with Anthony Trollope's Barchester series, beginning with "The Warden."
Much has been said about the Battle of Little Bighorn. George Armstrong Custer has been portrayed as both an arrogant imbecile and a national hero. Sitting Bull has been portrayed as a murderous villain and a cultural icon of steadfastness.
Nathaniel Philbrick, as he did in his wondrous MAYFLOWER, digs deep into the heart of the legend. Custer and Sitting Bull were both men--human beings with faults and virtues, men who both appeared to desire peace, on the eve of the Battle--and yet, neither many any great overtures for it. Why? What drove these two men into what can only be described as a massacre? And what really happened at Little Bighorn that day?
Obviously, to the latter question, there is only conjecture, though Philbrick unbiasedly presents the various eye-witness accounts. When it comes to the battle itself, he places more emphasis upon Custer; yet it is clear that the purpose of the book is not just to describe the specific massacre, but to show how it was a last stand for two people: Custer, the most renowned Indian fighter in the West; and the Native Americans of the Northern Plains, who after that day faced a slow decline to reservation life, ridicule, and almost cultural obliteration. Philbrick's prose is smooth and readable; you don't have to be a history buff to enjoy this book. You just have to love a good story, and have an appreciation for what makes mankind both so great and so terrible. THE LAST STAND is another memorable work by Nathaniel Philbrick, and serves as a wonderful introduction into an oft-mythologized segment of American history.
Custer, Sitting Bull, and Little Bighorn have become iconic names in American history, but often only through a distorted lens. Like many other students, I learned that George Armstrong Custer was a buffoon who led his troops to disaster at the Little Bighorn and that Sitting Bull was a "noble savage" (to use the term that sums up modern stereotypes of 19th century American Indians).
Nathan Philbrick's The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn certainly provides a more nuanced and interesting account of that history. The Last Stand follows both Custer's 7th Cavalry and the Sioux Indian tribe in the weeks before and during the battle.
Philbrick did an incredible amount of research to reconstruct the events and characters in the famous battle. This is a long book and it is brimming with detail, from the geography of the area to the colors of the 7th Cavalry's horses. At times, I felt like he introduced the reader to every single member of the 7th Cavalry (he pretty much does in the appendices).
If nothing else, The Last Stand will probably force you to reevaluate these men. Philbrick isn't a revisionist and Custer doesn't get off too lightly. Nevertheless, there is much about him that most Americans don't realize. For example, he became a brigadier general at the age of 23 (23!) and played a crucial role at the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. He was also calm under fire and inspired pride among the lower ranks. However, he seems to not have managed his officers well. In the run-up to the battle, he seems surrounded by officers whom he doesn't trust and scouts who are more intent on politicking than providing accurate information.
Philbrick writes well, but at times The Last Stand can become a difficult read simply because it seems like he wanted to cram so much detail into the book, even when it didn't advance the narrative. One thing that frustrated me was that the narrative sometimes jumps to different points at time. For example, the Battle of Washita (1868) is recounted after preparations for the Black Hills campaign, but just before the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876).
I wasn't crazy about how Philbrick develops characters. He tends to provide short historical pieces about the soldiers in the 7th Cavalry whenever they figure into the narrative of the battle. That means that sometimes, during the thick of the battle, we hear how some soldier who plays little role in the overall battle was a gambler back home and was married to a certain person. This breaks the flow of the narrative and, especially for readers unfamiliar with the history of the American West, can be confusing. If the character is really so important, we should be introduced to him before he becomes important!
Philbrick also sometimes essentializes characters by taking one piece of background information and claiming it is responsible for that character's personality or decisions. For example, at several times he points out that General Terry was a lawyer, and as such was cautious and phrased his orders in an ambiguous way. But that's also how many officeholders in a bureaucracy think and operate. It probably doesn't matter for smaller characters, but sometimes becomes a bit cliche.
I'd recommend this book to American and military history buffs. However, I would really only recommend this to somebody who was somewhat familiar with post-Civil War American history. This book is definitely not for readers with short attention spans. In retrospect, this might be a book worth rereading twice, once just as an introduction to the people, places, and events, and the second time to really absorb it.
on August 6, 2010
I have been a fan of Nathaniel Philbreck for quite some time. The narrative of The Last Stand stood up to my expectations for his writing on the subject. I found his detailed account of events to be educational, enlightening, evocative. As a result, I read through it very quickly and had a hard time putting it down.
However, with that being said, I was highly disappointed in the Kindle Edition. Though it contained maps which were included in the book the plates of photos were not included. I shook my fist at Amazon when I discovered this because I would have found the reading even more enjoyable due to being able to better put faces to the story.
Now I am terribly hesitant to buy more Kindle Books,
The Last Stand, by Nathan Philbrick, is a splendid foray into the past, an examination of not only the Battle of the Little Bighorn but also of two of its more prominent participants, Sitting Bull and Custer. Though he relies on the testimony of those involved whenever possible, he is quick to point out that he "remains an outsider doing my best to make sense of it all."
It needs to be stated at the outset that Mr. Philbrick wastes no time in revealing his bias against George Armstrong Custer; it is to put things lightly to say that he takes a dismal view of Custer as a person, but it should be noted for those Custerphiles he might pick up the book that his judgments seem harshest at the outset than they do later on. He is somewhat more nuanced in his appraisal of Custer the soldier, citing his bravery and dash, but really, these compliments fall to the wayside in the face of such judgments as "His emotional effusions unhinged his judgment in way that went far beyond alcohol's ability to interfere with clear thinking." At his point, we are on page 17 out of a 448 page book. At this point I was left with the impression that I could not reasonably expect any sort of impartial study of one of the two central character's of this work.
I would have been mistaken, at least in part.
Even so, in these early pages there is little Custer is not accused of, including infidelity and dishonesty. He is rash, impetuous, and does not think before he leaps. This is an image completely at odds with the Custer of the Civil War (at this point I was left wondering if Philbrick bothered to study Custer's wartime career). Indeed, Philbrick seems to take every charge made against Custer at face value while assuming Custer's own words were invariably self-serving. One example of this process of vilification is that the author mentions the Cheyenne tradition that Custer fathered a child on Indian captive Monahsetah without revealing that the young woman gave birth less than two months after her capture, which makes Custer's fatherhood a thing of myth. He is more than happy to present Custer as a pimp who passed the hapless girl among his officers because "Indian women rape easy."
We see too the old charge renewed that Custer went into the 1876 campaign looking for a big victory to restore his reputation and once again put him before the public as America's hero. That Custer might have had as a goal his duty - to defeat the "hostiles" - seems inconceivable to the author.
Mr. Philbrick for some reason also feels the need to revive the mythical Custer-for-president tale invented by leftist activist Mari Sandoz out of whole cloth. Well before we come to the crucial events of June 25, 1876, Custer's character has been completely trashed.
I had expected better. And as I persevered, I was rewarded with a more thoughtful appraisal of Custer, as a soldier at least, if not as a man.
Custerphobes might be disappointed to learn, for example, that Mr. Philbrick's judgment is that the man most responsible for the "sad and terrible blunder" of the last stand was none other than General Alfred Terry, whose final instructions to Custer left the commander of the Seventh Cavalry "hesitant and depressed", doubting himself for the first time in his very successful career.
Mr. Philbrick makes a thoughtful examination of Terry's orders, pointing to his "lawyer's talent for crafting documents that appeared to say one thing but were couched in language that could allow for an entirely different interpretation should circumstances require it" - his orders to Custer being a case in point. "With these orders," the author tells us, "Terry had managed to protect his reputation no matter what the outcome. If Custer bolted for the village and claimed a great victory, it was because Terry had had the wisdom to give him an independent command. If Custer did so and failed, it was because he had disobeyed Terry's written orders." And of course, Custer did very nearly pull off a brilliant victory (as Mr. Philbrick admits) and Terry did use his cleverly written orders to put all the blame on Custer.
As the author points out, Custer was expected to attack. And as he also points out, even had Custer waited until the 26th (which he was not expected to do), Terry did not arrive until the 27th and his approach was so haphazard it is difficult to see how he could have been any use to Custer at all.
Benteen and Reno, reasonably enough, fail to come across in a sympathetic light, along with many of the officers of the Seventh. Reno was drunk, Benteen disobeyed orders and failed to march to the sound of the guns, as was expected of any commander of the period. Moylan and others broke down or like Reno and Weir, succumbed to the bottle. Mr. Philbrick rightly wonders what would have happened had Reno pressed his initial attack when the Indian participants themselves admit the village was in utter confusion and panic.
Much of the account of the battle itself not unreasonably focuses on that part we know best - Reno's charge, blundering retreat, and hilltop siege. Here we have survivors and abundant if sometimes conflicting testimony. Mr. Philbrick does the best he can with this. If Benteen disobeyed orders, and barely participated in the initial stages of the battle, he more than made up for it once he decided to fight. There is little anyone can do to restore Reno's reputation, though in the author's view he was "not the sniveling coward some later made him out to be."
There is a speculative account of the actions of Custer and his battalion after trumpeter Martini's departure. Here the author follows the outline provided by archaeologist Richard A. Fox's Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle. In a sense, it is disappointed that the account is as brief as it is, as the book's title is, after, the Last Stand. Much more thorough accounts are to be had and I recommend Gregory Michno's Lakota Noon and his The Mystery of E Troop: Custer's Gay Horse Company at the Little Bighorn, which boasts its own speculative account of the movements of this well known company. In brief, Mr. Philbrick argues that Custer's battalion battled for a couple of hours (not mere minutes as detractors claim) and that Custer remained on the offensive almost until the very end.
The author rounds out his study with a brief examination of the aftermath of the Last Stand, including Sitting Bull's efforts to retain leadership of his people once on the reservation and his murder at the hands of the tribal police, and Libbie Custer's efforts to restore and maintain the reputation of her husband as a courageous and upright soldier and loving husband. In this regard, James Donovan in his A Terrible Glory, does a superior job, but this can be put down to the differing agendas of the two authors.
The reader will find rewarding Mr. Philbrick's ample notes, written in narrative style, which are a very useful and informative accompaniment to the text but also an excellent read on their own.
The bibliography is exhaustive, and the book contains numerous maps and illustrations, both in black and white and in color. There are also two appendices, one on the Seventh Cavalry on the afternoon of June 25, 1876, which lists all the officers, men and civilians mentioned in the text by battalion and company, and another which does the same for Sitting Bull's village on that day, listed by tribe.
The Last Stand may not be the best account of the Little Bighorn but it is a worthy read and I highly recommend it to students of the battle.