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Playing Custer Paperback – May 18, 2015
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Gerald Duff’s considerable literary dexterity is shown in his use of first-person narrative. By letting the historical and fictional characters speak in their own voices, he makes the events of both days live for the reader in triumph and defeat, agony and elation, historical relevance and personal finality. He treats his subject and characters with great respect and dignity shared equally. And he shows the sincerity of the modern day reenactors as they strive to retell faithfully the story of this momentous clash of cultures.
There are a staggering number of histories of the Battle of Little Bighorn. This book is not one of them. Playing Custer is a novel that brings its characters and events to life and that makes it an exceptionally good read.
Texas Christian University Press
Paperback, 978-0875656069, 256 pgs., $22.95
May 18, 2015
The West does not need to explore its myths much further; it has already relied on them too long. - WALLACE STEGNER (page vi)
Playing Custer is the newest historical fiction title from award-winning author and native Texan, Gerald Duff. Employing multiple narratives from 1876 and 2001, Duff brings us the voices of the United State 7th Cavalry and the Sioux and Cheyenne, from what is popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand, and the contemporary voices of the historical reenactors who converge on the Greasy Grass, also known as The Little Bighorn, each June. Duff builds a complex picture of many kinds of transformation, one puzzle piece at a time.
Waymon Needler, a home economics teacher, and Mirabeau Lamar Sylestine, a member of the Alabama-Coushatta and a computer software specialist, both from East Texas, have made the drive to Montana together for several years. We go with them on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the battle. Needler and Sylestine have small parts in the program until a series of unfortunate events finds them called upon to play Custer and Crazy Horse, respectively.
Duff’s characters are diverse, representative, and well-drawn. General George Armstrong Custer is here, as well as other officers and enlisted men from Ireland, Germany, and Italy, to name a few. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse are here, too, as well as the Crow and Ree scouts who worked for the US Army. The backstories provided the historical characters are detailed and interesting. Duff has done a particularly beautiful job channeling the women of this story, though they are few, namely Libby Custer and Monahsetah of the Cheyenne. Monahsetah is the personification of dignity and courage without becoming the stereotype of the Noble Savage.
"If you’re an Indian dealing with the man, don’t try to get intellectual, now, or truculent, and whatever you do, don’t launch into a logical argument about some point of disagreement. White folks don’t want to hear that kind of garbage from an Indian. But say something that smacks of the mystical or uses the concept of the heart as representative of a knowledge not subject to intellectual inquiry, and baby, you’re no longer an Indian whining about rights and dispossession, you’re a Native American in touch with the immeasurable."
Duff moves smoothly between speech patterns, rhythms, and vocabulary of the present and the past, of divergent ethnicities and origins, and social stations. From 1876:
“I hope that bunch of Indians will try to fight like white troops, and not just swarm like a bunch of yellow jackets when you stir up their nest.”
“Yellow jackets?” I said. “What do you mean by that?”
“Wasps,” Davis said. “Stinging wasps all coming at you in a wad so you can’t tell one from another. The kind of swarm I used to see back in Virginia when I was a young boy looking to get into mischief, poking at something I didn’t have enough sense to be scared of. They couldn’t hurt me, I figured. I can outrun a swarm of wasps if I have to.”
“We’re all mounted here in the Seventh Cavalry,” I said. “And we’re trained to fight as a unit. We’re stronger together than a mere count of numbers would indicate. We are the fingers of a hand, clenched to make one strong instrument with which to strike. A fist. Wasps would see us and scatter, and so will the Sioux and Cheyenne."
“Well, it’s a dramatic reenactment, Eagle Beak,” I said. “It’s not the thing itself. What matters is the idea of the thing, not the thing itself.”
“That’s the way you white men live. Not with the truth, but with an imitation of it, and that satisfies you right down to the ground.”
Duff is also adept at stirring description. This passage gave me chills – Crazy Horse makes his move and shoots the gap in the 7th Cavalry’s defensive line:
"It was then, as I leaned my own body to the right in sympathy with the line of troopers, hoping to witness the joining of the end of that body of my men with the left end of the company to our right, that the event transpired which cut off the success of our maneuver. A single horseman, a savage dressed only in a species of animal skin about his loins, bearing a great number of spots of white paint all over his body, along with a great smear of red and yellow coloring his face itself, suddenly burst into view just at the flank of the company which my men had been straining ranks toward. He leaned over, this apparition with long light-colored hair streaming unconstrained down his back, and began swinging a long-handled club at the head of the trooper just at the end of the company which my men were struggling to reach."
There are almost as many motivations in this battle as there are participants: patriotism, religion, duty, orders, revenge, blood lust. The reader’s task is the same as that of the reenactors: not to view these characters with modern eyes. Duff points out our (continuing) insistence on viewing people seemingly unlike ourselves as Other.
“Mirabeau,” I said, being jocular, “you are looking so good, my fine young warrior. Give me a high five.” At that, he turned and gave me a look that had about it more authenticity than any other bit of acting business I had ever seen on the banks of the Little Bighorn up until then and since that day. It said, that look of intense concentration did, not “I’m about to kill you, white man,” or “Just keep standing there until I get my stone club unlimbered,” but instead it asked a simple question: are you a human being? Are you and I of the same species of mammal, or am I being talked to by a porcupine suffering from brain damage?
Mirabeau, or as I should say, in his present manifestation, Eagle Beak, was clearly seeing before him not a member of his reenactment group from Annette, Texas, and not a fellow inhabitant of Coushatta County in a different country. No, he was in the presence of maybe a talking raccoon, or a possum that stood on its hind legs and walked around like a man, or it could be a coyote that wore eyeglasses. He was in the Indian equivalent of purgatory. Or maybe the main dining room of a giant Chuck E. Cheese."
"I never told Mirabeau what I had realized on that day those several years ago, there on the Montana prairie. Nor have I ceased to attempt to imagine a self for me other than my once and present and future one as I seek each June to escape the bounds which hold me. He didn’t need to know what an advantage he held over me, and I was certainly not going to admit to being a lesser creature than he, real or imagined. To let him know that would be to admit that what he thought about the nature of the Native American had at least some truth to it. They were different, I told myself, in strange ways, and that’s why we had had as a race to wipe them out and find ways to keep the remainder under close control. What else could we do as a people?"
The plot of Playing Custer is original and well-executed. The pace is even though I was sometimes eager to get through the character’s backstories and return to the narrative. I’d been curious as to how Duff was going to wrap this up. The ending is satisfying as well as surprising. The research required is evident in the meticulous detail. Duff has evidently set himself the goal of the reenactors: “stringent authenticity.”
I’ve come to understand that all historical fiction is speculative fiction. Duff has provided us fine speculation. As the author points out on the dedication page, history is fiction. And written by the winners.