Book review: “Crazy Horse” by Larry McMurtry

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Book review: “Crazy Horse” by Larry McMurtry

A novelist writes history like a novelist, not like an historian. In Crazy Horse, Larry McMurtry tells the story of the Sioux warrior who was an Indian leader on the Great Plains during the 1860s and 1870s and took part in many battles including Little Bighorn where vainglorious, foolhardy Gen. George Custer and his troops were wiped out.

He was assassinated by whites and Indians acting together and has been a symbol of the Native American spirit ever since.

The center of the painting of Crazy Horse by Stephen Johnson that is on the cover the Larry McMurtry's Cracy Horse

The center of the painting of Crazy Horse by Stephen Johnson that is on the cover the Larry McMurtry’s Cracy Horse

Even when alive, Crazy Horse was a mystery man, a loner who preferred his own company. He was never photographed. McMurtry emphasizes throughout this 147-page biography that any attempt to tell the warrior’s story is “an exercise in assumption, conjecture and surmise.” Indeed, he points out that we know more facts about Alexander the Great who died more than 2,000 years ago than we do about Crazy Horse.

For more than a century since the Sioux warrior died, historians and writers have produced thick books looking at him, his accomplishments and his legacy. McMurtry, the author of Lonesome Dove, is unlikely to have been interested in the sort of proofs, arguments and theories that are the meat and potatoes of such books — even if more facts about Crazy Horse had been available.

Instead, his writing is more impressionistic. He seeks the essence of Crazy Horse, rooting his effort not so much in data but in his sense of the kind of man that Crazy Horse was and the way the world in which he lived was rapidly and drastically changing.

There is so much simple, sensible and profound insight to this 1999 book that, as a reviewer, I’m going to step aside and let McMurtry sum up his book — and Crazy Horse — in his own words.

“A Sioux Christ? That touches on his charity and on his betrayal, but he was a determined warrior too, one of the great Resisters, men who do not compromise, do not negotiate, do not administer, who exist in a realm beyond the give-and-take of conventional politics and who stumble and are defeated only when hard circumstances force them to live in that realm.”

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“For most of his life he not only avoided white people he avoided people, spending many days alone on the prairies, dreaming, drifting, hunting. According to Short Buffalo, a fellow Sioux who knew him well, he was ‘not very tall and not very short, neither broad nor thin. His hair was very light…Crazy Horse had a very light complexion, much lighter than other Indians. His face was not broad, and he had a high, sharp nose. He had black eyes that hardly ever looked straight at a man, but they didn’t miss much that was going on, all the same…’ ”

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“But this avoidance of parlays may also have meant that he never made the kind of hardheaded assessment of white character and white intentions that Red Cloud, Spotted Tail and Sitting Bull arrived at early on.”

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“But orthodoxy was not his way, would never be his way. When Crazy Horse felt like doing something, he just did it.”

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“He lived under one of the most generous skies in the world. Again, many commentators have recognized that such skies, hovering over the rolling land, with the horizons a mystery, with mirages frequent, make the plains a place that calls forth imaginings.”

McMurtyCrazyHorse=====================

“The legend is that it was Crazy Horse who skillfully and successfully played the wounded bird, leading the soldiers farther and farther from safety. He dismounted several times, pretending that his horse was lame; at one point, he even built a small fire.”

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“In a great many shadowy cases where Crazy Horse fought, or may have fought, the data is simply not firm; in making him a master strategist — as opposed to merely a very daring warrior — the historian walks on very thin ice indeed.”

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“All these arguments [about who was responsible for the Indian strategy at Little Bighorn], of course, depend on Indian memory, plus study of the battleground itself. To me they seem to be permanently ambiguous, potent rather than conclusive….We are likely never to know who killed Custer.”

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“What I think of when I walk that battleground is dust. Once or twice in my life I rode out with as many as thirty cowboys — I remember the dust that small, unhurried group made. The dust of two thousand milling, charging horses would have been something else altogether; the battleground would soon have been a hell of dust, smoke, shooting, hacking…”

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“From the day that Crazy Horse came in [to live as a settled Indian], he was the focus of rumor, envy, jealousy, and hatred, and it was among his own people that the hatred became a dripping, ultimately fatal poison — a paradoxical thing since, except for this short terrible period, no Indian was more respected by the Indian people than he was.”

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“But he was for white and Indian alike, a symbol of resistance so potent that neither could afford to leave him alive and free.”

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“There is disagreement about the bayonetting, but what is certain is that one thrust pierced the kidneys, causing Crazy Horse to sink down, a mortally wounded man.”

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“The Indians, now, were quiet — perhaps chastened, perhaps numbed. Many among them, some of them his old allies, realized that for reasons of politics they had killed a man who had no politics, just the conviction that he wanted to live his life in accordance to the precepts of his own people, as he had been taught to live it.”

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Crazy Horse painting by Stephen Johnson

“The same two women, and several men as well, testified to the terrible, pitiable, Lear-like grief of Crazy Horse’s parents: they wandered the fort for three days sobbing, wailing, rending their garments, refusing all succor…They took his body on a travois and then slipped off and buried him. Nobody knows exactly where he is buried, but legend has it that his burial spot is close to the creek called Wounded Knee.”

Patrick T. Reardon
7.31.14

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