Custer’s last stand: Still contentious after 138 years

John-Hough-Jr_Little-Bighorn.jpg

“Little Bighorn: A Novel” by John Hough Jr., Arcade Publishing. 320 pages. $24.95.

The battle of the Little Bighorn still rages, 138 years after George Custer and several hundred of his troopers were killed by Sioux and Cheyenne tribal warriors on a Montana hilltop on June 25, 1876.

Countless books and articles have been written on the man and the event, Custer apologists and satanizers are still dueling today. Was Lt. Colonel Custer a raging egoist who created his own last stand, or was he the victim of colleagues who commanded 60 percent of the on-site U.S. cavalry force but did not come to the aid of Custer’s 7th Cavalry regiment?

“Not many people do understand Custer,” author John Hough Jr. of West Tisbury told The Times this week. “He was a very big hero in his time. When I’m speaking about the book, I’m going to try to explain the mystery and drama around the event. My idea was to depict that [the Bighorn massacre] as a horrible nightmare. Look, everyone with him knew he was going to die that day.”

Mr. Hough will discuss his new book, “Little Bighorn,” on Sunday, July 20, at 2 pm as part of a speaker’s series at the Vineyard Haven Library, and again at the West Tisbury library at 5 pm on Saturday, July 26,  at the West Tisbury library.

Mr. Hough has delivered with a riveting novel of the life, times, and death of one of America’s most captivating personalities. The story is told in the voice of Boston-bred Allen Winslow, of Phillips Academy in Andover and Harvard College-bound.

Turns out Custer may have been a fanatic, but not about marriage, and he had cozied up in Washington, D.C, with Mary Deschenes, a well-known actress who was Allen’s mom. Allen is summoned to dinner in D.C. Custer dines with them and offers Allen a chance to ride with the 7th Cav in their summer campaign against Sitting Bull and the allied Sioux and Cheyenne nations.

Mom loves the idea, Allen hates it, and Custer doesn’t really care — until he learns that the unchaperoned 16-year-old sister of his regimental surgeon has run away from home in New York City to join her brother in the West. Custer may have finished last in his class at West Point, but he also knew that when momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy, so Allen is dispatched to meet the wayward lass in New York and accompany her to the campaign staging quarters at Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota.

Some of us find the prospect of visiting North Dakota unappetizing, even in 2014. In 1876, the journey took more than a week by train, in heat and dust, with multiple way stops and transfers. For Allen and Addie Grace Lord, the trip also entailed dodging Pinkerton detectives hired by orphaned Addie Grace’s self-righteous and well-heeled Cambridge aunt and uncles to return the lost lamb to their Calvinist fold.

Here is where one of Mr. Hough’s particular skills as a story-teller emerges. He is a concise, deft writer and a journalist who researches the hell out of his subject matter here, as he did in “Seen the Glory,” his very successful 2009 novel on two Vineyard lads who fight in the American Civil War in the Battle of Gettysburg.

His willingness to learn the quotidian aspects of late 19th century life and manners, speech and vocabulary, and to incorporate them into the story puts us in the horsehair seats of the coal-burning monster chugging across America.

I learned about life in the 19th century from his description of that train ride and its passengers: a melange of traveling salesmen, card sharps, and wide-eyed idealists seeking to start anew in the West.

The youngsters fall in love and inch toward their date with destiny, a process that Mr. Hough uses to build tension in a story whose outcome has been known to every schoolchild for more than 100 years.

Writing against a known outcome can be a thorny business and raises the stakes on the writer’s ability to create willingness by readers to suspend disbelief, a necessity for novels to be successful.

And he does it without hurrying, using a steady, constant pace that allows the reader to steep in the characters and their decision making and to occasionally shout silent, alas unheeded, warnings. I mean, you know it’s gonna go balls-up in the end, but you’re nail-chewing anyway.

Along the way, he dispenses bits of ominous dialog. Custer tells his new recruit that he is embarking on, “A new destiny, Allen. It won’t come round again.” Addie and Allen meet Joe Merriwell, a dead-eyed old Indian fighter on their passage who says, “There’s two, maybe three thousand fighting men waiting for you on the Powder River. Tell that to Colonel Custer.” Other characters, including military wives and Native American scouts, report dreams and feelings of impending doom.

At Fort Lincoln, Addie and Allen have consummated their love and are married, which defangs the Pinkertons who return to Cambridge to pick up their check.

On May 18, 1876, The 7th Cavalry rode out of Fort Lincoln in search of Sitting Bull, giving Mr. Hough the opportunity to describe life on the march, and the interior battles between Custer and his colleagues, who heartily loathed him and his success. We also learn that Custer was a more complex man than his popular image. His colleagues also hated him because Custer was an Army whistleblower.

Custer was in Washington, D.C., when he met Allen to testify willingly before a Congressional panel investigating theft and corruption surrounding “Indian” affairs throughout the financial and supply relief chain for native Americans. The U.S Army, as it turns out, was involved up to its forage cap.

So we also learn that Custer’s ethic included both a willingness to kill and subjugate his foe and, at great career risk, a complete unwillingness to abuse the vanquished.

Author’s Talk with John Hough Jr., Sunday, July 20, 2 pm, Vineyard Haven Library. Saturday, July 26, 5–6 pm, West Tisbury Library.