CTW #2

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Author of famous novel and movie "Dance with Wolves" shows his admiration for General Custer
Charlie Rose program, February 1997

source: George Gurley, Kansas City Star  
George Armstrong Custer: hero, buffoon, Son of the
Morning Star morning star, Boy General, Iron Butt, Ringlets. In the words of Sitting Bull
``a fool who rode to his death.'' In the eyes of some of his contemporaries, a potential candidate for president of the United States.

Ambiguity characterizes America's icons. We're attracted to heroes with a bit of the rogue in them. At the same time, we enjoy dragging deities such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington down from the pedestal and recasting them as flawed human beings.

Custer, like Elvis, guarantees instant recognition and market share. His skin is loose and mutable as a lizard's, and many notable writers have slipped inside it, from Evan Connell to American Indian poet James Welch.


Publishers Weekly refers to Custer as ``this year's most popular literary subject'' - at least four novels and three nonfiction books. The most conspicuous is likely to be ``Marching to Valhalla: A Novel of Custer's Last Days'' (288 pages; Villard; $23) by Michael Blake, author of ``Dances With Wolves,'' on which the Oscar-winning Kevin Costner film was based.
Most treatments of Custer build dramatically to the battle of Little Big Horn. In ``Valhalla,'' the legendary debacle in which Custer and his men perished is mentioned only in a brief afterword. Blake lets Custer tell his story in the form of a journal, an account of his past more than his ``last days.''

``I wanted to depict this guy as a person rather than as a symbol,'' Blake explained in a recent phone interview from his home in Arizona. ``I tried to just let him talk.''

That approach precluded a retelling of Little Big Horn. Understanding that the book rode on character rather than climactic action, Blake offers a complex, conflicted individual - fearless warrior and self-doubting introvert.

``Few men in history have walked in my shoes ... I am the hound in uniform the likes of which they have not seen before,'' boasts Custer the hero. ``It is terrible to be alone,'' laments the misunderstood scapegoat. Custer rhapsodizes about his fame and declaims like Faust: ``... How grand it would be to miss nothing ... What drives me so?'' When things go sour, he lapses into gloom and guilt, ``rudderless, bitter, sad.'' He bursts into tears in front of a general.

Blake, an unabashed admirer of Custer, gets credit for writing against the P.C. grain, and ``Valhalla'' plays like an antiphony to ``Dances With Wolves,'' which idealized American Indians.

``I personally hold this person (Custer) in very high regard,'' he said. ``It's very curious that the vast majority of Americans reject him today, because he had grit, straightforwardness ... and disdain for authority, qualities we associate with Americanism. He brought all these things together in a way that's really special.''

Custer graduated last in his class at West Point. He was court-martialed for leaving his post. More than once he plunged into battle without proper reconnaissance. He also was the Union army's youngest general in the Civil War, a great horseman, a notoriously fearless warrior.

Blake shows us Custer the prankster, Custer the dandy and lady's man, the patriot and ruthless martinet, who could be solicitous for a pet mouse named Alf, and Custer the admirer of the ``inscrutable'' Indians he was determined to subdue.

The gaudy contrasts in personality make a promising subject, but Blake's Custer is a strangely hollow construction. In effective first-person narratives, such as ``Remains of the Day,'' the protagonist tries to justify himself to the reader and unwittingly unmasks him himself. But for all the self-evaluation in Custer's ``Valhalla'' monologue, he doesn't reveal himself. We don't see him through the eyes of his friends and enemies, and we never really get an idea of what makes him tick.

In control of his own image, Custer comes across as a narcissistic blowhard. This may be an accurate portrayal of the man, but it's hard to identify with this semifictional Custer - or to care about him.

There's little dialogue and surprisingly little memorable description in ``Valhalla,'' given the spectacular settings. Blake often lapses into abstractions: ``tableau of mayhem,'' ``confusion reigned supreme.'' A men's club has the ``quiet elegance of similar clubs that populate the Midwest.'' In the words of creative writing workshops, Blake ``tells'' the reader more than he ``shows.'' Custer's wife, Libby, asks ``question after question,'' but we're not told what she asks - a missed opportunity to reveal her and her relationship with Custer.

Blake dwells effectively on Custer's love for Libby, however. One of the best scenes in the book, an invention of Blake's, is their clandestine meeting and first kiss.

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Marching to Valhalla: A Novel of Custer's Last Days

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