three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
47-July-Aug-2010
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A-The Last Stand.epsNathaniel Philbrick won the National Book Award for In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2001), and his groundbreaking account of the establishment of the Plymouth colony, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2006), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In his latest work of popular history, he examines the legendary Battle of the Little Bighorn and what it ultimately meant for those on both sides of the battlefield.

The Topic: To subdue the Indians and stake a claim to their rich and fertile lands, the U.S. government, buttressed by the ideal of Manifest Destiny, drove its armies across the plains in the late 1800s, shattering treaties and triggering violent clashes across the Midwest and West. On June 25, 1876, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, charged with forcefully relocating the remaining plains tribes to a reservation, led the Seventh Cavalry against the defiant Lakota chief and holy man Sitting Bull and his followers. Badly outnumbered, the army suffered a humiliating defeat, and more than 200 men, including Custer, perished near the Little Bighorn River. Though Custer's presidential ambitions certainly made him reckless, argues Philbrick, it was a combination of personality conflicts, strategic errors, untrained soldiers, and rough terrain that lost the battle.
Viking. 496 pages. $30. ISBN: 9780670021727

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"As in these recent works, Philbrick strives to find a middle path between the ‘Great Men' historical narrative and its abstract opposite, the ‘clash of cultures.' ... Building on these individual narratives, Philbrick structures his story as a Rashomon-like series of chapters told from multiple different perspectives. Blessed with a set of extreme and conflicting personalities, Philbrick's approach works well." Buzzy Jackson

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"The book transports us there as breathlessly as kids watching 50's Westerns on their families' black-and-white televisions. ... This book's most lasting impression is of immediacy, strangeness, danger and doom, which Philbrick brings out in every rock, cloud, blade of grass and mountain range." Celia McGee

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Philbrick adroitly avoids both flaccid political correctness and simplistic polarizations. ... The accompanying maps and other illustrations are useful and edifying, but the narration alone is pixel-rich, clear and startling." Daniel Dyer

Ft. Worth Star Telegram 4 of 5 Stars
"The Last Stand ... crackles with personality and descriptive detail. ... He weaves a tightly written narrative that offers a wide range of perspectives but maintains a strong storyteller's voice." Catherine Mallette

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"I finished this book feeling that something more profound can still be said about so iconic an event. But that is not what concerns Philbrick. Nor will it matter to many readers, who will be rewarded with a gripping tale, matched with numerous excellent maps and fine illustrations, many in full color." T. J. Stiles

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Philbrick faced a mountain of material, so at times, he loses control of the research, resulting in chapters knee-deep in facts that blur the focus. ... The Last Stand is history ambitiously written and sympathetically told." Bob Hoover

Christian Science Monitor 2.5 of 5 Stars
"While [Philbrick offers] interesting tidbits, tedious minutiae and irrelevant details bog down what could be a riveting narrative. Meanwhile, interesting asides receive little attention or elaboration." Stephen Kurczy

Critical Summary

Exchanging maritime history for the landlocked Battle of the Little Bighorn, Philbrick explores the volatile political, economic, and social forces that led to the infamous confrontation. Drawing on a multitude of sources, he has produced an absorbing page-turner rich with complex characters and fast-paced action, and he demolishes commonly held myths along the way. However, despite his extraordinary research and writing skills, Philbrick doesn't have much to add to the debate surrounding the battle and its significance, and he occasionally loses sight of the story with too many intriguing asides. Critics agreed, though, that The Last Stand is "both a widely researched history of the ill-fated military campaign as well as a sympathetic attempt to capture the humanity of all involved" (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

Supplemental Reading

A-Son of the Morning Star.epsSon of the Morning Star Custer and the Little Bighorn | Evan S. Connell (1984): Connell (the award-winning author of Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge) uses an anthropological lens to explore Plains Indian life as he simultaneously charts the personalities involved in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

A-A Terrible Glory.epsA Terrible Glory Custer and the Little Bighorn--the Last Great Battle of the American West | James Donovan (2008): Donovan's judicious and impartial study draws upon recent forensic evidence as well as eyewitness accounts to unearth the truth behind the legendary conflict.