Sunday, June 01, 2014

Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas (1942)

Don't let anyone tell you Nebraska does not have a place in the literary history of America, producing at least two fine writers in Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz. Sandoz is the author of this excellent biography of the Lakota legend, along with a shelf on the American West, including novels and straightforward histories alike. Crazy Horse is admirably detailed and even more admirably sensitive to the legend, legacy, and enduring influence of the colossal figure, one of the most important of the 19th century and in all American history. Sandoz is a great writer, straightforward, unadorned, and evocative, and has even further bona fides in that obviously the Great Plains of North America run deeply in her blood—she bears a wistful affection for the harsh geography and the cultures it has nurtured, a flinty realistic approach to ordering the facts, and a profound respect for the Lakota (also known as Sioux). This all serves her quite well in her genuine appreciation for a figure who remains powerful and mysterious well more than a century past his death. Much like the white man's George Washington, Crazy Horse is a historical figure who is known generally by a great many far and wide—but push deeper and he only becomes strange and inscrutable. We know basic things about Crazy Horse. He is considered a great leader by all, a brave, shrewd, and cunning warrior. He never allowed his photograph to be taken. He was instrumental in defeating Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. And he was ultimately betrayed into an ignominious death in an isolated outpost. Sandoz details all this painstakingly but with lucid and penetrating style. Her work feels authoritative at every step and she has great sympathy for the tragedy of the story, which nonetheless never gets in the way of her telling it. Obviously Crazy Horse was no more successful at stemming tides of history than any other Native American to date, a continuing tragedy. But something about Crazy Horse remains uniquely vital, moving, and significant. It can't be any surprise, for example, that he has inspired one of the greatest monuments ever created, still in progress, set in the Black Hills, intended partly to eclipse Mount Rushmore itself. I haven't read other biographies of Crazy Horse, partly because Sandoz's book seems so definitive in both its meticulous research (extraordinarily thorough), and partly because the story is so sad and infuriating. It's a story you don't want to miss—really—and this is a very fine place to get it.

In case it's not at the library.

No comments:

Post a Comment