Thursday, February 6, 2014

Review
 

"A Road We Do Not Know"

by Frederick J. Chiaventone

 
The book title “A Road We Do Not Know” is taken from what Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s Ree Indian friend and chief scout Bloody Knife tells Custer prior to the Colonel’s attack on a huge village of defiant Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians. Custer has been warned by his Indian scouts that the village is much larger than he thinks. Addressing the sun, Bloody Knife states, “I shall not see you go down behind the mountains tonight.” Indicating the soldiers about them, he predicts, “All of these people will get killed.” Knowing that Custer will not change his mind, he concludes, “Good hunting to you, old friend. You and I are both going home tonight by a road we do not know.”

The year is 1876. The location is Wyoming near the Yellowstone River. General Terry has ordered a three-prong attack on what is vastly underestimated to be 800 warriors plus women and children. Custer with 600 men and Colonel Gibbon with 700 men are to approach the Indian settlement separately from the north and General Crook with 900 is to advance from the south. Custer’s 7th Cavalry is assigned to keep the settlement from scattering to the east and south. “Well, well, eight hundred young bucks. This should not be too much trouble, I shouldn’t think. It should be a fairly easy task to pen ‘em up and force ‘em back to the reservation,” the commanding general concludes.

Leaving his meeting with Terry and Gibbon, Custer sketches out mentally his plan of attack. “Keep the scouts out poking about, get the enemy’s location pinpointed, and hit ‘em first thing in the morning. Get ‘em just as the sun comes up. Perfect. They’ll be groggy, sun’ll be in their eyes. We’ll hit ‘em from two sides, put ‘em in a panic. The Rees and Crows [his Indian allies] can run off the pony herd, and they’ll run straight into Gibbon and Terry. Shouldn’t even be much of a fight at all. They won’t want to risk it with the women and children right there.”

Custer initiates his plan. His Ree and Crow and civilian scouts see from a great distance what they believe is evidence of a very large settlement. It is hidden by ridges, but its pony herd, barely visible, causes the scouts to believe the village vastly exceeds what Custer anticipates.

Custer rejects his scouts’ recommendation to proceed cautiously. He is not able to see and interpret what his scouts perceive. Bloody Knife advises him to delay the attack two days to allow Colonel Gibbon to join him. In one of the best scenes in the novel Bloody Knife tells Custer, “But your world is smaller than my world. You see what you expect to see and nothing else. You cannot see what you don’t want to look for.” He continues. “Where we looked, we could see the ground moving when it should not move. Your eyes tell you it was just the wind in the buffalo grass, but I know there is no wind to make the grass move. There is a big village there. This plan is not a good one, old friend.” Custer, worried that two days would be too long to keep his presence a secret, rejects Bloody Knife’s advice. Convinced later in the day that a Sioux scouting party has detected the cavalry’s approach, Custer decides to begin his attack that day, June 25, rather than at sunrise the following morning. The Indians must not be allowed to scatter.

The Indian settlement has not intention of leaving. Their mind-set is represented by the thoughts of the Hunkpapa Sioux tribesman Gall. “”First they were like small raindrops and we brushed them away and went to our lodges to stay dry, but now they are like the storms that fill the rivers and make the floods that carry everything away. They are the flood and they will sweep our lodges and our people away before them. … We should teach” our children “how to fight, how to take the wasichus’ [white men’s] guns and turn them against them.”

Custer commits Major Reno’s brigade. It fords the Little Bighorn River and fires into the tipis of the Hunkpapa Sioux. From the top of a bluff Custer sees the actual size of this part of the village. He is amazed. Rather than 400 lodges, he estimates there are at least a thousand. He decides he can still accomplish his mission if he acts decisively. It is at this moment that Bloody Knife tells him about the road “we do not know.” By day’s end all but Captain Benteen’s brigade, which arrived at the battle scene tardily, and a portion of Reno’s brigade have been killed.

I recommend “A Road We Do Not Know” only to readers who appreciate the details of important historical events and who want to experience vicariously the thought-processes and emotions of more than two dozen characters. There are no romantic sub-plots here. Frederick J. Chiaventone knows his material. His novel is very well researched. He also knows how to write.

For instance, he presents both sides of the conflict. We learn the viewpoints of specific Indians including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. We see adherence to cultural beliefs completely foreign to whites. We can appreciate, for example, the importance Indians placed on decorating their bodies to produce “medicine” to ward off bullets. “A Road We Do Not Know” instructs us that human traits, good and bad, are universal in all men and that every civilization is tainted.

The author makes every character interesting. His dialogue is authentic. I enjoyed his vivid (not ostentatious) sensory detail. Here are two examples.

“He reached under his buckskin campaign jacket to pull out his gold hunter and thumbed the lid open. The other officers quickly reached for their own watches, and a series of dull clicks was heard as the lids popped open.”

“Hodgson managed to squeeze off two rounds before a volley of rifle fire sent four bullets ripping through his chest and arm. He sank back into the mud, small pink bubbles foaming out of his mouth.”

I do criticize Chiaventone for using so many characters. I recognize the importance of utilizing the experiences of numerous characters to capture the totality of a major historical event. I see them functioning like pieces of a jigsaw picture: some of them small; some definitely larger; all of them, placed together, presenting a comprehensible image. Nevertheless, the number of characters that Chiaventone introduced a third of the way through the novel overwhelmed me. The attention he gave to their back stories and their mundane activities prior to the 7th Cavalry’s arrival at the Little Bighorn River slowed considerably the pace of the novel. “Get on with it!” I groused. “I can’t give this book 5 stars, even though the writing is good and the research is excellent.” However, the last half of the novel caused me to dismiss this objection. The pace was swift. The writing was better than good. Chiaventone’s varied depiction of the death of his many characters made vivid the horrendous brutality of combat. It revealed the fear and rage men experience in immediate life-or-death circumstances. It illustrated the great harm done to mankind by innate self-interest and unbridled greed.