Looking back, I don’t know why I wasted time in my youth with soapy historical novels like Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War And Remembrance or, in the case of the Wild West and George Custer, Ernest Haycox’s Bugles In The Afternoon. Melodramatic love triangles and other angst related to matters of the heart involving fictional characters may work well with a romance novel, but in terms of bringing history to life, they –at least in my opinion- do nothing but gum up the works and make the story boring, not gripping.
Luckily enough, I soon discovered the likes of The Killer Angels ... and this novel.
Starting at 2 A.M. on June 25th, 1876, Chiaventone’s book puts soapy melodrama aside in favor of a straightforward retelling from that time of the fateful day to the destruction of Custer and the battalion under his personal command that day after the regiment was divided; a postscript set on July 5th at Fort Abraham Lincoln in which Libbie Custer and the other new widows get the news of the death of their respective husbands and a non-fiction summation of the fate of each character rounds off an incredible trip back in time that leaves in the dust Bugles In The Afternoon and each and every other novel depicting or touching upon the Little Bighorn campaign.
Deftly cutting back and forth between Custer’s men and the Indian village, A Road We Do Not Know brings the battle of Little Bighorn vividly to life in eloquent but even-handed prose that does not elevate either side to saint or demon but focuses on their humanity. Even Custer is depicted as a person, not, say, the bombastic cavalryman from the book version of Little Big Man or the sadistic madman of Arthur Penn’s heavy-handed film version.
Chiaventone infuses his novel with only a modest amount of dramatic license (chiefly in the area of what happened with Custer’s battalion after it was last sighted) that in no way undermines the truth and drama of the day like the pre-battle soap involving a love triangle between a cavalry trooper, and officer, and a woman does Bugles. In fact, it is such a good book, the only other thing I can say is that it is a must for those caught up in the lore of the American West, the Plains Indian, George Custer, or all three.