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Book review: Son of the Morning Star

A look at Evan S. Connell's take on George Custer and the Little Bighorn

In death, George Armstrong Custer haunts the legacy of the Old West like a ghost trapped in a worldly realm, forever riding off to die with a good portion of his regiment at the storied Battle of Little Bighorn.

In this best-selling book first published in 1984 Evan S. Connell gives us his take on the subject in beautiful prose such as this:

“As values change, so does one’s evaluation of the past and one’s impression of long gone actors.  New myths replace the old.  During the nineteenth century G.A.C. was vastly admired.  Today his image has fallen face down in the mud and his middle initial, which stands for Armstrong, could mean Anathema.”

Connell also looks at more than just Custer. Marcus Reno, Frederick Benteen, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull also get good looks as well.

There is, however, a major flaw lurking beneath the beautiful prose: fuzzy presentation of certain facts.  A good example of which can be found two paragraphs above the previously quoted text when Connell, sketching out Custer as a tactician, writes:  “In a tight situation his response was instantaneous and predictable; he charged. This response to challenge was not something he learned; he reacted as instinctively as a Miura fighting bull.  When he was a schoolboy he once drove his fist through a window at a classmate outside who was making faces at him.  Such uncontrolled violence quite often will carry the day, although not necessarily.”

A look at Jay Monaghan’s biography of Custer (which Connell read and mentions once) reveals that Custer did indeed drive his fist through a window at a classmate … because he was reciting an algebra lesson at the time and decided to one-up the prankster with a bop in the nose!  Hardly some kind of dark, deep-rooted “uncontrolled violence” lurking in the man; it was just Custer the epic prankster one-upping a childhood competitor.

Also, in my opinion, Connell does not know what to make of Custer, which leaves one wondering whether the author was in favor of the ill-fated general or not.

Finally, though there is a bibliography and an index the book lacks footnotes of any kind, which leaves readers in the dark as to where the information came from.

I’d still recommend this based on how well-written it is, however, and think that overall it is an excellent meditation on the most mythologized battle of the Plains Indian Wars.