Nathaniel Philbrick’s brilliant book concludes with an epilogue surveying the historiographical pendulum-swing undergone by the reputation of Colonel Custer and received wisdom surrounding his fate and the battle of Little Bighorn. The Last Stand is as much an investigation into myth-making as it is a straightforward history, and Philbrick charts a course between different extremes of opinion, allowing for a three dimensional portrayal of both sides. Philbrick compares several historical accounts and while not dismissing any nor presenting a definitive revision, he clearly describes the ambiguity around different points in the story, and leaves the decision-making up to the listener’s informed imagination.
Philbrick has achieved one of two great things with this book. The first is his masterful handling of the material at his disposal, and his ability to spin the narrative thread through the build-up to Little Bighorn and the chaos and confusion of the climactic battle. With the help of George Guidall’s assured delivery, the listener never loses sight of the battle’s development, even though the author has a habit of suddenly shifting the narrative back and forth in time and pausing the action to delve into the back stories of even the most minor character.
His other achievement is to bring nuance to the experience of the Sioux and Cheyenne Indian nations – this is, of course, as much their story as it is of western expansionism. His depictions of Sitting Bull, as well as the trackers, warriors, wives, and daughters are all embraced into the main storyline. Hand in hand with this approach is Philbrick’s evocation of the landscape; the nautical theme of his previous books means that he can here write of the Great Plains as if he’s describing the shifting moods of the sea. Again, Guidall delivers these passages beautifully, highlighting the timelessness of the setting, and reinforcing our continued fascination with this epochal page in history.
“Hindsight makes Custer look like an egomaniacal fool,” Philbrick writes with understatement, “but...he came frighteningly close to winning the most spectacular victory of his career.” Note the use of “frighteningly” it’s that ambiguity towards Custer’s story that gives depth to this book, a trait shared by most great histories, of which this is certainly one. Dafydd Phillips
The best-selling author of Mayflower sheds new light on one of the iconic stories of the American West.
Little Bighorn and Custer are names synonymous in the American imagination with unmatched bravery and spectacular defeat. Mythologized as Custer's Last Stand, the June 1876 battle has been equated with other famous last stands, from the Spartans' defeat at Thermopylae to Davy Crockett at the Alamo.
In his tightly structured narrative, Nathaniel Philbrick brilliantly sketches the two larger-than-life antagonists: Sitting Bull, whose charisma and political savvy earned him the position of leader of the Plains Indians, and George Armstrong Custer, one of the Union's greatest cavalry officers and a man with a reputation for fearless and often reckless courage.
Philbrick reminds listeners that the Battle of the Little Bighorn was also, even in victory, the last stand for the Sioux and Cheyenne Indian nations. Increasingly outraged by the government's Indian policies, the Plains tribes allied themselves and held their ground in southern Montana. Within a few years of Little Bighorn, however, all the major tribal leaders would be confined to Indian reservations.
Throughout, Philbrick beautifully evokes the history and geography of the Great Plains with his characteristic grace and sense of drama. The Last Stand is a mesmerizing account of the archetypal story of the American West, one that continues to haunt our collective imagination.
©2010 Nathaniel Philbrick (P)2010 Penguin
I have, over the past several months, become an ardent fan of Nathaniel Philbrick. He has a gift for weaving astonishing amounts of information together in a way that is convincing, fascinating, and deeply human.
I had high hopes for Last Stand after Philbrick's spectacular work on Valiant Ambition and In the Heart of the Sea. Philbrick's talent for storytelling combined with one of the most famous stories in American history seemed like a perfect union. I'm sad to report that the book did not meet my expectations.
To start, the book does a poor job of humanizing George Armstrong Custer. While Philbrick typically develops his characters rather deeply by delving into often unknown areas of their pasts, Last Stand spends only a minimum amount of time doing so for Custer. There is little mention of his childhood, his time at West Point, or his experience during the Civil War. These things are mentioned, but mostly only in the form of anecdotes--thin snapshots of Custer's deeper story. In fact, the book does a considerably better job of humanizing Custer's (admittedly fascinating) wife, fellow officers, and opponent, Sitting Bull. I appreciated these efforts, but I would have liked to delve deeper into Custer himself. By the time Custer died toward the very end of the book, I still felt disconnected from him in a way that greatly lessened the climax's impact.
Speaking of the battle, Last Stand takes an extraordinarily long time to arrive at the titular moment on the banks of the Little Big Horn. That delay would be fine if the chapters leading up to the disaster were focused on setting the stage for an emotional punch, but, with a few notable exceptions, they are not. Instead, Philbrick, a man with an innate talent for distilling vast quantities of information into digestible morsels, seems to get strangely lost in minutia--and especially geographic and hierarchical minutia--that left me feeling lost, out of my depth, and somewhat frustrated. Perhaps this complaint is simply a function of my own ignorance, but it's a significant enough departure from Philbrick's usual flow to merit a mention.
The good news is that the last section of the book about the battle itself is spectacular. So spectacular, in fact, that it actually amplified my frustration with the book's slow, meandering method of arriving at the event itself. Here, in the dusty, blood-soaked hills of Montana, Philbrick is at his best. And his best is so good that I would still recommend this book to those interested in the Battle of the Little Big Horn despite its shortcomings.
As a final note, I found the narrator adequate. Not spectacular, but adequate. His voice and inflection don't fit Philbrick's writing as well as those of Scott Brick, who narrates many other Philbrick audio books, but he does a decent enough job to avoid being a distraction.
I enjoyed Last Stand in the end, but I had to work for that enjoyment more than I would have liked. It's definitely not Philbrick's strongest showing. That said, it's still a cut above the average historical tone. Western history buffs should definitely take a look.
I have to admit that I'm a total Audible junkie. MUST have book going at all times. I may be the subject of a family intervention someday.
This is a gem of a book that really brings history to life, exploring the complexities of the players and circumstances surrounding a legendarily horrible event, one that often gets flattened to cartoon dimensions. Philbrick avoids the pitfalls that usually attend works on this subject, neither demonizing Custer nor painting him as a superhero. The personalities and motivations of both Sitting Bull and Custer are examined for flaws and virtues, at least as far as the evidence we have will allow, although the author makes it clear that much about the events of June 1876 at Little Big Horn will always be a mystery. The eyewitness accounts of surviving US soldiers and Lakota warriors leap off the page and rattle the bones. If only American history classes were taught with this much thoughtfulness, insight and plain old drama, we'd all be wiser and better off.
And need I even say it? . . . The Great Guidall reads this book as nobody else could!!! As usual his reading is so well crafted that you don't realize you've been under his spell until it's all over. Magic.
true crime fan
This book taught me a lot about "Custer's Last Stand." From previous accounts and less than complimentary movies, I always assumed Custer was an arrogant showboater who put his men in danger because of his hubris and recklessness-that was definitely part of it but there were so many more aspects to this tragedy-stupid decisions made from the beginning of the campaign and poor implementation by less than stellar officers. The fingerpointing after the battle was pathetic; no one wanted to take responsibility for their part in the failure. I have not changed my opinion about Custer but this book makes it clear that he was not the sole architect of this debacle.
This was my second audiobook ever and I have to say I chose very well.
In my younger years I read several books about Native Americans, Custer, and the Battle at the Little Big Horn and it was so very fascinating then.
After reading (listening) to the "The Last Stand" the fascination and enjoyment continues now that I am older (55+).
Mr. Philbrick has provided an excellent source into this historical period of time. Not only was he able to provide clarifications on the battle, but an insight into how the government thought and acted towards our Native American citizens.
I commend him on this work and thank him for this A+ effort.
Philbrick goes beyond the cliches in search of what Custer was really like and who he really was. Interactions between Custer and his fellow officers in the 7th Cavalry are well told. The Last Stand and the events leading up to it are shared as well from the point-of-view of the Native Americans who participated.
Insightful, intelligent and interesting.
The description of the famous battle.
His way of reading made you feel as if you were a witness to the actual events.
What probably really happened at Little Bighorn.
Loved the book
This was one of the best books I have read. A great historical read.
George is one of the best!
Say something about yourself!
Knowing the ending when you start gives every sentence that writing-on-the-wall sense of foreboding. And when its history, you are looking to see how what you think you know fits with the facts. Philbrick structures this book by first giving the reader a look at George Armstrong Custer's military background, and some of his less than humble antics: though he was unarguably a brave and cunning soldier that instilled in his men allegiance, his arrogance and public appeal earned him many enemies among his superiors. The researched insights provided reveal the character of Custer, show the side of the man less written about. He also gives similar backgrounds on the other principal participants involved: Major Marcus Reno, accused here of being a drunkard, outspoken enemy Frederick Benteen (each a leader of two of the three columns of the 7th Cavalry), General Alfred Terry (Custer’s commander), Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux.
The book moves from these key players back and forth through the history, the politics leading up to the battle, and other events circling around the looming battle. I found this approach crisp and easy to follow rather than confusing, wonderfully executed by Philbrick. We know much of this history already, the great deceits that had already nearly destroyed the Indians, the many battles, but it was interesting to read how all of the events and personalities came together. Adding some credence to what we often have to take as speculation were the included interviews with survivors, and information from some of the archeological digs at the battle site in Montana, with the caution that there were no verifiable survivors of Custer's actual fall.
All I can add to the many reviews here is to say that an actual copy of the book is invaluable to this audio version -- the maps and photos are superb and put this on a scope hard to imagine. This was one of the best written books I've read on this monumental battle that was not only Custer's last stand, but the end of the Plains Indians.
The book jumps back and forth through history. This is not a problem with a physical book in front of you, but is problematic on audio. I found myself lost multiple times only to learn that we had gone back 10 years. The last 5 chapters are fantastic and offer great details.
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