Review: Crazy Horse and Custer: Born Enemies, S. D. Nelson

Review: Crazy Horse and Custer: Born Enemies, S. D. NelsonCrazy Horse and Custer: Born Enemies by S.D. Nelson
Published by Harry N. Abrams on November 9, 2021
Genres: Biography, Childrens, History, Nonfiction, Young Adult
Pages: 144
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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four-stars

With photographs and stunning illustrations from acclaimed author-artist S.D. Nelson, this thrilling double biography juxtaposes the lives of two enemies whose conflict changed American history: Crazy Horse and George Custer.

In 1876, Lakota chief Crazy Horse helped lead his people’s resistance against the white man’s invasion of the northern Great Plains. One of the leaders of the US military forces was Army Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. The men had long been enemies. At the height of the war, when tribalism had reached its peak, they crossed paths for the last time.

In this action-packed double biography, S. D. Nelson draws fascinating parallels between Crazy Horse and Custer, whose lives were intertwined. These warriors were alike in many ways, yet they often collided in deadly rivalry. Witness reports and reflections by their peers and enemies accompany side-by-side storytelling that offers very different perspectives on the same historical events. The two men’s opposing destinies culminated in the infamous Battle of the Greasy Grass, as the Lakota called it, or the Battle of the Little Bighorn, as it was called by the Euro-Americans.

In Crazy Horse and Custer, Nelson’s gripping narrative and signature illustration style based on Plains Indians ledger art, along with a mix of period photographs and paintings, shines light on two men whose conflict forever changed Lakota and US history. The book includes an author’s note, timeline, endnotes, and bibliography.

This book approaches the biographies of Crazy Horse and George Armstrong Custer by drawing parallels between their lives. It is striking that the two men who would face each other at the Battle of Little Bighorn were born a year apart and died a year apart. I appreciated that Nelson did not engage in the hagiography of either man but instead demonstrated their humanity, flaws and all. Truthfully, though, it’s hard for Custer to come across well to a modern reader, revered as he might have been at the time of his death. The author even points out that in our current time, Crazy Horse is largely admired while Custer is reviled.

I first became interested in this history when I saw the film Little Big Man as a middle schooler. It’s a great film and one of the first (if not the very first) revisionist Western. Though the main character is a White man who is kidnapped by Cheyenne as a child and assimilated into the tribe, some (though admittedly not all) of the Cheyenne characters are played by Native actors, and indigenous people are shown in a more sympathetic light than Hollywood had traditionally depicted them. After seeing this film, I started to read about what happened with Custer, who is a character in the movie.

This book seems to be pitched to late middle-grade readers. I admit I learned a lot I didn’t know about both men. I had no idea Custer and his father were pro-slavery, for example. I knew next to nothing of Crazy Horse’s biography. The book is organized into short chapters that alternate between the biographies of both men. The author explains that he feels uniquely qualified to tell this story as the descendant of a Lakota woman who married a White man who had served under Custer in the Army until being honorably discharged before the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Though the intended audience for this book is probably middle schoolers, anyone with a passing interest in the history of the so-called Indian Wars might enjoy reading this book. I appreciated the author’s artwork as part of the storytelling as well. Crazy Horse and George Armstrong Custer both come alive in the pages of this book.

four-stars

November Reading Round-Up

by Amanda Gorman, Frané Lessac, Loren Long, Nikkolas Smith, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pascal Dizin, Renée Watson, Tiffanie DeBartolo, Traci Sorell
Published by Charlesbridge Publishing, First Second, Kokila, Viking Books for Young Readers Genres: Biography, Childrens
Format: Hardcover, Paperback

I haven’t had much time to do reviews lately, so I’m going to gather up a few short reviews for books I’ve read since finishing the last book I reviewed, Sourdough Culture. I re-read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad as I was teaching both books this month. I tried something I have never done before I listened to both books as I took my daily walks at 1.3x speed. I found I was able to keep up and get through the readings more quickly. I’m not sure it would work with books I’ve never read before, but it was a great timesaver for re-reading books I needed to read for work.

I also re-read Frankenstein along with Michael Ian Black’s podcast Obscure. It was interesting, as Michael pointed out some of the book’s flaws, and I have to admit I hadn’t noticed these storytelling issues in the past, largely, I believe, as a result of English teacher conditioning. I’d be the first to admit not all classics are great, but it was interesting to read this book along with someone who didn’t like it.

This book was outstanding. I often purchase children’s books for classroom use even though I teach high school because if you can explain a topic to a child, pretty much anyone can understand it. Over the last five years or so, in particular, children’s publishing has made a much greater effort to incorporate books about children of color by authors of color. They still have a way to go, but it’s important for all children to see themselves in books, and it’s also important for all children to learn about people who are different from them. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop developed the term “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” to explain this concept. The sliding glass doors are an invitation to enter, to go inside. I was able to attend a keynote at a recent English teacher’s conference in which the author Nikole Hannah-Jones and illustrator Nikkolas Smith discussed the making of this book, and it was fascinating to hear about the way Smith developed the artwork, which is gorgeous. What I love most about this book is the counternarrative it offers to a colonist’s perspective that an indigenous culture had no culture. Naturally, this is never true, but it’s a lie that is often told to justify treating people as less than human. This would be a great gift for any child’s library, and it should also be in every school and classroom library.

This book was good. Let me start by saying that I’m a huge fan of Jeff Buckley’s, and I have been for a long time. I recently went to see a touring production of Hadestown with my husband, and once my husband pointed out that Orpheus was giving off Jeff Buckley vibes, I couldn’t unsee it. I listened to the off-Broadway production and discovered that Damon Daunno pretty much sounds just like Jeff Buckley.

And he even resembles him a bit. Broadway performer Reeve Carney has been tapped to play Jeff Buckley in a film production based on the artist’s life. I remembered I had this graphic biography on my wishlist, so I went ahead and purchased it. I felt that at times, the story was not treated with seriousness, but this feeling has more to do with the art than the writing. I really didn’t care for the art; the cover led me to believe I’d be seeing something different inside the book, and while some of the art was fantastic, most of it was too cartoony. The story sort of peters out after Buckley records Grace, and I would have liked to have seen more of his story. The book seems to imply that Buckley committed suicide, which is a rumor that has been given no credit by anyone who knew him.

This was another classroom library purchase, and I think it explains very succinctly what issues indigenous people have experienced with settler colonialism in the USA. I was not surprised to learn one of the sources for the information was David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. I learned much of the information covered in this children’s book from Treuer’s book. However, as I said before, if you can explain it to a child, you can explain it to anyone. One of the reviewers on Goodreads complained this would not make a great read-aloud for children, and I would say I agree with that assessment. It’s more of an information text for people of all ages who want to learn about the issues the book discusses.

In contrast to the previous book, this book was made for read-alouds, and it’s no wonder, as Amanda Gorman is a brilliant young poet. This book’s catchy language will appeal to people of all ages, as well. I would highly recommend it to anyone thinking of gifts for children, especially. I’m not sure if it has a place in my classroom library, as it doesn’t focus on a single issue, though the artwork makes it clear the book is about community organization. I think that’s what would make the book appealing to children, however. It’s a beautifully written and beautifully illustrated book.

Update 12/2: I have removed the name of one of the illustrators of Grace by request. I retrieve all metadata on books from Goodreads.