Book Review: Thieves’ Road
by Terry Mort
Prometheus Books, 2015
Of all the Muses, Clio is the most fickle toward her clergy. True, Terpischore is tough on the knees, Urania can encourage a sense of personal insignificance, and Euterpe’s people don’t get much work these days, but all those devotees at least know a certain level of divine consistency. Catullus might have received nothing but misery at the hands of Erato, but he also knew he was the best damn love-poet the human race has ever produced, and he knew that all the other love-poets knew it.
But history? A writer can study hard at school, acquire second and third languages, spend posture-denting hours poring over yellowing records in basements from Stuttgart to Seattle, estrange loved ones during long hours of composition (hence the cringing, please-don’t-change-the-locks tone of the Acknowledgments section of so many history books), pray late in into the night to find a publisher, and then … and then an unapologetic idiot can hire some drudge to slap together a tissue-thin list of factual errors, slap his name on it, and Killing Patton spends 25 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Clio might have a perverse sense of humor, but that’s got to be precious little consolation to her true believers.
Terry Mort published The Hemingway Patrols in 2009, and it was a corker of a book, a full-length study of the hare-brained scheme Ernest Hemingway had to hunt German U-boats during World War Two with his yacht. It managed the almost impossible feat of generating the maximum amount of laughter without ever souring the reader toward its subject – Hemingway himself would have loved every page of it. In 2013, Mort published a far darker and more powerful book, The Wrath of Cochise, a grippingly dramatic unearthing of the very human incident that sparked the Apache Wars, which lasted, on and off (but mostly on) for a quarter of a century. These were solid books, books to be proud of, books that taught. They confirmed no stereotypes; they required no ghostwriter; they made no factual errors.
His latest book, Thieves’ Road, is his best so far. It tells the story of the large (1000 troops, over 100 wagons, plenty of ordnance) expedition led into the Black Hills of South Dakota in the summer of 1874 by none other than George Armstrong Custer, the flashy, charismatic Brevet Major in the U.S. Army who would achieve – quite unwillingly – immortal fame two years later at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The United States government had signed treaties with the actual inhabitants of the Black Hills, the Sioux, explicitly prohibiting what Custer was doing, but this mattered as little to Custer as it did to the Grant administration back in Washington, for one very simple reason: gold. Prospectors in the Black Hills had been trickling back East telling stories about rich deposits on Indian land, setting off a chain reaction that was as unstoppable as a tidal wave. Mort is richly sardonic about the rumor-mongering:
Since so few westerners had actually seen the Black Hills or their reputed riches, the stories told by a few mountain men who had been there gathered mythic status over the years. The Hills were a jewel in an Ethiope’s ear, and the problem was how to disengage the ear from the Ethiope. Or to change the metaphor, westerners felt themselves to be collectively a current day Tantalus, but a Tantalus who was being punished, not by the gods, but by detested eastern bureaucrats – and self-appointed humanitarians and parsons – policy makers who understood neither economics nor the difficulties and dangers endured by the western settlers. Let those eastern Pecksniffs spend a night on the Plains, where there was no help for miles and the darkness went on forever, and let them listen to the howls of the wolves and wonder whether the wolves walked on four legs or two.
But the book’s best, most re-readable portions deal with the personalities of the story, from the troopers to the scouts (some of whom would also die at Little Bighorn) to the Eastern politicians and newspapermen, to the Sioux peoples themselves and their manifold contradictions, which Mort captures with a degree of subtlety and narrative strength to rival Francis Parkman:
The richness of their mythology and theology should not obscure the fact that they were fierce and generally brutal tribes, enemies not only of the white interlopers but of neighboring and equally brutal tribes from whom they stole horses, territory and sometime even corn, squash and other crops of the more sedentary tribes, like the Arikaras. These raids were an important element in their economy and the social system, for raiding enemies and stealing their horses were the primary ways for a warrior to distinguish himself and so rise in the ranks. (It’s no wonder that Custer admired them, in his way, for the Sioux warrior and Custer defined success in remarkably similar ways – the acclaim of the multitude after success on the battlefield.) The Sioux lived by hunting, by raiding and by gathering – fruits, berries and vegetables – this latter job generally, though not always, assigned to the women. The men did not “work” in the sense that the white civilization understood the term. Nor did they want to.
That parenthetical observation about Custer himself is a point of pure, easy genius, and it’s not alone; Thieves’ Road is never more brilliant than when it’s dissecting the man who is by necessity its star player. “Just after the end of the Civil War something happened to Custer,” Mort writes. “The Boy General who was legitimately admired by his troops, witness their copying his red scarf and flamboyant manner, changed into an often cruel martinet.”
Two years before that martinet would lead his men into a slaughter he could easily have avoided at Little Bighorn, he led them to all the petty villainies and revolting corruptions of the expedition Mort chronicles so astutely. If Clio were anything like a constant mistress (you don’t see Melpomene arranging Pulitzers for the head writer of The Bold and the Beautiful and leaving Eugene O’Neill muttering in the midlist, do you? She’s a good girl, that Melpomene), Thieves’ Road would be spending the rest of the winter and a chunk of the spring up at the top of all the bestseller lists, and history buffs everywhere would know Terry Mort for the lock-solid sure thing he is. Instead, that spot will probably go to Killing Custer. It’s enough to give an author gray hairs.