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The Contract Surgeon by Dan O'Brien

The Contract Surgeon

by Dan O'Brien

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This is a fairly short novel about a young Army surgeon, Valentine McGillycuddy, as he cares for the Oglala Lakota warrior and leader Crazy Horse after the latter is arrested and badly wounded in a scuffle at an Army camp in northwestern Nebraska in 1877. The story is narrated by an ageing McGillycuddy many years later, and it ranges back and forth with short reminiscences about all sorts of things. Particular focus lies on McGillycuddy's love for his young wife Fanny, his obsession with the Great Plains, and his forays there as a surveyor prior to the wars with the Sioux, and also as a member of General George Crook's famous "Horsemeat March" in pursuit of the Lakota group of warriors, one of whom was Crazy Horse. There are also many short but vivid images from the medical side of things: not a book for the faint-hearted.

I liked it and must say that despite being a relatively short book, it provoked a lot of thought. I loved the TV show Deadwood, and this was a near-perfect complement to that show, which barely touched upon the situation of the Indians, with the exception of two excellent episodes, one in which the character Seth Bullock encounters a Native American man in the forest, and another in which General Crook and the men of the Army arrive in the town after their difficult pursuit, a scene which is passed over briefly in this novel. The only failing I think is that the drama of the central episode in the book (the arrest and wounding of Crazy Horse, and McGillycuddy's treatment of him) is overplayed. When I say overplayed, I mean that McGillycuddy describes his recollection of events in quite a suspenseful and dramatic way ("I did not know the events to come that day would shock me so much more...", etc.), but the revelation of conspiracy and treachery at the end of the novel is rather flat, and the characters who surround McGillycuddy and Crazy Horse, especially the other Army officers, are not described well enough. In a lot of literature I've found that the supporting cast are often portrayed very well, often better than the main characters. For example, in Les Miserables I felt there was an inverse relationship between my interest in a character and the number of pages devoted to them. Here I think it was the opposite.

Definitely worth reading. Despite never having been to this part of the world, and little prospect of visiting anytime soon, I think I'd like to read much more about it. I think this book is part of a trilogy, so perhaps I should start there! Perhaps I'll start with The Indian Agent, the sequel to this, published in 2011. ( )
  seabear | May 5, 2013 |
O'Brien tells a good story and The Contract Surgeon is a great read. I was particularly intrigued by the way he framed the story, having the narrator, Dr Valentine McGillycuddy, tell his tale from a vantage point of old age, nearly sixty years after the day that Crazy Horse died. This "old guy" narrator seems to keep popping up in my reading lately, notably in books like RULES FOR OLD MEN WAITING and the recent Pulitzer Prize winner, TINKERS. And it's cool; I like it. O'Brien had the foresight to make the most of this narrative tool by including A Chronology of Events that gives you a thumbnail history of the western Indian wars of the 1870s. This helps you follow the back and forth nature of the narrative. But the principals here - McGillycuddy and his wife Fanny - come across as very real people. Crazy Horse is not quite so well-realized. But perhaps the author felt there had already been enough written about this notorious war chief. Or maybe "notorious" is the wrong word, because Crazy Horse stories have run the gamut over the years. He has been both villified and deified. My guess is he was just a man, and O'Brien does a pretty good job of making him just that, in this case a pretty good man, who did the best he could. This was a pretty quick read. I was surprised how quickly it was over. If you are interested in western history, you'll probably like The Contract Surgeon. I don't think I've enjoyed a western novel quite this much since reading Will Henry's I, TOM HORN years ago. ( )
  TimBazzett | May 21, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0618087834, Paperback)

This beautifully written historical novel from one of the West's most popular writers tells the true story of the friendship between Valentine McGillicuddy, a young doctor plucked from his prestigious medical career and newly married wife to serve in the army during the Great Sioux War, and the great chief Crazy Horse. When Crazy Horse finally agrees to surrender to the United States, mistrust and treachery on both sides foster further conflict, and he is gravely wounded. McGillicuddy declares the chief his patient and struggles through a long night to keep him alive.
Set in the sprawling Great Plains during the most tragic period in its history, this tale of bravery, justice, and love weaves a tapestry of time and events into the account of a single day--the last in the life of Crazy Horse--to reveal the secrets surrounding America's past.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:50 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

An old man tells the story of his days as a surgeon with the army, fighting Indians, and of his friendship with Crazy Horse, the Sioux chief, whom he treated in the last days of his life. By the author of Equinox.

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