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Crazy Horse: A Penguin Lives Biography (original 1999; edition 1999)

by Larry McMurtry

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394927,176 (3.64)17
Member:occupymuskegon
Title:Crazy Horse: A Penguin Lives Biography
Authors:Larry McMurtry
Info:Viking Adult (1999), Hardcover, 160 pages
Collections:Your library
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Tags:NON-CIRCULATING, from Hackley Public Library

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Crazy Horse by Larry McMurtry (1999)

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Because this is such a slight volume in size, a reader might think this would be a good introductory biography of Crazy Horse. While I thought it was an excellent book, it's really not for the uninitiated. Anyone who doesn't have at least a bare-bones knowledge of the outlines of Crazy Horse's life and the Plains Indians wars that brought him to public attention might find himself at a loss. (A good book to provide such context is The Killing of Crazy Horse by Thomas Powers.)

In what really is not much more than an extended essay, McMurtry offers these insights:
1) The encounter between whites and Indians was a true clash of cultures. While it's clearly apparent the whites misunderstood the Indians, the Indians also misunderstood the whites. For one thing, Indians had no history of practicing genocide. When the US cavalry wiped out entire Indian villages, the Indians traumatized by the action. When Crazy Horse finally surrendered himself to the army, he had no idea that the whites were so dishonorable they would actually kill him. Crazy Horse was in fact perhaps more naive than many other chiefs because he purposely kept his distance from whites most of his life--other Indians who had had more experience in treaty negotiations, etc., knew how untrustworthy their counterparts could be.
2) While Crazy Horse certainly possessed many noble qualities, the reason he has become such a sainted figure in native memory (even called an "Indian Christ") is perhaps due to the fact that he was martyred right at a time when, meeting their defeat, the native population needed a hero to extol. If Crazy Horse had lived to a ripe old age, taking part in Wild West Shows or settling into reservation life, whatever his admirable exploits in earlier life, he would probably not be held in similar regard.

For those who have an interest in this period of American history, this is a very thoughtful book. ( )
  kvrfan | Apr 25, 2015 |
It is not much of a biography as there is not much factual information, although McMurtry writes what little there is quite well. ( )
  texbrown | Apr 28, 2011 |
A funny little biography, in which the author takes issue with most other biographers -- so little is known about Crazy Horse's life that most writers make things up along the way, or so says Larry McMurtry. Still, in only 140 pages, learned a lot. For one, I know that I'd like to see this sculpture of Crazy Horse emerging from the mountains of South Dakota one day http://www.crazyhorse.org/ ( )
  klf67 | Nov 16, 2009 |
Larry McMurtry tries to wade through all the interviews, the conjectures, and the myths surrounding the life and death of the Native American warrior Crazy Horse only to find many gaps in the historical record. He does what he can with the supporting evidence, but where history gets hazy, he supplies the reader with a level-headed history of the many conflicts concerning the Plains Indians. His short narrative gives the reader a glimpse into life on the Greats Plains and just how sad many of the stories are. ( )
  NielsenGW | Jul 19, 2009 |
Larry McMurtry (Telegraph Days, Lonesome Dove) brings his clean and concise writing style to this brief but illuminating life of Crazy Horse.

This compact little biography is one of the Penguin Lives series that features what Penguin Books web site describes as an "innovative series of biographies pairing celebrated writers with famous individuals who have shaped our thinking." The series is worth looking into for its other biographies of Churchill by John Keegan, Buddha by Karen Armstrong, and Saint Augustine by Garry Wills among others.

In the case of Crazy Horse not a heck of lot is really known about the man. As McMurtry points out, most of what we know about Crazy Horse and most Indians derives from their contact with whites and Crazy Horse generally avoided whites to the fullest extent possible. He was a brave warrior, a leader of his people at times, but not truly a chief, a loner, an iconoclast within a tribe of iconoclasts.

Crazy Horse is an iconic figure who captures the imagination. His life of some 35 or so years spanned the rapid transformation of the West from the free days of the nomadic Plains tribes and limitless buffalo herds to the confinement of those peoples on poor reservations and the destruction of the herds. Crazy Horse never really yielded to the whites unlike nearly all other Indian leaders, not that it mattered much in the grand scheme of things because no strategy was going to change the ultimate outcome. Crazy Horse declined to go to Washington, resisted any restraints, refused to attend the parleys with the whites.

He did ultimately sacrifice his own freedom when he brought his 900 or so followers after the brutal winter of 1876-1877 - just months after the twin victories over Crook at Rosebud and Custer at Little Bighorn. Crazy Horse was killed, probably by the bayonet of a white soldier as he resisted his final arrest. His death was a blessing as the whites planned to ship him to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, a tiny prison atoll in Florida.

Unlike other popular authors, notably Stephen Ambrose, McMurtry resists the temptation to let his imagination roam too freely and sticks mostly to the known facts and reasonable deductions to be drawn from them. Those facts however immutably established Crazy Horse as perhaps the single most romantic and heroic figure of the great American Western epic. He lived free, defeated Custer, the great white romantic figure, and then died young "in the last moments when the Sioux could think of themselves as free. By an accident of fate, the man and the way of life died together...he came to be the symbol of Sioux freedom, Sioux courage, and Sioux dignity." (Page 17, hardcover edition)

Highly recommended for any reader with an interest in the American West. ( )
1 vote dougwood57 | Nov 10, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0670882348, Hardcover)

In writing his superb life of Crazy Horse, Larry McMurtry faced the same obstacle as every previous biographer of the Oglala Sioux icon: a notable paucity of facts. This didn't inhibit such chroniclers as Mari Sandoz or Stephen Ambrose (whose dual portrait of Crazy Horse and George Custer featured a certain amount of authorial ventriloquism). In this case, however, the shortage of documentation actually works to the reader's advantage. Unencumbered by reams of scholarly detail, McMurtry's book has the shapeliness and inevitability of a fine novella. The author may describe it as an "exercise in assumption, conjecture, and surmise"--but his phrase does scant justice to this elegant, admirably scrupulous portrait.

As McMurtry recounts, Crazy Horse was born around 1840 in what is now South Dakota. Already the arrival of white settlers--who brought with them such mixed blessings as metal tools, firearms, and smallpox--had begun to transform the culture of the Plains Indians. But soon a more ominous note crept into the relationship: "The Plains Indians were beginning to be seen as mobile impediments; what they stood in the way of was progress, a concept dear to the American politician." As whites sought to remove these impediments with increasing brutality, Crazy Horse led his people in a sporadic and ultimately doomed resistance, which peaked at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Within a year the young warrior (and occasional visionary) had surrendered to the United States Army. Four months later he was dead, stabbed in a highly suspicious scuffle with white and Indian policemen, and the Sioux resistance died with its legendary leader.

McMurtry's powers of compression are formidable. In no more than a few rapid paragraphs, he gives a sense of how this "prairie Platonist" divided the world into transient things and eternal, invisible spirits. He also conveys his opinion of Caucasian double-dealing with fine, acerbic efficiency: "In August, Custer emerged and described the beauties of the Black Hills in mouthwatering terms. In another life he would have made a wonderful real-estate developer. In this case he sold one of the most beautiful pieces of real estate in the West to a broke, depressed public who couldn't wait to get into those hills and start scratching up gold." McMurtry's Crazy Horse is the leanest and least rhetorical version yet of this American tragedy--which makes it, oddly enough, among the most moving. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:58 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Strips away the tall tales of legend to reveal the essence of Crazy Horse, profiling him as a brilliant and ascetic warrior-hero whose life exemplified Native American tragedy and the end of the untamed West. Legends cloud the life of Crazy Horse, a seminal figure of American history but an enigma even to his own people in his own day. Yet his story remains an encapsulation of the Native American tragedy and the death of the untamed West. Crazy Horse strips away the tall tales to reveal the essence of this brilliant, ascetic warrior-hero. Larry McMurtry's vivid, carefully considered, succinct biography will lure not only his own fans but history buffs, Western enthusiasts, students of all things Native American, and anyone concerned with the white man's atonement and restitution to native peoples. In a portrait that only he could render, Larry McMurtry captures the poignant passing of a time and offers a vibrant new understanding of the mythic Crazy Horse and what he stood for.… (more)

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