Crazy Horse, by Larry McMurtry
The first review notes I saw on McMurtry's little chapbook biography of Crazy Horse complained that he had 'nothing new' to add. One writer goes so far as to recommend Win Blevins' "Stone Fox" [That's
Stone Song, folks.] as a better book! A couple send you back to Mari Sandoz' wonderful biographical novel, Crazy Horse, Strange Man of the Oglalas, recently published by the University of Nebraska in a fiftieth anniversary edition.
Of course McMurtry has nothing new to add. Crazy Horse had faded into myth even before he died; his life is no more a historical fact than the life of Buddha, Jesus, or Genghis Khan. What we know about him is almost all hearsay, and the 'facts' come from the last three months of this life, during his incarceration. A 'life' is not a biographical encyclopedia. It is a mediation, an evaluation.
McMurtry walks a narrow path between the romantic notions of the Indian currently in vogue and speculations about the real human being inside the costume. This, of course, creates the opportunity to offend everyone. He describes the very human disorientation and despair Crazy Horse may have felt when he surrendered. His Crazy Horse may have chosen to die, the way a caged beast may withdraw into itself, willing its own retreat from impossible life.
Was he as 'tough a nut' as Geronimo and Sitting Bull? Apples and oranges. Or rather, mountain lions and buffalo. The whole spectrum of responses to the end includes Crazy Horse and Satanta at one extreme and Red Cloud? Spotted Tail? Standing Bear and Charles Eastman? at the other. It's an odd choice of words, to associate Geronimo and Sitting Bull with 'toughness.' They adapted, like grizzlies foraging in the park dump. And Sitting Bull was not "successful"; he was killed almost the same way Crazy Horse was, thirteen years later.
A major theme of a 'life' is meaning. What does Crazy Horse 'mean' in our national soul? Here McMurtry shines. Crazy Horse was, as McMurtry says, a Christlike figure, his significance enhanced by his death, coinciding as it did with the collapse of the Plains Indian armed resistance to white genocide. He has become a myth and a symbol, reconfigured by each passing generation. The master war chief has given way to the sensitive outsider.
When Peter Matthiessen titled his excellent book on the 1973 Wounded Knee incident In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, he was referring to the Seventies image of Crazy Horse as the mythic freedom fighter, charismatic leader of the Lakota Liberation Front. It is as much a myth as the savage monster Crazy Horse was for the Victorian era, and as much as the current image, whatever it happens to me.
We live by our myths, by our belief that someone, stronger than we, more principled, once lived who did what we long to do. Crazy Horse fulfills that need for those of us who inherited the Thieves' Road, for those from whom it all was stolen.
Order Crazy Horse [ISBN: 0670882348]