A good historical novel should be a ripping yarn, one that keeps us turning pages long after bedtime. The writer makes this world so interesting that we want to dash off to the library or the Internet to find out more. The novel’s historical facts should also be solid. Nothing like sloppy research to ruin a good read.
It’s a lot to ask. And into this mix comes the red-hot topic of the year: Which history should we teach our kids? Conservatives wax apoplectic about the New York Times “1619 Project” and its stated goal to tell the real story about slavery. Many prefer the history we learned in fourth grade during simpler times, that America is the greatest nation on earth, by jiminy.
Enter Michael Punke’s new novel, “The Ridgeline,” published by Henry Holt and Co. It’s a story about what is known as Red Cloud’s War, which began in 1866 along the Bozeman Trail in Wyoming’s Powder River Country.
Punke’s book tracks the cavalry brigade that builds Fort Phil Kearny in 1866 on ancestral hunting lands of the Lakota and other Plains tribes. The natives are angry and want to drive away the troops. The U.S. Cavalry, fresh from the slaughter of the Civil War, plans to kill all the “Godless savages.” The troops are the advance guard of Manifest Destiny. We know how it turns out. But what did it feel like in 1866? Who were these Indians and these soldiers?
Punke is a Torrington native who spent his high school and college summers as a living history interpreter at Fort Laramie National Historic Site. He went on to earn a law degree and work as a U.S. trade representative overseas. He eventually wrote his first novel, “The Revenant,” on which the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio was partially based. In it, mountain man Hugh Glass is mauled by a grizzly and left for dead by the fur-trapping crew he guided into the wilderness. Glass did not take this kindly. He slowly recovered and then set off for Fort Laramie to take revenge on the bastards who abandoned him.
That was a ripping yarn, one I gobbled up when the book was first published by the now-defunct Carroll & Graf in 2002. It also caused me to ask: How come I’ve never heard of Hugh Glass despite living in Wypoming? True, I lived several elsewheres in the fourth grade, learning the approved version of Colorado history in the first half of the year and Washington state’s version in the second half of the year (we moved a lot). Had I lived in Wyoming at the time, I would have learned the dominant culture’s version of the era’s events.
Wyomingites who know even a tiny bit of history know about The Wagon Box Fight and the Fetterman Fight in Sheridan and Johnson counties. These days, visitors drop by Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site on their way to the picturesque towns of Buffalo and Sheridan. The former was given the popular name of the American bison so important to tribal populations. The latter was named for the army general appointed in 1867 by President Ulysses S. Grant to “pacify the plains.”
Native inhabitants considered this land beautiful. It also was the source of their food supply. They fought to keep it.
Punke, who now lives in Missoula, did his research for “The Ridgeline.” We see the Oglala side through Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and some young warriors. We see the cavalry side from journal entries by a young bride who has accompanied her brash husband to Wyoming. Other “invader” voices include Lieutenant Grummond, the doomed Captain Fetterman, the acerbic and aging Jim Bridger, several young soldiers, a camp follower and an occasional snide policy maker in D.C.
The narrative picks up steam as the cavalry builds the fort and the Indians plot its destruction. Punke gives the reader an intimate look at the mind of Crazy Horse. We know what befalls Fetterman in December 1866, but the author’s insight into his motives and behaviors adds poignancy to the tale.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is Punke’s attention to military tactics. While progress on the fort is described in great detail, Crazy Horse and Red Cloud look on from “the ridgeline” and ponder ways to stymie the army’s firepower. They cannot go head-to-head against repeating rifles and cannons. Many soldiers saw combat during the Civil War and are trained fighters. Lakota fighters are long on bravery but short on the skills of a fighting unit. Their time-honored tactic of charging an opponent mano-a-mano to kill them or “count coup” will not work in this new world of industrial weaponry.
This becomes clear in the section where Red Cloud and Crazy Horse have laid out a complicated ambush only to have it ruined by a too-eager young warrior. Crazy Horse is crushed by the failure. Red Cloud takes the view of the wise elder.
As did many outgunned fighting forces before and after the events of the book, Indian leaders explore the guerrilla tactics that can give them an advantage. Crazy Horse doesn’t know much about world history so it is illuminating to see him, Red Cloud and other tribal members map their strategy. These are not the “ignorant savages” that most of the white men in the fort think they are.
Will this novel be used as a K-12 text? Doubtful. A book for university students? Some states may add it to their U.S. history reading lists. Reading assignments at West Point? Maybe, as future officers use historic precedent to understand potential enemies.
How does Punke’s book work as a novel? It’s a rollicking read, filled with insights and action. I cared for some of the characters, such as Crazy Horse and Lieutenant Grummond’s pregnant wife, who journals in secret about her out-of-control husband and her jaundiced view of army politics. The brave and reckless Lieutenant Grummond reminds me of another Civil War hero who discovered the cost of hubris in 1876 along the Greasy Grass.
Punke opens the book with a quote from Dee Brown, author of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” “The full story of what happened in that brief hour of bloody carnage at high noon under the wintry sky of December 21, 1866, will never be known.”
Brown, librarian, historian and novelist, documented many incidents of bloody carnage in what’s now Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas during the Indian Wars of the last half of the 19th century. He published “The Fetterman Massacre” in 1962. Current parlance translates “massacre” as “fight,” and it may become something else in the future.
Whatever it’s called, Punke’s historical novel now joins the canon of books that takes a balanced and empathetic look at what happened when Manifest Destiny ran head-on into “the warrior horsemen of the Northern Plains.”