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. 

A drawing of Fort Phil Kearny made by Second Cavalry Bugler Antonio Nicoli in June 1867. (Archival)

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.

Michael Punke. (Courtesy/Henry Holt)

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.”

Fort Phil Kearny historic site. (Wikimedia Commons)

Michael Shay’s book of short stories, The Weight of a Body, was published by Ghost Road Press in 2006. His fiction and essays have appeared in Flash Fiction Review, Silver Birch Press, Northern Lights,...

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  1. In your story on the new book on the Fetterman fight your author refers to Dee Brown’s novel “The Fetterman Massacre”. Please note that the original title was “Fort Phil Kearny: An American Saga”. Publishers changed the title and Brown told us, with the newly established Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association, that he spent years trying unsuccessfully to get it back. Brown told us “If you label the Fetterman fight a massacre then what word do you have to describe the Sand Creek massacre where the Cheyenne and Arapaho village, flying a white flag, was attacked by Col. John Chivington with the 3rd Colorado Volunteers in 1864, killing and horribly mutilating predominently women and children.”
    Cheyenne historian, the late Bill Tallbull, stated that the mutilations of the soldiers at the Fetterman fight were copies of those at Sand Creek and performed in retaliation.

    1. Mary Ellen: I didn’t know that Dee Brown’s book was renamed by the publisher. It did seem odd that he would use the term “massacre” in light of his other works. Thanks for the info.

  2. In my opinion, Tashunke Witco –Crazy Horse, was one of the “Top 10 all-time Greatest Americans that ever lived”. He NEVER sold out his people to the very end -when two of his own held his arms captive so that a US soldier could run him through with a bayonet at Ft. Robinson in 1877. ‘The powers that be’ you see, could never let him live, for they feared his loyal dedication to his people… knowing full well he could not be ‘bought’ -like nearly everyone in politics in this corrupted age we now live in. Even Red Cloud and Sitting Bull later crumbled under the pressure of ‘Manifest Destiny’ –and thus they managed to live longer. Not Crazy Horse. Not ever.
    For these reasons and more, he is one of my personal heroes –along with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Lewis & Clark & Co., Chief Joseph, Dan’l Boone, -and Davy Crockett of course. They all had great commonality you see, -in extreme courage and high personal standards. Sadly something ‘so outdated’, -and so lacking in today’s world…

  3. Excellent review by Mike Shay! I know a few things about the Fetterman fight because I volunteer as the Firearms Historian at the Wyoming State Museum. We have a revolver that belonged to Henry Carrington who was the commander at Fort Phil Kearny at the time of the Fetterman fight. I’m looking forward to reading the book.

  4. I love Wyofile and am glad you reviewed Michael’s book, but the actual title is simply “Ridgeline” sans “The”.