The 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, aka Battle of the Greasy Grass, is featured in this beautifully illustrated graphic novel.
The reader is witness to the days preceding the battle, and the battle itself through the eyes of a scout for the 7th Calvary named Greenhaw and a Lakota Sioux warrior named Slow Hawk. Author Jim Berry, hoped to give an equitable viewpoint of the battle in this piece of historical fiction, so he framed the narrative to be from two fictional men from either side, and who interact with the real historical figures of Sitting Bull, General Custer and Crazy Horse. Berry introduces the story with information about how he collected the historical research and how he reached out to the Native American community for translation assistance and fact checking. A map, art gallery and bibliography round out the book.
We first meet Greenhaw, who is penning a letter to his lady love Rose. Many of Custer’s scouts were Native American, or were of mixed ancestry and could translate for him, but that is never addressed in the story. While brave, he just wants to make it out of the battle alive, and be reunited with Rose. Slow Hawk is a Lakota Sioux, who wishes to avenge the death of his brother and parents. In the panel below we see him replicate his brother’s war paint on himself, in order to honor him. When Crazy Horse gifts a new horse to Slow Hawk, he is ready for battle and will do what ever it takes to win. The chaos of battle is evocatively shown, and you are thrown in the middle of the battlefield, as leaders are making split second decisions that aren’t always the best. You will root for both Greenhaw and Slow Hawk to survive, but in war nothing is certain.
The art is a wonder in this story. Val Mayerik, who has illustrated for other graphic novels such as Conan and is the co-creator of Howard the Duck, completely elevates this story. He should branch out in his art career as the way he depicts war scenes and moving horses was just outstanding! While this story is certainly an abbreviated version of the battle, Mayerik’s art helped tell much of the tale. His strong coloring and care in which he drew the Native Americans and landscapes gave an authenticity to the entire narrative.
As a history fan, as soon as I saw this graphic novel listed on NetGalley I knew that I wanted it. The device of using fictional protagonists worked, as there are other novels about the leaders on either side of the battle, and this format allowed for balanced and sympathetic portrayals of both sides. However, there were a few choices by the author that I questioned. In the introduction, a casual mention is made of a Native American descendant of Custer, as oral tradition says that Custer had a child with a Cheyenne woman – yet this fact is disputed, so giving a small explanation should have been included for those who are not aware of the story. I applaud that the Lakota language was used in the narrative, but a dying soldier speaking Italian with no translation was also shown, to jarring effect. I came away knowing that the author really did his research and wanted to give an accurate portrayal of this controversial battle. I recommend this book, both for the historic representation and the gorgeous art!