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 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