Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Conflicts of legend

The next two books we'll cover deal with two events that captured public attention and became the fodder for numerous retellings.
The Day the world ended at Little Big Horn: a Lakota history looks at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The more widespread term for this engagement is 'Custer's Last Stand', and for a century George Armstrong Custer - with his romantic wavy blond hair - was regarded as a figure of bravery and tragedy. It is only recently that his actions have been looked at with a more critical eye, and very rarely does the viewpoint of the other participants in the battle - the Lakota Sioux - come into account. Lakota historian Joseph M. Marshall III changes that with his book, calling on tribal oral history to present the Sioux perspective. This is a long overdue analysis, and a very interesting read.
Red Mutiny: eleven fateful days on the battleship Potemkin, by Neal Bascomb, looks at one of the keystone events leading up to the Russian Revolution. In 1905, the sailors of the Potemkin, one of the stars of Russia's Black Fleet, refuse to eat maggot-infested meat. Fearing reprisals from the officers and fed up with the harsh conditions and discipline of the navy, the sailors mutiny, killing almost half the officers on board. Their arrival in Odessa happened to coincide with a general workers' strike, and events escalated into rioting. Although the sailors tried to find an officially hospitable port for the ship, the whole situation really did not end well. However, if it was any consolation to them, they became heroes in Soviet Russia, as their mutiny was seen as one of the first blows of the common man against the Czarist establishment. This is a very gripping book, with lots of details turfed out of the Soviet archives, and a strong narrative. He also uses the accounts of the sailors and officers themselves to reconstruct the dialogs between key players. If you are a fan of naval history, Russian history, adventure novels, or just plain good stories, then you will enjoy this book.

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