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Penguin Lives Crazy Horse [Hardcover]

Larry Mcmurtry
2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Jan. 1 1999 Penguin Lives Biographies
Legends cloud the life of Crazy Horse, a seminal figure of American history but an enigma even to his own people in his own day. Yet his story remains an encapsulation of the Native American tragedy and the death of the untamed West. Crazy Horse strips away the tall tales to reveal the essence of this brilliant, ascetic warrior-hero. Larry McMurtry's vivid, carefully considered, succinct biography will lure not only his own fans but history buffs, Western enthusiasts, students of all things Native American, and anyone concerned with the white man's atonement and restitution to native peoples. In a portrait that only he could render, Larry McMurtry captures the poignant passing of a time and offers a vibrant new understanding of the mythic Crazy Horse and what he stood for.

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From Amazon

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 of 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

From Publishers Weekly

Deceptively brief and seemingly lightweight, this wonderful work effectively cuts through decades of hyperbole. McMurtry illuminates the enigma and the myth of Crazy Horse to present him as a man?no more, no less. He has stripped away the incessant Noble Savage image that persists in many serious works about Native Americans, even to this day. He gently jabs earlier biographers who based entire volumes on little or no evidence of the events in Crazy Horse's life. "Still I am not writing this book because I think I know what Crazy Horse did?much less what he thought?on more than a few occasions in his life; I'm writing it because I have some notions about what he meant to his people in his lifetime, and also what he has come to mean to generations of Sioux in our century and even our time." McMurtry's simple, eloquent prose conveys Plains Indian culture far better than most anthropological efforts, leaving the reader with a clear, dignified image of the great warrior (who died in 1877) without needless conjectures of day-by-day activities. Although complicated by the politics of money and land, this is, as McMurtry ultimately shows, the story of a man "who had no politics, just the conviction that he wanted to live his life in accordance with the precepts of his own people." First serial to American Heritage; BOMC alternate. (Jan.) FYI: Viking plans to release two Penguin Lives titles each season, six each year. This volume, along with Edmund White's biography of Proust (see p. 62), is the first.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars brief encounter Feb. 12 2003
I have not previously read a Penguin Lives book so I don't have a point of reference on how much to expect from one of these biographies. I have noted that none of the volumes seem to be any thicker than McMurtry's "Crazy Horse". I will assume that the purpose of this series is that the reader gets a brief overview of the highlights in the lives of an important historical person. That sounds like a nice idea but the question I have regarding "Crazy Horse" is this; Does it half to be THIS brief?
I was inclined to accept McMurtry's observation that little factual information exists on Crazy Horse. In fact, I think he's soured me somewhat on reading Mari Sandoz's much lengthier biography. However, this book goes in some strange directions dealing with this paucity of information. For example, in trying to describe the great gathering of Indians at the Ft. Laramie Council of 1851, McMurtry inexplicably quotes Wilfred Thesiger's account of an Ethiopian gathering of African tribesmen. Shortly thereafter, he describes the tribal warfare of the Sioux by quoting Peter Matthiessen's description of tribal warfare in New Guinea in the early 1960's. Well, the primary resources on Native Americans may be limited but not so much that we must wander to other continents for our facts. (On second thought, maybe I WILL read Sandoz's book). McMurtry suggests at one point that it would be "hubris" to think that we can read Crazy Horse's mind. He momentarily passes on speculation of Crazy Horse's thoughts and motives and then spends much of the remainder of the book doing just that. So much of these 141 pages are devoted to events that happened during the time of Crazy Horse that little space is left to the man himself.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A case of less is better. July 30 2002
This was the first of the exceptional Penguin Lives series of short form biographies. What differentiates this book from the others in the series is that very little information about its subject exists outside of legend. As such, this is one of the Penguin short biography books that a lengthier story is not likely necessary. Karen Armstrong´¿s book on Buddha had a similar limitation, but she used the opportunity to lecture on the development and meaning of the Buddhist religion.
Several years ago, I read and enjoyed Mari Sandoz´¿s biography on C.H., but the book left me to wonder how much of the story was truth versus fiction. The novelist, Larry McMurtry, authored this Penguin Lives version and convincingly separated the C.H. facts from fiction. Far from diminishing the character, the author gives a more appealing portrait of the man who will always be an enigmatic historical figure.
I, for one, appreciate the author´¿s honesty and the ´¿grayness´¿ of the character´¿s story. I think it is more a sign of weakness for a biographer to invent facts to enhance the story. It is certainly disingenuous and non-academic. McMurtry gives more than one example of this form of literary excess especially when mentioning Stephen Ambrose´¿s biography on C.H. Interestingly, the latter´¿s excesses seem to now have caught up with him as shown in the plagiarism charges that have followed his more recent works.
The quality of this book, though, is in the warmth and dignity that the author gives to his subject. Crazy Horse was a solitary and misunderstood figure to even his own people. His is also a story of how greed and jealousy by his people led to his early death.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting April 16 2002
I did not have high expectations about this book given the rather small size of it, but it was on sale so I gave it a try. The first thing the reader comes away with is the impression that the author has a very high regard for Crazy Horse and American Indians as a whole. Because of this esteem the reader is brought along the story believing that Crazy Horse was to the American Indian what Abe Lincoln, George Washington and FDR are to the average American. The story is a little light on overall factual stories, but I think that comes more from the lack of written records by the American Indians and the type of life Crazy Horse lived. From the traditional political leader as we know it today, there are reams of information on the everyday life and the job they held plus an ever increasing schedule and "to do" list that does not end. In contrast, the American Indians lead a much simpler (not to say less civilized) existence that handled problems with far less bureaucracy. Given that this was the case, this fact explains the volume of know facts about Crazy Horse. Overall this is a very good book that lets you know as much about the man as it also provides the basis for a learned respect for him. If you are interested in this topic I would suggest that this book is a very good first step.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Fine Meditation on a Life Feb. 13 2002
This is the third Penguin Lives volume I've read and I find the series is holding up to positive first impressions. The Lives books are short, averaging around 200 pages each, but are saved from being mere outlines by creative matchmaking of subject with author. In CRAZY HORSE, Larry McMurtry, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Lonesome Dove, takes on one of the legendary Indians of the 19th century American west. Like the as yet unfinished monument of him that is being carved out of the Black Hills of the Dakotas, Crazy Horse looms large in oral tradition and is the subject of some weighty tomes, including a biography by controversial historian Stephen Ambrose. Despite the heft of the Crazy Horse canon, McMurtry says that the actual facts of his life are wispy and he chooses to devote his book to sorting the man from the fiction. In doing so, he offers up a lucid picture of the changing state of Indian culture as Manifest Destiny chewed its way across the plains. What facts do come to light reveal Crazy Horse as better suited to his culture's past, a reluctant though dutiful leader who preferred wandering alone in the hills. At one point, McMurtry makes a quiet observation of dust kicked up on a latterday trail ride, an image that becomes a central metaphor expressing the problem of retrieving a truth that has been filtered through so many biases. Some readers may be at a slight disadvantage because McMurtry assumes the reader possesses a certain amount of familiarity with the facts of Little Big Horn and the legends. Some may be disappointed that this book offers less about the man then about politics, both Indian and white, and the process of historical investigation and perspective. I think it is a fine meditation on all subjects. McMurtry is unafraid to express a controversial opinion.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Beginning Book About Crazy Horse, the Man
Crazy Horse has been puzzled over by genertions of historians. Larry McMurtry gives a sensitive portrait of the great Sioux warrior who became a reluctant leader at the battle of... Read more
Published on May 30 2003 by Evelyn Horan
4.0 out of 5 stars Very nice quick overview of the whole thing
This is my first run at Crazy Horse, so I have nothing to compare it to. While McMurchy does an excellent job of giving only the facts, this book was more about the Sioux then of... Read more
Published on March 20 2003 by Munawar Ali
3.0 out of 5 stars a very politically correct view
There is too much political correctness in this book to really get a good view of Crazy Horse other than some mythic figure of the Great Plains. Read more
Published on July 26 2002 by Georgina
2.0 out of 5 stars bloodless and frightened
What was wrong with Mr. McMurtry here? This book has no blood in its veins. He circles Lakota culture without entering into it. He seems more curious than anything else. Read more
Published on Dec 17 2001
3.0 out of 5 stars From Man to Mountain
Near the beginning of "Crazy Horse" Larry McMurtry points how little is known about Crazy Horse. A loner in a non-literate community, even the stories of Crazy Horse's sparse... Read more
Published on Oct. 9 2001 by James Gallen
2.0 out of 5 stars Not Much to Write About
As I read this book, I couldn't help feeling that Mr. Mc Murtry would have been better off not writing this book. Read more
Published on Sept. 26 2001 by Donald Mitchell
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Recommended Concise Biography
Stark but not simple, this book focuses on Crazy Horse the man as opposed to the myth. While it appealed to my intellect, it also moved my emotions, and for that reason I recommend... Read more
Published on April 24 2001 by E H
2.0 out of 5 stars A little balance perhaps
I am a fan of the Pengin Lives books. I'll say that up front. But Mr. McMurtry's book on Crazy Horse falls short of the standard the series sets with other works like the book on... Read more
Published on March 25 2001 by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable Read
I realize that this is not a book of facts. It is short, concise, and entertaining. It is an introductory to the Indian leader, "Crazy Horse. Read more
Published on Feb. 3 2001
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