When I was younger, I learnt that General George Amstrong Custer was an American who was killed by Chief Sitting Bull. I didn’t think very much of Custer then. In fact I rooted for the American Indians cos they were the underdogs. Years later, I learnt that Custer distinguished himself during the American Civil War of 1860s. At 23 (I think) he was the youngest to be made a General. But he was still a name to me.
Then came this book — Marching to Valhalla by Michael Blake. If like me, you like war stories and the like, then you’ll probably like this one too.
Call No.: BLA (found under Adult Fiction section)
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Valhalla is a Warrior’s Heaven, stemming from Nordic mythology. The Vikings believed that warriors who died bravely in battle would be carried by Valkyries to the halls of Valhalla, where they would enjoy unlimited food and company in their afterlife. And according to this book, Custer saw himself as a warrior and little else (apart from being devoted this his wife).
This is a work of fiction but based on historical facts. It is written in the form of journal entries written by Custer. It’s interesting bec through the first-person narrative, I learnt more about Custer the man, than Custer the name — which I think was the whole point of the book.
It delves into what Custer might have thought or felt, about his courtship and marriage to his wife, his subsequent endearing relationship with his wife, and also a brief affair with a Cheyenne captive. It also gave insights to Custer the Soldier and Warrior — what drives him to win. Certain chapters could serve as case studies for Leadership (how he treated deserters), the dilemma between duty and human emotions. There were also insights to how Custer might have felt during his role in the Civil War, and the political games that he was naively drawn in later. And it suggests that Custer’s defeat at little Bighorn had something to do with the low-point in his career at that point, having been made a political fool.
After reading this book, George Armstrong Custer was no longer just a name but someone who’s human – who lived, loved, worried, rejoiced, felt sad.
This book not only tells a story but also makes Custer’s voice just speaks to you. Not necessarily directly. It was more like how Custer spoke to himself and I’m a voyeur to his thoughts and slowly immersed myself into the story.
I would not have wanted to read a history book about the American Civil War but these two books made history come alive, just like Marching to Valhalla. It’s not history per se but the lives of the men who fought in it, from their individual point of view. That’s what made the (his)story more powerful.