Book Review: In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse

Winter is always the season when I read most. When you combine winter with the soul-crushing difficulty of quarantine life, reading becomes even more appealing! I received many terrific books for Christmas/my birthday and while I won’t be writing reviews for all of them, I wanted to take a little time to discuss those that I found particularly noteworthy or interesting. With that covered, let’s start talking about Crazy Horse!

[Note: There will be spoilers… but they’re primarily spoilers on real world historical events so, uh, take this warning as you will.]

Written by Joseph M. Marshall III who is a noted Brulé Lakota historian, teacher, and author, In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse uses a straightforward Middle Grade narrative framework to provide a considerable amount of information on the life and experiences of noted Lakota leader Crazy Horse. The stories-within-the-story style unveils Crazy Horse’s life through the lens of a modern Lakota grandfather sharing tales with his grandson as they journey to related U.S. landmarks.

If this sounds very informational, it is! Perhaps my largest misconception before reading this book is that it was first-and-foremost a narrative. That’s not quite true. Most of the words in this book are understandably devoted to the stories of Crazy Horse (Marshall’s self-professed hero), and so it feels much more like a text I would use to teach a middle school history curriculum than a “story”. And there’s real merit to that.

By exploring the authentic, meaningful Lakota side of Crazy Horse’s story, we step beyond the leader too often vilified in American history books and understand him in valuable context. Marshall succeeds in showing Crazy Horse to be a gentle man and kind leader forced to extremes by extreme situations. At the end of the book, when Crazy Horse is killed, I felt a deep sadness.

But that same moment of the book reveals In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse‘s primary shortcoming: it isn’t really a narrative. It’s an effective history lesson pressed into a light, narrative body. When the grandfather, Nyles High Eagle, finishes telling his grandson of Crazy Horse’s death, he places a bundle of sage at the monument in Fort Robinson State Park. He sings a warrior’s honoring song. He cries. And it’s a beautiful moment full of heartfelt poignancy that left me emotional.

It also left me wanting more.

I wish Marshall had invested more into the narrative itself, allowing it to build reciprocally as he shares more of Crazy Horse’s life so that this moment could truly be appreciated for what it is: a man lamenting the loss of a hero and, with that hero, a way of life that would never be the same.

As someone sadly estranged from my own Indigenous heritage, I felt a sort of kinship with the character in that moment. A sensation of longing for something that can never be. I wish I knew more about my ancestors. I wish I could have a better relationship with that side of my family. But I can’t, and in that longing for what might have been, I found a personal connection here.

So, taking it all into consideration, this is a great book to read if you want to learn more about Crazy Horse (particularly from the perspective of his own people) in a kid-friendly package. It’s even better for kid readers as a way to teach them about this incredible figure in American history. But for me, I would have dearly loved a stronger narrative built around the history. A story to better show the reader how the echoes of such a remarkable life can carry forward into the present.

In lieu of that story, I’ll hold Nyles High Eagle’s song in my memory and treasure what I learned from the read.

On that note, thanks to Joseph M. Marshall III for writing this book! I don’t know him, but I understand how difficult it can be to write about something so deeply significant and personal. His love for the Lakota people and for Crazy Horse is clear in every page. And he should be (and has been) rightfully lauded for putting such work out into the world.

That’s all for today! Thanks for reading. If you’d like to discuss this book or anything else, feel free to leave a comment here or look me up on Twitter.

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