CAGB BOOK REVIEW

The review below is by MIKE MARTIN, CAGB and CBHMA member, also namesake of D Coy's 1st. Sergeant! Not as attributed in Issue 3 of The Crow's Nest to John Martin.

Mike by profession is a musician and entertainer, he also works as a writer for various publications, notably THE STAGE newspaper, penning articles and reviews. He is also editor of the annual magazine of the Grand Order of Water Rats, the show business charity brotherhood in which he is an officer and active member.

His late father was GEORGE MARTIN (The Casual Comedian) who went on to become a prolific television and radio scriptwriter. Mike also works occasionally as a London tour guide, specialising in Jack the Ripper walks! Currently working on a book, based on research carried out over several trips to relevant areas of the USA, on the relationship between the battles of the Alamo and the Little Big Horn.

FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS: From The Flashman Papers 1849-50 and 1875-76

By George MacDonald Fraser. Published by HarperCollins, 1999. 512 pp. Includes Maps, Appendices and Historical Background Notes. ISBN 0-00-6513000-X. Paperback, £6.99. 

As we know, the world is full of books about the famous clash at the Little Big Horn, many of them simply regurgitating well known facts, some coming up with fresh insights and others taking diabolical liberties. Every now and again, one comes along with a completely original angle and MacDonald Fraser’s version definitely falls within that category. 

In case any reader is not familiar with the character of Sir Harry Paget Flashman (Brigadier General, VC, KCB, Legion d’Honneur, US Medal of Honor, San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, etc., etc.!), I will just give a brief outline. Essentially, the author has taken the villain of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and given him life as an irascible adult. Arrogantly handsome and oozing charm, Flashman is presented in a series of highly entertaining books as he rampages through most of the key military historical events of the Victorian age. A complete scoundrel who becomes a fêted hero, not by brave deeds but by a mind boggling series of misunderstandings, lies and incredibly good fortune, Sir Harry is an unwilling participant in Afghanistan, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Indian Mutiny, the American Civil War, the Taiping Rebellion, Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift, to mention but a few! If all this, on the face of it, seems ridiculously unlikely, may I just say that MacDonald Fraser is a writer of consummate skill, an excellent storyteller who keeps his reader riveted while somehow weaving the yarn together in a most believable way. He is also a very thorough historian whose research is impeccable. And, as an ex-wartime serviceman, the picture he paints of military attitudes and combat is enlightening and full of depth. 

So, this particular episode of the Flashman Papers (because they are presented in the form of the old rogue’s long lost memoirs) concerns his adventures in the United States. The book is in two parts, firstly dealing with his time as a Forty-Niner then jumping forward a quarter century to deal with his involvement in the Plains Indian Wars. Having been involved with slavers, Flashman arrives in the USA then heads west along the Santa Fe Trail with a wagonload of whores, intent on setting up a prosperous brothel in California. Of course, his plans, as usual, disintegrate and he is plunged into a series of scrapes which involve him in massacres, chases, knife fights, scalp hunting and dodgy deals during the course of which he makes many significant contacts which come back to haunt him in later years. He lives with the Apaches and meets Mangas Colorado and Geronimo, becomes friendly with Kit Carson and Spotted Tail and even plays games with a six-year-old Crazy Horse. All this sets the scene for his return to the frontier as a highly respected middle-aged adviser at the disastrous 1875 Camp Robinson talks, a post he reluctantly accepts as a favour for his old friend President Grant. He also renews his acquaintance with Custer, an associate from Civil War days, sails up the Yellowstone on the Far West and, via a complicated tangle of mishaps which are far too involved to detail here, ends up as a prisoner of the Sioux. This brings him to the Little Big Horn on that fateful Sunday and his hair-raising version of events, and how he manages to survive, is as credible as any. 

One of the best things about the Flashman books are the footnotes which give wonderful details and thought provoking historical insights into the hero’s exploits. Although it is essentially fiction, MacDonald Fraser has a great talent for making it all believable and it is very difficult to catch him out. What really impresses is the excellent feel for the period, the imaginative and well constructed character portraits, the subtle blending of serious fact and robust humour, as well as the success of making an outrageous cad like Flashman so strangely likeable! 

The description of the actual battle, from first hand, is very emotive, filled with personal detail, horror and laced with the facts we know. We are even left with the impression that Flashman himself might have inadvertently killed Custer! I did find one error in that L Company’s 1st. Sergeant, Butler, is portrayed as an Englishman, but apart from that the details seem pretty faultless. There are also inventive explanations, involving the hero personally, which “solve” several of the battle’s mysteries. And as for the way he survives, owing to his blood relationship with one of the lesser-known real life figures in the story, well, 10 out of 10 for wily creativity! 

For pure entertainment value and an interesting re-appraisal of the Greasy Grass saga, I would recommend this book most highly. We are yet to be treated to still more pages from Flashman’s American adventures, including his time spent as an officer in both the Union and Confederate armies and the term he served as a deputy marshal alongside Wild Bill Hickok. Can’t wait!

Custer Association of Great Britain

Copyright © 2002 CAGB