CAGB BOOK REVIEW

IN HIS BROTHER'S SHADOW: The Life of Thomas Ward Custer 

By Roy Bird. Published by Turner Publishing Company, 412 Broadway, P.O. Box 3101, Paducah, KY 42002-3101, USA; ( www.turneronline.com ), 2002, 200pp, ISBN: 1-56311-818-1, $21.75 plus shipping.

In His Brother's Shadow is such a poor book that I was almost inclined not to give it a review. What, after all, can one say about a 'biography' whose author admits to having included material from "some fiction works or nearly fictional secondary sources... in order to foster a taste for the era and places in which [Tom] lived" (he doesn't just mean background and scene-setting either, though that would be bad enough)? Or one in which the truth of the narrative takes second place to an attempt to interpret everything within the terms of a psychological syndrome (i.e. sibling rivalry)? 

The single chapter devoted to Tom Custer's Civil War career contains many examples of both of these faults, and a notable shortage of those awkward little things: the facts. Over three years of Tom's time as a soldier in the Civil War were spent in the Western Theatre, away from his brother, George Armstrong. This period gets a full half page of coverage, followed by about nine pages on the final few months of the War, during which Tom was Autie's aide and fought in the battles that brought him his two Medals of Honor. These pages are filled with unverified details and errors from secondary sources (and some mistakes of Bird's own making), plus conversation taken from fiction but quoted as though it really occurred. Many, much more trustworthy, primary and secondary sources are absent from the bibliography and references: Bird hasn't made any sort of attempt to acquire a full set of the various published articles on Tom Custer - some of which would certainly have proved useful to him; and for the Civil War years he hasn't even taken the obvious basic steps of obtaining Tom's personal service records, or using the Official Records to read up on the battles in which he was a participant. 

There are similar problems with the rest of In His Brother's Shadow: take the chapter on Wild Bill Hickok, for instance. Bird describes at some length (from secondary sources, of course) the legendary set-to in 1870 between Hickok and Tom, an account which only the alert reader will notice is sprinkled with "supposedly", "allegedly", and suchlike hedging! At the end he grudgingly admits that Tom may have had no involvement whatsoever in the events, and yet he asserts (without giving any evidence for it) that "Thereafter, Tom held little but contempt for Wild Bill"; while Autie went on to write glowingly about him. "For Tom," Bird says, "it was another grievance in the lop-sided rivalry with his brother". What?

I'm no expert on the Little Big Horn battle itself - far from it - but even I can see that there is something very wrong with Bird's entire reconstruction of what happened there. Perhaps it's because even I seem to have read at least half a dozen, more recent volumes on the subject than Bird has, judging from his bibliography.

Oh, and it's hard luck on anyone who goes to the book's index hoping to look up some information on Tom, or Autie, or Boston, or any other individual member of the Custer family.  These are not differentiated, all being listed in a huge entry (with no subheadings) under the single word "Custer"! Heck, better to have saved space and just said "Custer, passim"!  In fact, it's no more than the tip of the iceberg as far as the defects in this appallingly bad index are concerned: there are even separate index entries for typoes in the text ("Yellowtone River" [sic] anyone?).

In my review of Carl Day's Tom Custer: Ride to Glory last year, I wrote that (despite some flaws) Carl's biography of Tom was "unlikely to be superseded or improved upon for a...  long time".  There is no need for me to eat my words just yet! 

Rosemary Pardoe

 

Custer Association of Great Britain

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