Custer of the West: Armstrong
© 2018 H.W. Crocker III
264 pages

“Miss Johnson, I pledge to you my confederate here—who is actually a real Confederate—and I will not let this stand. Together with my troop of Chinese acrobats we will end the tyranny of the Largo Trading Company.”

History records that General George A. Custer was killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn, ending an illustrious and often dramatic career. History is wrong, for  we discover in Armstrong that the general in fact survived the ambush, being rescued by a white captive-wife of the Sioux,  who wanted to thank him for killing her husband   The two fled and hid among a traveling theatrical group,   and after a series of bloody and zany events, found themselves in an odd town that proved to have dark secrets.   The townsfolk had been effectively enslaved by a local trading company with a private army and Sioux allies.    Being a knight-errant in the service of Truth, Justice, and the American way, Custer promptly donned a new name – “Armstrong” – and commenced to a lot of derring-do.  The result is Armstrong, a comic western novel that draws on western stock characters and tropes while having a little fun at history (and especially Custer’s) expense. 

Armstrong’s first mission is to escape the Sioux, but the manner in which he does so (pretending to be a trick shooter in a theatrical group)  disrupts his original plan of clearing his name for the massacre at Little Big Horn. He was set up, you see, and he’s particularly suspicious of that drunk in the White House, Grant. After a little bloodbath ensues at Armstrong’s first show, he and the traveling show escape to a little town in a canyon, which seems like a peaceful sanctuary until he realizes there’s something rotten going on. He pledges himself to liberate the town from the government contractors who have imprisoned it, despite being woefully outmanned. His aides in this chivalrous quest include a former Confederate who is a dasher with the ladies; a multilingual Crow scout; a band of dancing girls, and a troop of Chinese acrobats who he trains as skirmishers. The western tropes start with the rebel-with-a-cause and the native ally and only grow from there, but Crocker employs them to have fun with them. The novel is a comic western, its plot warmed by absurdism as much as the Sonoran sun, and features a multitude of running jokes — from Armstrong having to frequently disguise himself, to fun with language. One of the sillier bits includes Armstrong relying on his hunch that all dogs know German using his…er, limited knowledge of Hochdeutsch to enlist a dog as his ally. (“Helpenzie me, bitte!”) It’s reminiscent of Mel Brooks, complete with elements that would no doubt drive some modern readers red with self-righteous rage, like Chinese acrobats whose knowledge of English is limited, or the Union and Confederate officers having a discussion about their respective causes that doesn’t end with the southerner beating his breast in repentance. Although this is intended as fantastical, humorous take on The Western, Crocker nonetheless works in real facts, aided by his having written a Custer biography. I was surprised to learn that Custer served as the groomsman in the wedding of a Confederate friend of his during the war — each man dressed in his uniform.

If you’re in the mood for a ‘light’ western that mixes humor and wild-west adventures, Armstrong is a lot of fun. I think I’ll try more in the series, and explore Crocker’s nonfiction as well.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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6 Responses to Armstrong

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    COMPLETELY off topic, but I picked up another book you might find interesting. It’s:

    The War of Nerves – Inside the Cold War Mind by Martin Sixsmith

    • Ooooh. Yes. Definitely, especially since I’m drafting a list of 2-3 books for each decade of the 20th century. I have a (ludicrously ambitious) project in mind but it’s still in the planning stages..

      • Cyberkitten says:

        I’ve been watching this YouTube channel about the Cold War which I’m finding very interesting. LOTS of ideas for new books for me to buy [lol]

        If you’re struggling with any decade in particular let me know & I’ll see if I can give you some ideas from a European perspective.

      • Thanks! Will look into that once home. Currently it’s the first two decades (1900 – 1910, 1910 – 1920) that are the most difficult so far, mostly because history doesn’t happen in nice decade-spaced breaks. The 1890s and 1900s roll into one, the pre-WW1 teens are a different space altogether from the post-WW1 teens….even the 1960s were more like the fifties until ’67/’68 when they’re almost the ’70s.

  2. Cyberkitten says:

    Something I can recommend is: The Vertigo Years – Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914 by Philipp Blom. My review is here:

    I’ll see what else I can dig up. I know I have a ‘few’ things on my Wish List that might fit.

    • That one has been on my to-read-eventually list for…er, 12, 13 years — ever since we read a chapter from it, “The Women who Threw Rocks” or something like that, in a history since 1871-type course..

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