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