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The Removes

Review

The Removes

I have never actually given much thought to George Armstrong Custer, aside from the specific facts that every American schoolchild knows --- Custer’s “Last Stand” at the Battle of Little Bighorn. It is a somewhat shameful story: the cavalry commanders’ arrogance against the unimagined fierceness of the Sioux, the government’s numerous broken promises against the tribe’s hopeful belief in the goodness of the white “Great Father,” the restriction of nomadic peoples to barren and confined reservations, and the eventual fight of the warrior against these wrongs.

However, author Tatjana Soli has given much thought to Custer the man as well as those closest to him. In THE REMOVES, she introduces us not only to Custer the cavalryman and Civil War hero, but to Custer the brother, husband, philanderer and First Peoples sympathizer. In this book, which explores Custer’s personality, decisions and actions, we also meet his wife Libbie and brother Tom, as well as Anne Cummins, a teenager taken captive and held for years by the Cheyenne tribe. No one, not even a famous historical figure, lives in isolation, and by reimagining these men and women, Soli provides not only a fascinating story, but also clues to understand the battle that seems so inexplicable from our 21st-century perspectives, along with the men and women affected by it.

Libbie Bacon is a pampered, beloved daughter. Although she is urged by young matrons around her to do all she can to get herself married, she never has been truly tempted to do so. That is, until the day she is reunited with her childhood friend, George “Autie” Custer, all grown up and a famous Union officer. They lose their hearts to each other, and Libbie forsakes the comforts of home to become an Army camp follower. She is teased, loved and pampered by her husband (except for his frequent infidelities), and learns to be a strong and impervious officer’s wife. On the outside, at least.

"Tatjana Soli writes beautiful words, in a calm and gentle voice that draws the reader deeply into the lives and thoughts of Custer, Libbie, Anne and Tom."

Tom is often stationed nearby. Custer teases and loves his brother as well, yet notices that in many ways Tom is the better man. They have similar strengths but different weaknesses --- women for Custer, alcohol for Tom.

Eventually, however, the Civil War is over. And the Union Army is reshuffled and sent out to fight a different war altogether --- the war of the settlers against the Native Americans. Custer loves glory and won much renown for his exploits in the last war. But the 7th Cavalry’s latest adversary fights in new ways. Enemies are bludgeoned and scalped on the Great Plains, the land an adversary in itself. Praise that changes quickly to censure follows Custer, rather than the glory he’d prefer. Yet army life and battles are the only life for which he seems well-suited.

At the same time, young Anne Cummins is abducted when her entire family is wiped out by a Cheyenne attack on their Kansas homestead. Her captivity is defined by meager rations, forced servitude and sexual assault by her captors. She is so beaten down that she can’t imagine she will ever be able to escape…until the moment that her child is born. She begins to hope that the great yellow-haired hero Custer will somehow discover and save her. And indeed, a meeting between the Custers and Anne is ahead, along with the ultimate destiny that none expects.

Tatjana Soli writes beautiful words, in a calm and gentle voice that draws the reader deeply into the lives and thoughts of Custer, Libbie, Anne and Tom. In fact, her writing is so lovely that it sometimes provides a shocking juxtaposition against the cruelties of both individuals and governments. Soli is to be commended for her meticulous research, which carries THE REMOVES above the romantic notions about both the U.S. 7th Cavalry and the First Peoples as they battle one another. While bringing us into the intimate lives of Anne and the Custers, set against the backdrop of Little Bighorn, she reminds us of the cost and endurance of human life. If you read any book this year about the Custers, make it this one.

I also must mention the cover and interior endpiece art of THE REMOVES. Taken from actual Oglala Lakota ledger book art, the vivid images from the Battle of Little Bighorn poignantly illustrate the terrible battle that not only ended Custer’s life (and the lives of those under his command), but proved to be a significant step in the government’s eventual appropriation of the Black Hills and the resettlement of the Sioux (and others) on reservations. The artwork is the perfect visual complement to Soli’s novel, which helps us imagine more completely this era in American history.

Reviewed by Melanie Reynolds on July 6, 2018

The Removes
by Tatjana Soli

  • Publication Date: June 12, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books
  • ISBN-10: 0374249318
  • ISBN-13: 9780374249311