The New York Times Book Review
Sunday, July 27, 1941
By Rose Feld
THE LAST FRONTIER. By Howard Fast.
pages. Duell, Sloan & Pearce. $2.50.
FREEDOM, explained Carl Schurz, Secretary of the Interior, to General William Tecumseh Sherman, is "the right of any man to choose death to slavery. ... If everything else was taken away, he still had his free doom left." The occasion for these words was the report of the flight of a village of three hundred Cheyenne Indians from the Indian Reservation in Oklahoma. The time was September, 1878.
Howard Fast, at 26 a highly accomplished and mature novelist, has taken this fragment of American history, placed it under a powerful microscope and described his findings in his new book, "The Last Frontier." Fast tells his dramatic story with highly controlled passion. It is a tale that calls for denunciation and indignation but he does not mar it by exaggeration. He is bitter about the cruelty and stupidity of the white man in the treatment of the Indian; that bitterness remains to the end as the final dregs, but above that, crystal-clear and warming, is his feeling of compassion and admiration for a feat of unrivaled courage and dignity.
John Myles, Quaker, was agent for the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indiana at Darlington, Okla. He knew that the Cheyenne Indians brought south from their tribal lands in Wyoming Territory were unhappy on the reservation; the heat, the sickness, the lack of food were fast killing them off. In his way, Myles, who was weak and ineffectual, was sorry for them but there was nothing he could do. Washington wasn't sending sufficient food and it was he who had to choose which among his wards were to be fed. He thought it was better that those professing Christianity be favored and the Northern Cheyennes were known to be stubborn about conversion. The report of the escape of three of them brought the brutal force of the white man's power against the three hundred who envied the runaways.
It is possible that Fast is justified in assuming that if Carl Schurz had lived up to his theory that "Nothing that is wrong in principle can be right in practice," this harrowing and, at the same time, epic incident in Indian affairs would have been avoided. Fast is openly bitter against the man who, having known the lash of unreasoning authority, failed to remember it at a crucial time in the lives of a hounded minority.
Goaded by a cruel ultimatum issued by Myles and backed by the Army, the village of Cheyennes, consisting of less than a hundred braves, the rest being women and children, started their flight north. The leaders of the group were Little Wolf and Dull Knife. Against this poorly clad, poorly fed, poorly equipped caravan were sent the forces of the American Army. Chief among the latter was a Captain Murray, according to an explanatory note by Fast, the only fictional character among the main actors in his novel. Fast does a masterly piece of creative work in the portrayal of an army officer who goes to pieces in a losing fight against an enemy he considers inferior both as human material and military power.
Surrounded by an ever-increasing force of armed soldiers and civilian posses called out along the line from Army posts and cities by telegraphic message, the straggling, sick Indians persistently and miraculously make headway north for a thousand miles. When cornered by troops they fight with the reckless desperation of men who in their own minds have already died and then they go on, skimming like ghosts through the meshes of the trap set for them.
In Nebraska, after crossing Kansas, the Indians divide, one half going with Dull Knife toward Wyoming Territory, the other with Little Wolf, heading north to Montana lands. Fast follows the first group, brilliantly describing the heartbreaking details of their last stand against the rule of the White Man. Caught and trapped, coming out of the desert in the face of a blizzard, the smattered remnants of the starving, half-naked fugitives were given a choice between extinction and return to Oklahoma as prisoners. They chose extinction, and the manner, of their death is shameful and harrowing. Only when the nation was aroused to indignation by the massacre at Fort Robinson, where the Indians had been interned and starved, did Schurz pen the words which insured freedom to the second half of the wanderers.
Fast's writing, austerely polished and austerely poetic, is admirably suited to this epic tale of a desperate effort for dignified survival. He is less concerned with his characters as individuals than he is with the things they stand for, on the one side, unimaginative authority for law and regulations, on the other a burning need for freedom, for return to homelands. Struthers Burt in "Powder River" wrote, "In all American history these is nothing finer than the loping march of the Cheyennes up from the Indian Territory and their subsequent incredible frozen flight." Fast has gotten to the core of this incident and made it into a rich American novel.