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The Saturday Review
July 26, 1941
page 5

Flight of the Cheyennes

New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce.
1941. 307 pp. $2.50.


THIS novel is something new in Americana. At first sight one recognizes that it comes out of the healthy, increasing trend to rewrite the history of our frontier with a new honesty which has tended, first, to be reasonably truthful at last about the Indians on whose dead bodies America was founded, and more recently to perceive that the Indians, too, are a part of American society and that our treatment of them was and is a part of our democracy's success or failure. "The Last Frontier," a novelized history of the flight of the Northern Cheyennes from Oklahoma to Montana, and of the series of whippings they administered to the United States Army, does belong among these treatments of a vivid sector of our history. But by its unusual angle of presentation as well as the unusual quality of Mr. Fast's writing, it becomes something new, a book to be hailed with joy and read for pure pleasure and excitement.

Writers, including myself, who have tried to set the Indian record straight and to make people understand that several hundred thousand Americans, who will in the near future be holding the voting balance of power in at least four states, are an integral part of America, and that their history and present conditions are legitimate subjects for our interest, have unanimously written our stories and treatises from within the Indian camp. We may have made occasional sorties into the minds of government officials, army officers, ordinary citizens, but mainly we have concentrated on trying to make white readers see through the eyes of the Indians. After reading Mr. Fast's novel I begin to wonder if we weren't making a mistake.

Write a socio-economic novel about a young Georgia cracker and it will be accepted as significant in relation to the American scene. Write the same thing about a young Indian and socially conscious readers and critics will damn the book as pure escape, while escapist readers will shun it because they do not want to hear about the common problems of mankind when they take refuge among the Indians. That both the Georgia boy and the Indian are likely today to be found inside the same medium tank seems to make no difference, any more than does the number of Congressmen who keep one eye upon the Indian vote in their districts.

Mr. Fast has found one answer to this predicament. The subject of his book is, as stated, the remnant of the Cheyennes in their terrible retreat in 1878, which sounds remote enough in all conscience; but the unique narrative method brings out clearly for even the least understanding reader the place that this incident occupies in the formation of the American scene. Mr. Fast tells his story entirely through white men. Although he gathered plenty of information for his book among the Cheyennes themselves, at no time does he enter into an Indian's mind. Thus baldly stated this sounds like a serious fault. It is not.

He tells us fully, but exclusively, what the white men saw and thought. Miles, the incompetent, well-intentioned Indian Agent, Colonel Mizner, the rigid militarist, Captain Murray (the only fictitious character in the book and an excellent job), who understood and thought too much, Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, Commander-in-Chief William Tecumseh Sherman, General Crook, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, the riff-raff of Dodge City, the men who thought the only good Indian was a dead one, the men who struggled irritably to civilize savages whom they secretly thought incapable of advancement, the men who understood . . . Perhaps the finest characterization of all is that of Captain Wessels, not a bad man, who destroyed a hundred and fifty men, women, and children with a cold, slow cruelty we generally associate today with the Gestapo.

Through these pictures and points of view emerges the picture of a people; not the individual Cheyenne, but the soul and body of the tribe. Through incomprehension and half vision we receive understanding. In addition we learn, as we could by no other method, what these Indians meant to the United States, to the shaping of American character. Through a few characters, particularly the reporter, Jackson, and also by occasional author's intrusions which are not very fortunate, Mr. Fast puts his finger on the fact that where the servants of democracy violate its essential principles in a small matter, the way may be opened to greater violations.

This argument is weakened by subtle references to Nazism which seem anachronistic and forced, but there is real strength in the study of the effect of the Indians upon white individuals. While filing objections, I enter one against the author's claim (justifying his title) that with this incident the frontier ended. He should, for instance, read up on his Apache history, or follow a little further the career of Wyatt Earp, whom he himself mentions. He also states that the original Indian population of the United States was not over three hundred thousand, a statement which is certainly incorrect. The best estimates run from three-quarters of a million to one million; I know of no authority for his figure.

The faults are slight, nor need one stress the democratic moral of this book in urging that it be read. The point is that it is a finely written, moving, exciting story, and something quite new in the literature of our frontier.

Oliver La Farge is the author of "Laughing Boy," and "As Long As the Grass Shall Grow," with photographs by Helen M. Post.

—Mural study by Ward Lockwood, from "Art in Federal Buildings."