The New York Times
Thursday, July 31, 1941
Books of the Times
By Ralph Thompson
THE LAST" FRONTIER. By Howard Fast.
pages. Duell, Sloan & Pearce. $2.50.
I AM a week late with the news about Howard Fast's historical novel, "The Last Frontier,"
but the book is so good a book that it would still be news weeks, or even months from now. Mr. Fast has written highly praised, and overpraised, books before. This time he has turned out, at the age of merely 26, a remarkable and even distinguished novel. It is as far above his "Conceived in Liberty" (1939) as "Conceived in Liberty" was above his "Place in the City" (1937). This would be the moment to observe that he is getting somewhere if it weren't so apparent that he has already arrived.
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"The Last Frontier" is a story of the fantastic Dull Knife campaign of 1878-79 the story, in fact, since it seems that no writer had done more than touch on the subject before Mr. Fast came along. To call it fantastic is not simply talk: It is almost literally incredible, and in some respects so moving and tragic that it might be a legend out of China or the Middle Ages rather than a record of what happened to certain American Indians during the Administration of Rutherford B. Hayes.
The general notion today is that nothing much happened to American Indians once the massacre of Custer and his men along the Little Big Horn in 1876 had been avenged. In a military sense this is true enough, though not strictly true. So far as the Indians themselves were concerned, however, the trouble had barely begun.
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Thousands of them had been already herded into so-called reservations. Solemn treaties made with others were being broken whenever it seemed necessary to break them. Homesteaders, cattlemen, railroad surveyors and telegraph linemen were pushing into old tribal hunting grounds about as they pleased. Whole tribes were being ordered to pack up and leave sections of the country in which they had been living for hundreds of years, and soldiers with sabers and carbines were on hand to see that the orders were obeyed.
One of the tribes thus ousted was the Northern Cheyennes, who were sent down from the Black Hills and the Powder River Valley into Oklahoma (Indian Territory) in the year following the Custer massacre. Led by chiefs named Dull Knife and Little Wolf, these Indians had held out, as long as they could, giving in only when overawed by show of arms, and then traveling sullenly the 800 or 900 miles southward to the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Agency, located near what is now Oklahoma City.
Dull Knife, Little Wolf and the rest soon decided that the new home did not suit them at all. They were not too eager to make the best of things, in any event; moreover, the strange climate disagreed with them and many of them sickened and died; there was little or no game in the neighborhood for them to hunt; the reservation commissary was chronically short of supplies.
After a year had passed, the newcomers made up their minds to go back to the Black Hills and the Powder River Valley again. The agent protested, warned them that they would not be allowed to go, and explained to them again and again that their going would be "illegal." But they weren't interested in the white man's law, and one day in September, 1878, they suddenly made a break. Within a few hours the troops were on their trail.
* * *
This marked the beginning of the Dull Knife campaign, and it is the beginning of Mr. Fast's novel. What happened next may sound unbelievable, as Mr. Fast tells it, but his narrative, though imaginatively colored, is based solidly on the known facts involved and developed without the help of idle and romantic interpolations. Dull Knife and his homesick people started north, and kept going north once they started, in spite of agents, laws and the United States Army. There were only a few hundred of them all told, some of them half starved, most of them poorly armed and two-thirds of them women and children, but to round them up the government had to send out its infantry, cavalry and artillery, and the last were not rounded up until a full six months had passed.
It is a sad and magnificent story, and Mr. Fast does it justice. No doubt his treatment is sentimental in some respects, but it is essentially impersonal and genuinely skillful, underwritten rather than overwritten, subtle in its characterizations and economical in its effects. This is as impressive a book of its kind as I have seen since George R. Stewart's story of the Donner Party, "Ordeal by Hunger," five years ago.