THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

A CREEK CALLED WOUNDED KNEE (1978) by Douglas C. Jones

On December 29, 1890 Custer's old command, the Seventh Cavalry, attempted to disarm a band of 120 Minneconjou Sioux warriors led by Chief Big Foot that had surrendered the day before.  

When one warrior resisted surrendering his rifle and a trooper attempted to wrest it from him, either the rifle or some other weapon fired, and the soldiers began to fire indiscriminately into the group of Sioux, who then began to retrieve their stacked weapons and to fire back.  Since most of them had no weapons they began to flee in an effort to avoid annihilation.  

The Seventh had mounted four Hotchkiss cannons on a nearby knoll and the soldiers manning the guns began to fire into the Sioux encampment located some distance from where the meeting between the Seventh and Big Foot's men had taken place.  It is estimated that 230 women and children were in the camp at the time.  As they and a number of the men attempted to make their escape down a dry ravine, the guns were turned on them and the canister shells from the Hotchkiss guns rained deadly shrapnel up and down the ravine.

Soldiers and Hotchkiss guns at Wounded Knee
On that day, 153 known Sioux, including Big Foot, were killed. Over half of the dead were women and children.  Since many of the captured Sioux later died from wounds and others who were wounded but made their escape probably died as well, some estimates place the total dead as high as 300.

Twenty-five solders were killed and thirty-nine were wounded. However, because the two troops that were charged with the responsibility of disarming the Sioux were formed in an L shape in close proximity to the warriors, there is evidence that most of the Seventh's casualties were the result of friendly fire.

Body of Big Foot frozen into a grotesque shape by a winter blizzard

Monument marking mass grave in Wounded Knee cemetery

A Creek Called Wounded Knee (1978) was the third entry in what became a de facto trilogy on the Indian-white conflict on the northern plains.  The first two were The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer (1976) and Arrest Sitting Bull (1977).  Since the massacre at Wounded Knee occurred exactly two weeks after Sitting Bull's death, the third novel represents a natural progression.

The latter two events are closely related not only in terms of time, but also because it was the Ghost Dance movement that was spreading like a prairie grass fire among the Lakota Sioux that aroused fear among settlers, U.S. Indian Agents, and the U.S. cavalry.  Sensationalist reporting by competing newspapers not only added fuel to the fire, but also fanned the flames of hatred and distrust.  Adding further symmetry to the three novels is the fact that it was George Custer's reconstituted Seventh Cavalry regiment that was responsible for the massacre.

As he did in the first two novels, Jones utilizes both historical and fictional characters to tell the story, but within the plot he makes the story as factual as possible.  I always knew that he was a thorough researcher, but I discovered in rereading this novel that he was even more meticulous than I first imagined.  

I won't give them away, but there are two incidents in the story that just did not ring true for me.  I thought they were cases of a novelist doing what a novelist is supposed to do, in fact is obligated to do.  I assumed he had manufactured a couple of fictional events in order to spice up the story. However, in doing a little further research I discovered that both were documented events.  I also ran across other examples of a similar nature.

For some readers, this story will at first move slowly, but as a reviewer wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch "[t]he ominous presence of the coming tragedy is on every page."

In the beginning, Jones sets the stage by vividly detailing the fear and distrust that pervaded Big Foot's band as well as the nervous anxiety of the relatively inexperienced raw recruits who comprised a majority of the reconstituted Seventh Calvary, a regiment that had earlier sustained a stunning defeat at the hands of the Sioux and Cheyenne on the Little Bighorn.  Fourteen years later, near a creek in South Dakota, the Seventh and the Sioux clashed again in what was initially called the battle of Wounded Knee, but today is almost universally known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

ARREST SITTING BULL (1977) by Douglas C. Jones

"Jones displays sympathy for whites and Indians but never slips into a maudlin sentimentality.  The villains of his novels are not the people caught up in the event but a government that repeatedly dealt with Indian-White conflict ineptly and insensitively." 
-- Cheryl J. Foote, Twentieth-Century Western Writers

Douglas C. Jones’ first novel was THE COURT-MARTIAL OF GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER (1976); a “what-if” story that asked (and answered) the question of what Custer’s fate would have been had he survived the battle of Little Bighorn.  His second novel, The Arrest of Sitting Bull (1977), was also a fictional account of a controversial chapter in the history of Indian-white relations.  This time it is the events surrounding the death of Sitting Bull on December 15, 1890. 

At the time, the Lakota Sioux chief was living on the Standing Rock Reservation on the borders between the recently created states of North and South Dakota. The authorities had become deeply concerned about the Ghost Dance movement that had spread among the Lakota.  The movement, sharing many of the characteristics of a religion, promised the eminent arrival of an Indian Messiah who would bring back the buffalo and free the Indians from their white oppressors.

The U.S. Indian Agent at the reservation, James McLaughlin, who believed that Sitting Bull was one of the moving forces behind the movement, sent a group of Indian policemen, thirty-nine in all, to Sitting Bull's cabin to arrest him. The botched effort by the policemen ended in tragedy.

Ten days later the Wounded Knee massacre occurred on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  That tragedy was the subject of Jones’ third novel, A Creek Called Wounded Knee (1978). 

As in his first novel, and as he would do in subsequent novels, Jones intertwines historical and fictional characters, intermingles fact and fiction, and uses the eye of a painter (which he was), the ear of a journalist (degrees in journalism and mass communications), and the research skills of a historian to bring history alive in a way that no historian could.

Sunday, March 6, 2016


DOUGLAS C. JONES (1924-1998).
I find it difficult to understand why some western novelists are so fortunate to have many of their books and stories make their way to movie and TV screens, while other writers often just as talented, or maybe even more so, rarely, if ever, see their work adapted to film.

There is no doubt that timing is a factor. Writers such as Zane Grey, Ernest Haycox, and Luke Short, for example, were turning out novels at a time when western movies were extremely popular and were annually produced by the hundreds.  In the case of Grey all of his western novels were filmed, most of them more than once, though in some cases only the title of the story survived the screenplay.

On the other hand, the stories of a few other writers -- Louis L'Amour and Larry McMurty come to mind -- have made their way to the screen even at a time that fewer and fewer westerns were being filmed.  True, most of the L'Amour stories were filmed as made-for-TV movies, but they were filmed.

Then there is the late Elmer Kelton, who was a prolific writer of popular western novels, some of which were acclaimed by critics and won prestigious awards. And yet only one of them, The Good Old Boys, was ever filmed, and that as a TV movie with Tommy Lee Jones as producer, director, and star.

And that brings us to Douglas C. Jones.  

First of all, it would be a misnomer to call him a "western novelist."  While it is true that most of his novels were set in the West, they were far from the formulaic stories produced by the likes of L'Amour, Haycox, Short, and company, or even Kelton.  While Kelton did write a few novels that approached literary status, most of them would have to be classified as formulaic, which is not to say that they weren't well-written and enjoyable.  Jones' novels, on the other hand, were anything but formulaic.  They weren't really "western novels" as we think of the term, but were in reality historical novels that happened to be set in the West.

But like Kelton, only one of Jones' stories has been adapted to film and is likewise a TV movie. Jones' very first novel, The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer, was produced as a Hallmark TV movie in 1977, and is thus far the first and last Jones story to be filmed.  

He was born in 1924 in the small northwestern Arkansas town of Winslow, located about half-way between the larger towns of Fort Smith and Fayetteville. After graduating from high school in Fayetteville in 1942, he was drafted into the army and served in the Pacific Theater.

After his discharge, he attended the University of Arkansas, graduating with a degree in journalism in 1949.  He then returned to the army where he served another twenty years.  But during that time he attended the University of Wisconsin where he was awarded a master's degree in mass communications.

Having grown up in northwestern Arkansas just across the Arkansas River from the former Indian Territory, it is only natural that Jones developed a deep and abiding interest in the history of the Indian frontier.  That interest led him to deal with the conflict between Indians and whites in his first book, a work of nonfiction, as well as his first three novels which followed.  And it was a subject that he would also return to in his later work.

While still in the military, his first book, The Treaty of Medicine Lodge, was published in 1966.  His only nonfiction book, it was a re-working of his master's thesis.  That might seem a strange thesis for a degree in mass communications until you read the book's subtitle: The Story of the Great Treaty Council as Told by Eyewitnesses.  The eyewitnesses were the newspaper correspondents such as Henry Stanley who were sent to cover the proceedings.

The above marker which sets in the town of Medicine Lodge, Kansas is somewhat of an over simplification of the treaty's impact, but it is correct in stating that it did not bring immediate peace.  There were several causes, but the chief one was the fact that Congress failed to follow through with its side of the agreement.

Retiring as a Lt. Colonel in 1968, he taught journalism for six years at Wisconsin, eventually devoting full-time to his writing. Fifty-two years old when his first novel was published, he would write sixteen more, with the last being published posthumously.  His historical novels range all the way from the American Revolution to the Great Depression.  There is also an eighteenth novel, set in World War II, that has as of yet not been published.  It would seem a natural fit for a career soldier who served in that conflict, but with the passing of almost two decades since his death, it doesn't seem likely that it will ever see the light of day.

According to Jones, the premise of his first novel was born as a result of a discussion with a friend about what Custer's fate might have been had he survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  

It was Jones' opinion that Custer would have faced court-martial charges related to his leadership and conduct during the battle.

In the alternate history that resulted (the only foray that Jones made into that genre), charges are brought against Custer and witnesses are called to testify for and against him.  The witnesses present conflicting views of the man and confusing testimony about the events surrounding the battle that in many ways reflect the confusion that still surrounds the man and his actions to this day.  It is through the testimony of the eyewitnesses that the battle is recreated.

View from "Last Stand Hill" with Little Bighorn valley in the distance marked by trees along the bank of the river.  It was in the valley that the large villages of the Lakota (Sioux) and Northern Cheyenne were hidden.
The verdict?  I'm not at liberty to say on the grounds that I would be guilty of spoiling a good story.  But I do recommend it to anyone who is interested in the intriguing possibilities that the book offers.  I should also mention that it won the Western Writers of America's spur award for Best Western Novel.

"This is a fantasy which needs no apology, for who among us has not been intrigued by the alternatives history never reveals." -- Douglas C. Jones, writing in the preface of The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer

Enhancing the pleasure of reading the book are the pencil and charcoal sketches of the principal characters that are included in my first edition copy. The artist is the author.  I forgot to mention that he was also a talented artist. And as a painter, he was able to describe and bring to life landscapes in a vivid fashion in his novels.  His sketches also appear in the first editions of several of his other books.

One critic wrote that Jones' abilities as a writer, journalist, historian, and painter represented "a happy amalgamation of talents."  And so they did.  Oh, I also forgot to mention that he played the upright bass in a jazz band.  I guess that was in his spare time.

"Countless movies and books have ... featured Custer.  Sometimes Custer is a hero; recently, more often, he's a villain, but never boring .... Both admirers and critics of Custer will find something in the book to support their points of view. -- William F.B. Vearey, The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable 

"This superb novel answers the question that everyone has asked: What would have happened to Custer had he lived?  Read it." -- Jessamyn West

The Film (Warner Bros. TV, 1977)  (NBC-TV).
DIRECTOR: Glenn Jordan; PRODUCER: Norman Rosemont; WRITERS: teleplay by John Gay based on novel by Douglas C. Jones; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jim Kilgore

CAST: Brian Keith, James Olson, Blythe Danner, Ken Howard, Stephen Elliott, Dehl Berti, James Blendick, J.D. Cannon, Nicolas Coster, William Daniels, Richard Dysart, Anthony Zerbe