A few days before battle, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer led his regiment from Fort Abraham Lincoln into Dakota territory. The year was 1876 and the setting Montana, home of the Sioux and Cheyenne. As the golden-haired colonel and his devoted troops rode over a hill, women watched from below. The sun hung low in the sky and the air was filled with a light mist. In the sky, onlookers saw the reflection of a column of men, four abreast, cresting the hill. To them, the eerie image was a portent. Days later, their fears were confirmed. It was the Battle of Little Bighorn. Most of Custer’s men, and even the colonel himself, would never make it home.
This is the world of John Hough Jr.’s new novel Little Bighorn. Published in June, Mr. Hough’s book re-imagines the battle’s prominent figures and the dramatic tension through the creation of a fictional protagonist, Allen Winslow.
The story begins when Allen, an 18-year-old boy, is sent off to fight with Custer against his will. Allen finds fault with Custer’s lack of respect for the Native Americans. He is also a pacifist, and at first refuses to even carry a gun. But gradually he gets caught up in the excitement of living on the wild plains. Conscience and character shift. Allen also falls in love with a 16-year-old girl he meets on his journey out West.
For Mr. Hough, who has authored seven other books, historical fiction is relatively new territory. Before writing his previous book, Seen the Glory, which is about Gettysburg, Mr. Hough had never written historical novels, though he has written nonfiction before. Now, he said, “I think that’s what I’m going to do from now on.
“I like going back to another time, imagining myself in another time, imagining the way they talked then, then imagining what they knew and how little they knew compared to what we know now,” he said.
One of his favorite challenges in writing the text was reading old letters and primary documents and figuring out how to create dialogue that “sounds real, but sounds old at the same time.”
The Battle of Little Bighorn has interested Mr. Hough since he was a boy growing up in Falmouth. Part of that fascination for him comes from its insignificance in the course of history, but its omnipresence in the culture. According to Mr. Hough, there have been easily over 100 novels written about Little Bighorn, more than any other “big battle that turned history.”
“That battle changed nothing, decided nothing,” he added. “The Indians won it, yeah, but it only postponed the inevitable.”
And this is precisely the battle’s allure.
“When a battle doesn’t turn history the way I think Gettysburg did, for instance, it has no meaning beyond the drama itself and so you become interested in the characters,” said Mr. Hough. “And they are a bunch of interesting characters, rascals and rogues and scoundrels. There aren’t a lot of heroes in Little Bighorn except on the Indian side.”
Mr. Hough hoped that in writing this story, he could take some of the glamor out of a battle that has been romanticized for decades.
“In every bit of heroism I try to present a hellish nightmare,” he said. “There is no glory in this battle as I write it.”
Mr. Hough said he deliberately chose not to write from the Native Americans’ point of view because, “You can call all of this wrong without ever stepping over into the Indians’ shoes.
“Allen, the protagonist, doesn’t like it at all, he’s against it,” Mr. Hough explained. Mr. Hough also enjoyed the challenge of crafting a compelling story from an event that readers know the outcome of before they even read the first words of his story.
“It’s like setting a novel on the Titanic,” he said. “You know what is going to happen to everybody.”
Mr. Hough keeps his audience engaged by using the creative license of fiction.
“One of the nice things about writing a novel is you can invent things and imagine anything that you want, so you’re not bound by things that are considered absolute truths,” he said. “The novelist has his or her own truths.”
Throughout the novel, Allen serves as a proxy for Mr. Hough, a way for him to explore a historical event that has fascinated him for years. After writing about Little Bighorn, Mr. Hough said he felt “a gradual relief.”
“I just feel like I sort of know [the wartime figures] better than I ever would,” he added. “It feels very personal.”