In a biography of stunning richness and sophistication, Pulitzer Prize winner T.J. Stiles turns the focus squarely on Custer and away from the grim terminus that has defined his legacy. Whether Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontiers of a New America redeems its subject is another question — Custer is just too polarizing a figure. But Stiles brilliantly puts flesh and bone on what has become a cultural stick figure.
By explaining Custer’s life without constantly looking over his shoulder at the fate that awaits him, even going so far as relegating the Battle of the Little Bighorn to the epilogue, Stiles has perhaps given him a measure of redemption.
In this deft portrait, Stiles restores Custer as a three-dimensional figure, a complicated man whose formidable talents were nearly overwhelmed by his difficulties in managing affairs away from the clamorous riot of battle.
The burden of T.J. Stiles’s epic, ambitious, bursting-at-the-seams biography, Custer’s Trials, is to show that for 30-some years preceding Little Bighorn, Custer (1839-76) was shaped by forces every bit as powerful and overwhelming as Sitting Bull’s army of warriors on that infamous summer day.
This is an immersive, emphatic, bloody and very assured book...[but] missing are the voices of Native Americans. This is a surprise, given Stiles’ careful bead on Southern sensibilities in the Civil War chapters.
This is not the first biography of Custer, but it likely goes furthest in exploring his contribution to Union victory during the Civil War and the difficulties he faced adjusting to the world that he helped to create.
...a good and meaty biography, with as many digressions as there are condiments for hot dogs. Well informed by primary-source material, [it's] complemented by an array of illuminations all Stiles’s own...
This is that rare, practically unthinkable Custer book that devotes only about 15 of its 582 pages to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the 1876 High Plains clash that cemented Custer’s fame (or infamy) when he led his regiment to their deaths at the hands of a superior force of Lakota and Cheyenne chiefs and warriors. Instead, Stiles focuses on Custer’s huge ambition as the son of an obscure Ohio blacksmith, someone who yearned to be known for more than just military feats.
If Custer’s Trials does not quite stand with Stiles’ earlier books, it’s because of his subject’s limitations...even the best books about Custer seem a bit thin. Custer’s Trials is one of the most rare of historical biographies: The book is superior to its subject.
Given the number of words written about Custer, author T.J. Stiles acknowledges at the end of his new book that he is not sure he has found out anything about Custer that will be new to all readers. True, perhaps. Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America is nevertheless an immensely interesting and engaging story of Custer and his times.