Sunday, May 30, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Ridgeline by Michael Punke

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

The problem with books about the American West and wars between the Native Americans and U.S. Army is that no matter how beautifully written, they are melancholy; and no matter how exciting, you know how the story will ultimately end.

is a new release by the Western Historical novelist Michael Punke. It is a meticulously detailed (if fictionalized) account of the 1866 battle between the soldiers at the newly constructed Fort Phil Kearny in current-day Wyoming and the combined forces of the Lakota and their allies. Red Cloud was the primary leader, but in this novel, the focus is on the visionary young Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse and his people watch with horror and anger as white soldiers move into the Powder River Valley, a sacred hunting ground, and begin cutting down trees to build a fort.

The army is led by Colonel Henry Harrington, who is more engineer than soldier. His top commanders are a mixed bunch of infantry, artillery, and cavalry men. There are also civilians in the group, including women and children (meaning that this group of white soldiers is here to stay). There is also Jim Bridger, a well-known scout, who is beginning to question his role. 

For the most part, the Lakota are intelligent, brave, and thoughtful. They are brutal only when necessary. Crazy Horse is a brilliant strategist, but is also humble enough to listen to the wisdom of others and to accept responsibility without demanding praise or credit. The white soldiers, on the other hand, with few exceptions, are argumentative, vainglorious, and largely incompetent. They drink too much. They are undisciplined and ill-trained. The villain of the novel, Lieutenant Grummond, is the worst of the worst, even mistreating his pregnant wife.

Telling the story from multiple viewpoints, the author sets the stage for an epic battle. Some chapters are less gripping than others, occasionally slowing the pace in the first part of the book. But overall, the multifaceted stage setting works, bringing the reader deeply into the time and place. The tension is there from the beginning, building slowly, until the action explodes in the final chapters.

This is a wonderfully written Western that is an old-fashioned historical adventure but with more modern sensibility. It’s not a feel-good story, but it is a satisfying read.

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