by Robert Skimin



295pp/$25.00/September 2000

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

On June 25, 1876, the United States Cavalry led by George Armstrong Custer was defeated by the Sioux and Cheyenne at Little Bighorn.  ďCusterís Last StandĒ has since entered the collective subconscious of Americans.  Those who know more about the battle than just the name also know that Custer is one of the more controversial heroes of American history.  In Custerís Luck, Robert Skimin examines Custerís character and postulates how he would have turned a victory at Little Bighorn to his advantage in subsequent years.

Skimin takes Custer from the battle through a meteoric rise through the military, culminating in his 1880 Presidential victory over James Garfield.  In the course of his adventures, Custer always manages to have things fall out his way, hence the title of the novel.  While Skimin doesnít dwell on the vainglorious aspects of Custerís character, neither does he hide these characteristics.

In many ways, Custerís Luck is a very timely novel since much of the action takes place during the presidency of Rutherfurd B. Hayes, who won the election with a minority of the popular vote and a controversy regarding the electoral college and the state of Florida.  This isnít the only link to twentieth century politics, however, since Skimin has very obviously based Custerís presidency on the presidency of John F. Kennedy with some aspects of William McKinley and Theodore Rooseveltís presidency mixed in.  Nevertheless, Skimin makes Custer his own man throughout the novel.

Although Skiminís focus is on Custer and his immediate circle, Skimin introduces another, fictitious, character as a counterpoint to Custer.  Red Elk is a Sioux war leader whose wife and unborn child were killed in the aftermath of Little Bighorn.  Red Elk spends the following six years of his life attempting to get close to Custer in order to wreak vengeance on the General.  Skimin portrays Red Elkís attempts in an intelligent, and at times humorous manner, leaving open the question of whether Red Elk will succeed or if Custerís incredible luck will hold out.

There are a few places where Skiminís depictions fall short.  Although Skiminís Custer is clearly flirtatious, Skimin also portrays him as faithful to his wife until shortly after the two arrive in the White House.  The use of the term ďWhite HouseĒ is also questionable as it didnít become officially known as such until 1901.  Finally, while Skimin is concerned with the politics of Washington and Indian affairs, he practically ignores the treatment of Blacks in the South or the disintegration of Reconstruction under the Hayes administration.

For the most part, Custerís Luck is a well-written and well-researched alternate history.  Unlike many recent alternate histories, it does not rely on fantastic elements to explore the realms of what if.  Instead, Skimin provides a human story which looks at ambition and prejudices, focusing on a military man without focusing too heavily on battles or war.

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