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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand
Interview -- Paul Walker
|• The Battle • Archeology • Memorials • Little Bighorn Store • News • Book Reviews|
Webmaster's Note: In the following interview responses from author Paul Robert Walker are marked P.R.W. and responses from National Geographic Project Editor Suzanne Patrick Fonda are marked S.P.F.
Bob Reece: Thanks so much for speaking with us about your new young reader’s book, Remember Little Bighorn. I wasn’t aware of this book until Chief Historian John Doerner suggested I review it for the Friends website.
In Doerner’s foreword of your book he states, “Perhaps no other battle in American history captures the public’s imagination more than the Battle of Little Bighorn.” Was this the reason why National Geographic decided to release this book for young readers? Were there other reasons for this choice?
P.R.W. I’ll let Suzanne answer this one.
S.P.F. I think what attracted us to making Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn the topic of a book in our Remember Series was the fact that it offered a great opportunity to correct a lot of bad history and to let kids hear the Native American side of the story. The whole purpose of this series is to use eyewitness accounts to present a variety of points of view and the latest theories based on careful analysis of the evidence and events.
B.R. Can you share with us, somewhat, the process that goes on behind the scenes at National Geographic when starting to work on such a book?
P.R.W. Again – I defer to Suzanne.
S.P.F. First an idea for a book has to be approved by an editorial and marketing committee. (Normally an author submits these ideas, or we have an author in mind to write a particular book. In the case of Little Bighorn, it was a little of both. Paul and I had worked together on a previous children’s book titled True Tales of the Wild West, so I knew he was well-versed in the region’s history, that he was committed to telling the real story, and that he was a talented storyteller. I felt he would be a perfect fit for what we call our Remember series. So we matched the author to the series, but he picked the topic.) Then work begins on figuring out the “package” for the book—the trim size, page count, artwork or photos—in other words the overall design. Since Little Bighorn was part of an established series, much of this was already established.
Paul knew from the get go exactly what the format was and what miscellaneous elements needed to be included (time line, resources, postscripts, etc.). Normally we would assign an illustrations editor to gather the visuals for the story. However, because Paul has a vast knowledge of the art from this time period and because he truly loves to hunt down only the best visual material, he served as his own illustrations editor and did a fabulous job. When both the manuscript and the illustrations are in hand, then it becomes a real team effort (meaning the author, designer, and editor working together) to layout the book in a way that not only tells the story but also brings it to life for the reader. Just as challenging is making the text fit once you add the illustrations!
Last but not least is figuring out what maps are needed and working with our cartographic director to create them in a style that will complement the book. Verifying the factual accuracy of the text is the author’s responsibility, but of course here is where the consultant (in this case John Doerner) plays a critical role. Prior to releasing the book to the printer, the book is presented to the editorial and marketing team, the illustrations go through a series of color corrections to try to achieve the highest quality possible. From the time the author starts his research (Paul rode the entire battlefield and talked to various experts and descendents in addition to reading extensively) to the time the files go out the door takes about a year, sometimes less if there is a change in the schedule.
B.R. How and why were you chosen for this project?
P.R.W. First let me explain that I began working with NGS on the adult side and wrote two large-format, “coffee-table” style books, Trail of the Wild West: Rediscovering the American Frontier (1997) and The Southwest: Gold, God, and Grandeur (2001). Sometime between these two books, I connected with Suzanne Fonda at NGS Children’s Books, which was a natural transition since I had already written children’s books for other publishers. Suzanne and I worked through a number of ideas, and finally decided on the book that became True Tales of the Wild West (2002). It tells ten key stories of the Wild West period – including the Battle of the Little Bighorn – in narrative format with a nonfiction essay at the end of each story. We enjoyed working together and sometime later I called Suzanne to discuss other projects, and she told me about this wonderful series they had developed called Remember..., which portrays historical events through heavy use of eyewitness accounts. At that time, there were three books in the series, and they were all about WWII. Suzanne sent me the books, and I loved them. I came up with a number of ideas that might work in the series, and the two strongest – which NGS accepted – were the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Battle of the Alamo.
B.R. How did you approach researching and writing this book?
P.R.W. I had already written about the battle in four other books. The first two were very brief sections within biographical essays on Sitting Bull and Black Elk respectively, but the two most recent – in Trail of the Wild West and True Tales of the Wild West – were fairly substantial descriptions that got me into some of the primary sources and the time-motion studies of John Gray. Also, John Doerner read my narrative for True Tales and gave me some good comments. So, I already had a pretty good grounding in this story before I began the book.
Even though it’s relatively short (about 10,000 words), this book gave me the opportunity to tell the story in much greater detail than I had been able to tell it before, and I was ready and eager to do that. At the same time, it’s a very structured type of book, because it’s part of a series, so I had to work within that structure. I took an unusual approach. Rather than starting with massive reading as I usually do, I was able to just start telling the story based on all the research I had already done, and see how the story played out. I wrote the first three chapters – which is everything up to the Custer battle – fairly quickly, and then I started going over them in more detail, rechecking all the research, finding new and better eyewitness accounts, working to resolve points of conflict among sources, etc. This can actually be a very effective way to write when you have limited space and a very big story. You can’t tell everything, so you have to “know what you need to know.” After having the first three chapters in draft form, I spent a week at the battlefield, and fortunately had the opportunity to talk a lot with John Doerner and join him locating some new Cheyenne markers between Custer Hill and Deep Ravine. I also did an all-day ride across the battlefield with Chip Watts, of the 7th Ranch, which helped me get a better handle on the topographical reality. I had been to the battlefield before, but this was a more extended visit where I could focus on the story every day, and, as I explained above, I already knew the story well enough to know what I was looking for and what I was trying to resolve. When I returned home, I wrote the chapters on the Custer battle and Reno Hill, and then went over the whole manuscript many more times.
I was also responsible for finding all the images, and obtaining appropriate permissions, so that was a huge project in itself, which I did simultaneously with the writing and revision. There are about 60 images in the book, and they are well-integrated into the text. So I had to know my story before getting images, but certain images also brought a new richness to the story, and enabled me to tell a part of the story in a caption that I didn’t have room to tell in the main text.
B.R. How long did this project take from beginning of the process to the date of publication for this book?
P.R.W. I don’t remember when the proposal was accepted, but I started writing it in March 2005 and it was published in June 2006.
B.R. There is so much to this story. What I’m very curious about is how do you even begin to start thinking about and decide how to tell the story of this battle for the young readers?
P.R.W. It comes down to structure and in a book like this, structure comes down to chapters. In this series, each chapter begins with a full-page illustration on the left-hand page and the chapter title and text on the right-hand side, so it’s very definite transition from chapter to chapter. At the time I began Remember Little Bighorn, there were only three other books in the series, and they each had a different number of chapters – 3, 4, and 5. There were three distinct battles in the “Battle of the Little Bighorn” – the valley fight, the Custer battle, and Reno Hill – so it was immediately clear to me that those should be three separate chapters.
The key question then became where do you begin the story? At first, I tried beginning the evening before the battle, with Sitting Bull and One Bull going across the river to pray. However, when I wrote that, I realized that there was so much info that kids needed to know to really understand why the Indians were camping on the Little Bighorn and why the soldiers were about to attack them. I try not to give too much information in the past perfect tense, because I think it reads awkwardly and it’s always easier to understand events chronologically. So I saved that scene for chapter 2 and decided to go back further and begin the story with Custer’s 1874 expedition into the Black Hills.
This is a perfect beginning – you couldn’t script it any better – because here’s the leader and many of the men who will later die at the Little Bighorn starting the conflict that will lead to their demise. It’s also a fairly easy progression of events for kids to understand. You don’t have to know the whole history of Indian-white relations to understand that a) we promised the Indians the Black Hills; b) we found gold in the Black Hills; and c) we wanted the gold and this led to war. Once I had this beginning the narrative arc became quite clear to me, and the first chapter takes us all the way from the Black Hills expedition to the Battle of the Rosebud.
One other key decision I made was to tell the story more from the Indians’ point of view. I do shift back and forth, between the Indians’ and the soldiers’ points of view – and you have to do that to some extent – but I wanted to capture the idea that to the Indians this village was their home, at least for the time being, and their home was being attacked. By establishing the Indian pov earlier in the story, it become easier to tell the story of the Custer battle, where so much information is from the Indians’ pov.
B.R. What amazes me is how fair you are toward both sides of the story. As an example, it would be easy to just say Custer was a jerk or that the Indians were defending their land. Instead, you’re very fair with Custer and the soldiers. You’re honest in stating that the battle actually took place on the Crow Reservation and that the warriors were defending a way of life instead. What was the thought process, either within you or with fellow editors, that ensured the accuracy found in your book?
P.R.W. First, I really appreciate this question because it’s about the nicest thing anyone could say about any of my books. There wasn’t really a thought process, because I never considered any other approach. Fairness and honesty are not really options to me as an author or to National Geographic as a publisher. That doesn’t mean I am always perfectly accurate, or that everyone will agree with my choices, but it does mean that I always try to be as accurate, honest, and fair as I can be. Maybe the key to this is that I don’t have any strong opinions or pet theories; I’m just interested in the story itself. The fact that this event happened, and what it meant for the arc of Indian-white relations, is more important to me and to young readers than any specific detail or personality judgment. I’ve researched and written a lot of history, and in general I find that most people do the best they can given the information they have. I would say that’s true of Custer and of everyone else who was on the field of battle at the Little Bighorn.
B.R. You describe in great detail the story of the suicide boys near the end of the battle. Was there any discussion among your team about whether or not to use the term, suicide boys? There seems to be a slowly developing underworld of anti-American Indian enthusiasts that abuse this term in order to align the suicide boys with modern day terrorists. The suicide boys were willing to die fighting a well-armed army, not a group of unarmed civilians. What are your thoughts about any of this?
P.R.W. I guess this is a situation where it was better to be naïve. I didn’t know that there was any attempt to connect the suicide boys with modern terrorists, and – just to show you how naïve I really am – I didn’t know there were “anti-Indian enthusiasts” in the 21st century (plenty of them in the 19th century, but I thought we had worked that out). Now that you tell me this, both points of view seem kind of absurd. As you say, the suicide boys were willing to die fighting a well-trained army, and their commitment came out of a warrior culture, where that kind of sacrifice was valued. (Survival and children were also valued, but I don’t think that means we should reject the suicide boys story). A better parallel would be to the Japanese kamikaze pilots in WWII. Terrorist suicide bombers make a similar commitment, which comes out of their own concept of a warrior culture, but the context of their actions is very different.
John Doerner first introduced me to the story of the suicide boys and sent me an article by John Stands in Timber, edited by Margot Liberty, from American Heritage magazine (April 1966), and then, of course, I also read their book, Cheyenne Memories. I used the term “suicide boys” because that’s the word John Stands in Timber used. I actually quote him directly in the book, in relation to this story, and he’s the only non-eyewitness who is quoted in my narrative of the battle. I decided to quote him, because he reported what he heard from a number of eyewitnesses, and it was as close as I could get to this story. I think the story of the suicide boys helps explain a key point in the battle, and the fact that John Doerner is working at the battlefield to put up headstones to mark where some of these boys fell means that it is now part of the “official” story and should be included.
B.R. Have you received any feedback from readers of the book? If so, would you share any of their comments?
P.R.W. I have not yet received any direct feedback from kids. The book was just released in June 2006, so that was at the end of the school year, and it is only really getting into school libraries now. We’ve received some wonderful reviews, and the book was just chosen on School Library Journal’s 2006 list of Best Books for Children. That’s a fairly prestigious honor, and it should lead to more sales, more readers, and some letters and emails. I have a website (www.prwbooks.com), so I’m fairly easy to find, and I have received quite a few letters and emails over the years from readers both young and old. I answer them all.
B.R. I'm aware of other titles currently available: Remember Pearl Harbor, Remember D-Day, and Remember World War II. What other titles are planned for the Remember series, if any?
S.P.F. This is an ongoing series to which titles will be added as appropriate proposals are approved. Next up is Remember Valley Forge; beyond that I would prefer not to say.
P.R.W. I just finished Remember the Alamo: Texians, Tejanos, and Mexicans Tell Their Stories, which will be released in April 2007. It’s very similar in style and structure to Remember Little Bighorn. I’m very happy with the way it turned out, but it was more difficult to write. As I discussed above, once you start with finding gold in the Black Hills, it’s a fairly clear progression of events to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The Alamo battle, however, only makes sense if you really understand the larger context of Anglo-American settlement in Mexican Texas and the Texas Revolution, which is a very complicated story.
I sometimes ask myself how I ended up taking on two projects that emphasize eyewitness accounts of battles where everybody died – or at least where the popular perception is that “everybody died.” But of course everyone didn’t die, and there are plenty of wonderful and intriguing eyewitness accounts for both stories.
B.R. Thank you Paul and Suzanne for spending time with us today.
P.R.W. & S.P.F. You're welcome. It's been a pleasure.
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022