Stephen Ambrose’s Crazy Horse and Custer: The Unparallel Lives of Two Different People

The book Crazy Horse and Custer, by Stephen E. Ambrose, retells the lives of both the Oglala Indian known as Crazy Horse and the American soldier George Armstrong Custer. The books subtitle informs the reader that the lives of the two men run parallel with each other. A reader of the book will soon learn Crazy Horse and Custer’s lives appear to be far more unparallel than parallel. Less than a handful of incidents that occur within the men’s lives can be considered even closely similar.

For the most part, Crazy Horse and Custer’s lives are about as different as they could possibly be. The principle factor contributing to the differences between the men lay in the fact they come from completely different societies. The fact that the two men come from unrelated societies is very much written about by Ambrose.

Crazy Horse and Custer are raised, educated, and eventually grow into two dissimilar personalities. The differing societies in which the young men grow into adulthood play an extremely large part. The two men grow and become as different from each other as their own cultures would allow them. Crazy Horse and Custer, due to societal differences, should not be seen by the reader as leading parallel lives. The two men cannot live parallel lives because their respective cultures could not allow it. They grow up as differently as two people possibly could. Coincidental and simple incidents in the lives of the two warriors should not be counted towards their lives being remotely close to similar or parallel.

Crazy Horse and Custer fight for two different nations, or societies. They both fight for different reasons. They both seek and reach for different goals, other than survival, which all living beings strive for. Both men search for love, which most living beings seem to search for at some point in life. The two warriors also search for respect in each other’s, which most living beings also search for in one aspect or another.

Just because the two men fighting against one another seek similar intangibles from life, does not necessarily mean their lives are parallel. If this were the case then any pair of human beings in the history of mankind could have a book written about their own comparable lives. Crazy Horse and Custer portrays the two men as being far more different than they are the same. While the two men may appear to have had similar lives, the book points out many more ways in which the two men contrast one another.

Ambrose attempts to reveal to the reader of his book the ways in which Crazy Horse and Custer have led parallel lives. The reader, upon a close reading, may come to the conclusion that Ambrose actually succeeds in pointing out the differences of the two men more so than the similarities. This is not to say the book is not well written or informative, in both cases it is. The problem lies when Ambrose strays from the topic of the subtitle of the book.

Ambrose does indeed try to show Crazy Horse and Custer as somewhat similar men. The vast amount of historical background and context surrounding the different societies of the time, intertwined with the facts of the men’s lives that Ambrose chooses to insert in his book, leaves no option other than to illustrate the vast dissimilarities between the two more than bring the two together.

While trying to give a biographical view of Crazy Horse and Custer, Ambrose fills his book with more of history of how the whites and Native Americans come together on the Plains. The beginning of the book deals entirely with the landscape and the environment of the Plains and how the Native Americans survived on the Plains. Ambrose writes about how the Native Americans and few whites on the Plains moved about and traded with each other.

Ambrose then moves the setting to Ohio where he once again gives a detailed historical background on the state and the people inhabiting it. Crazy Horse and Custer are only mentioned in passing with very little attention given to them at this point. Not an especially strong beginning for the two men the title of the book focuses on. While containing vast amounts of information about the time and setting, the first two chapters of the book contain nothing on the lives of Crazy Horse and Custer. Ambrose sets the reader on a path of discovering the differences between the two cultures more than anything else.

When Ambrose finally decides to give the beginning details of each man’s life the reader is not shown parallels between the men as young children. The differences are notable however. Writing about Crazy Horse, known as Curly while a child, Ambrose writes, “He was never struck by an adult.”

Later in the book the reader also learns about Custer’s early childhood. About Custer, also known then as Autie, Ambrose writes, “As Autie grew older he was physically punished for transgressions.” The author may be inadvertently deviating from the topic of his book. Due to the fact that the descriptions of Crazy Horse and Custer rarely take place within the same chapters, the differences may or may not escape the reader’s notice. The dissimilarities are plentiful throughout the book though.

Continuing with the two men’s youths the reader receives further information pertaining to the differences between the two. As a child, Curly was different from the other Oglala children as well as Autie. Ambrose delivers more information about Curly as a child and growing teen-ager when he writes, “Curly was quiet and modest, not boastful like most Oglala boys.” The author continues to write about the bragging done by the Oglalas and disdained by Curly, “Nor did he like to hear the warriors brag about themselves, and he refused to do it himself.” Ambrose adds the following about Curly as well, “He did not enjoy the rough jokes and loud singing at the akicita societies.” As Ambrose shows later to the reader, Custer is a completely different child.

Autie becomes a practical joker at a very young age and appears to be, according to personality, an opposite of Curly. Ambrose reveals that the Custer family, as a whole, was jokers with the children learning from the father Emmanuel Custer. The author includes, “Emmanuel was a practical joker and so were his children – Autie, worst of all. Chairs were always being pulled under someone just sitting down; the object of the joke laughed as loud as the others.” Autie and his family obviously enjoyed playing somewhat rough jokes on each other. The joking behavior that Autie demonstrates as a child and as an adult greatly opposes the behavior of Curly as a child and adult. The reader also learns that Custer thoroughly enjoys bragging about himself as well as hearing others brag about him. Ambrose writes about Custer, “He considered himself to be the most fascinating character he knew and therefore loved to write about himself, confident that others would find his experiences equally fascinating.” The two men, Crazy Horse and Custer, could not be more different from each other as children and young adults.

Ambrose eventually writes about Crazy Horse and Custer in the same chapter although there is a good amount of reading to be done before the reader reaches this point. In an effort to display the parallels of the young men’s lives Ambrose fails to do so. In the first two paragraphs only, of the specific chapter, the author delivers minimal similarities between the two men. Ambrose then goes on for the rest of the chapter giving examples of all the differences between Crazy Horse and Custer. The author writes about the two men, “After becoming a soldier, Custer knew almost nothing about medicine or law or manufacturing. He never really understood how his society worked. Crazy Horse knew how to do everything required to make his society function.” Ambrose also adds, “Crazy Horse’s world view was circular, while Custer’s was linear.”

Ambrose completes the chapter with the following, “The ultimate difference between the two men was their moods. Custer was never satisfied with where he was âÂ?¦ He was always in a state of becoming. Crazy Horse âÂ?¦ was in a state of being.” If Ambrose attempt is to show the two men leading parallel lives, he falters miserably by including this chapter alone.

Ambrose does not end in giving the reader a multitude of differences between Crazy Horse and Custer. The author includes yet another chapter seemingly concentrating on the many and vast differences of the two while minimizing the similarities. In this particular chapter Ambrose writes, “Both men fought for prestige, although in Crazy Horse’s case it was prestige for its own sake, while in Custer’s case the prestige led to additional power.” Once again Ambrose chooses to focus on dissimilarity rather than similarity.

Later in the chapter Ambrose illustrates additional differences, rather than focusing on the parallel lives, when he writes, “Custer embraced ambition; Crazy Horse hardly knew ambition at all. Custer worked hard, driving himself to get ahead âÂ?¦ Crazy Horse hardly worked at all.” Ambrose continues to focus on the differences between the men, rather than placing the emphasis of his prose on the way the two men’s lives are parallel.

When the author does mention parallels between Crazy Horse and Custer, he seems to do so only in a passing manner thus reducing the overall impact of his goal. An example of this deemphasizing can be shown when Ambrose writes, “There were obvious vast differences between the two men, but at bottom they shared a fundamental trait. Both were aggressive.” By using the terms bottom and fundamental in describing the parallel trait, Ambrose has taken away focus from a similarity between Crazy Horse and Custer. Consequently the emphasis of the sentence Ambrose chooses to write rests with the positioning and description of the “vast differences” of Crazy Horse and Custer. Ambrose moves forward with his book continuing to point out differences and placing the focus of the reader on the differences.

Ambrose decides to keep writing about the differences of the two men as is evidenced later in his book. Rather than exploiting the parallels of the Crazy Horse and Custer’s lives, the author continues to write about multiple dissimilarities. When writing about Crazy Horse, Ambrose adds, “Unlike Custer he had tasted defeat from his enemies, both red and white, and had a realistic idea of what could and could not be accomplished with the warriors who followed him.”

The only parallel here, between the two men, rests in the fact that they both lead men. That particular parallel is not the focus of the sentence, the difference of not having a realistic idea of their respective soldiers is the focus. Ambrose does not stop there though in writing about the differences between Crazy Horse and Custer.

The author even includes the differences in which the two men let a battle end. After writing about the small battle at Fort Phil Kearny, in which Custer was not present, Ambrose adds, “It is remarkable but nonetheless true that these Indians, who could so horribly mutilate dead bodies, lacked a killer instinct. Custer never let a defeated opponent get away that easily.” There is no parallel evident with the passage, only an obvious difference. Ambrose, at this point almost three-quarters of the way through the book, still manages to point out, and place emphasis on, the differences between Crazy Horse and Custer to the reader.

Ambrose only adds more emphasis to the dissimilarities between the two men as the book nears its end. The reader learns that Custer reads History of the War in the Peninsula and has severe difficulty with the reading. Ambrose writes about Custer and the small event, “His persistence provides a fitting symbol for one of the marked contrasts between Custer and Crazy Horse and, beyond them as individuals, for one of the contrasts between their societies.” The author places special emphasis on the distinction between the two men and their societies. Ambrose actually goes so far as saying the difference is a symbol of not only both men, but both of their nations. Ambrose does not, at any single time, mention one of the few parallels of Crazy Horse and Custer as a symbol of anything.

The only reason Ambrose tries to establish some sort of parallel between Crazy Horse and Custer may rest in the fact that the two men made each more famous than ever before in their last battle. Ambrose, time and again, strays from pointing out the parallels of the two men’s lives. Instead, the author points the reader in the direction of many more differences than anything else. Coupling the differences of the men with vast amounts of historical information that has nothing to do with Crazy Horse and Custer makes the book unable to live up to its own subtitle. An informative and well written book though it may be, the book is not about the parallel lives of two warriors.

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