My husband has read the Mari Sandoz book Crazy Horse: the Strange Man of the Oglalas two or three times and has always encouraged me to read it as well. So, finally, just a few weeks ago I took out Larry McMurty's book, Crazy Horse: A Life on CD's from the library and was able to hear it being read while commuting through the park to work - about a 45 minute trip - twice a week, and also while driving on any other little errands or visits. It was only three disks and went fast.
In the meantime, I was reading a memoir called Off to the Side by an author named Jim Harrison, whom I'd never heard of, but then I don't keep up with the NY Times Best Sellers List. I have a more Daoist approach and let the Dao brings books to me. :-) And this is an example of how that process works! I still haven't finished the memoir, but I liked it so much that I decided to try one of Harrison's novels, and as luck would have it, Dalva was the first novel to come into my hands. And who is one of the featured characters of the major sub-plot? Crazy Horse. So the story of Crazy Horse, and his friend He Dog, and the military outpost of Fort Robinson - all of this was fresh in my mind as I read Dalva. I've visited Fort Robinson once, by the way, knowing nothing of Crazy Horse's death there, but feeling averse to 'the energy' as they say.
Anyway, Dalva is a masterpiece of writing, most of it first-person narrative with a female voice (Dalva's), told in flashbacks to adolescence and other stages of life from a 45-year old standpoint. The central section of the book is narrated by a crazy professor who is researching the journals of Dalva's great-grandfather, an early comer to the Sand Hills area of Nebraska, and someone sympathetic to the Sioux, in fact an agonized witness to their demise.
I find it interesting that I've characterized the professor, Michael, as 'crazy' and that this was also the appellate of Crazy Horse. Harrison mentions that for the Sioux the word 'crazy' really meant something closer to 'enchanted' or 'magical.' Well, the professor's academic mind is something like fly-paper, everything sticks to it, and his personal mind is very mobile, not being undergirded by a strong character. He is thoroughly opportunistic, desperate and needy, but talented! Harrison does a marvelous job in capturing the chaos of someone like Michael. In fact, all of Harrison's characters are rich, nuanced and feel thoroughly authentic. Despite Michael's failures, Dalva and her family are very kind to him, protective and nurturing, rather like the attitude of the Sioux towards those they regarded as 'crazy', such as Dalva's great-grandfather, a johnny-appleseed-Methodist Minister whome they saw as 'too strange to kill.'
Much of the book takes place in natural settings around the Niobrara River, the kind of country I just love and tried to depict in my own novel, Desert Sanctuary. Harrison recreates the vitality of life lived close to nature. Anyone who has ever experienced such a life will be grateful to him for this book, and other readers will appreciate the window onto a life that is still available here and there in the west.
What an incredible book! And what a wonderful coincidence to have read McMurty's Crazy Horse: A Life just before reading Dalva.