Fraser, George MacDonald. Flashman and the Redskins.

NY: Knopf, 1982.

This volume is the second half of what you can think of as “Flashman’s American Adventure,” beginning as it does a few minutes after the end of Flash for Freedom! Harry Flashman is stuck in New Orleans and wants badly to get home to England, and he thinks at first that he can prevail on the bawdy house madam who cottoned to him in the previous book to let him hide out at her establishment and then book him passage. But this is the beginning of 1849, gold has just been discovered in California, and Susie is convinced she can make an even greater fortune by transporting her girls and her furniture to the Far West.

Flashman ends up marrying her (bigamously, of course) and becomes the titular boss of her wagon train out of Independence, Missouri, bound for Sacramento. Actually, having met mountain men and famous frontier scouts and crossed paths with several sorts of Indians, they only make it as far as Santa Fe, which Susie decides is far enough: She can make her second fortune there just as easily. And Flashman is on his own again — and to get the cash to continue his long-term escape, he commits an act that is remarkably callous and brutal even for Flashy. But he doesn’t get far, being captured this time by Apaches and getting himself married for the third time. It’s a good thing he has such a talent for languages! But he eventually accompanies Kit Carson to Wyoming and thence home.

Then we jump to the second half of this story, a quarter-century later. One of the more delightful continuing themes throughout this series is Flashman’s peculiar relationship with his wife, Elspeth — gorgeous, brainless, devoted to her Gallant Sir Harry, and yet as completely unprincipled and lecherous as her husband when it comes to sex. In the early days, he couldn’t say anything about it because she controlled the purse-strings. Now, in middle age, they’ve long since reached an accommodation. Besides, Harry has never actually caught her in flagrante. Anyway, Elspeth’s craving for travel is the reason Flashman is back in America in 1876 to begin with, and at first he’s outraged to discover that she’s probably been off rolling in the hay with the great Lacotah chief (and his old acquaintance) Spotted Tail. But then he thinks, as always, “If I’m wrong and she’s as chaste as the mountain dew, so much the better. If she’s not, what’s an Indian more or less?” Because Flashman has been recruited to take part in the U.S. Government’s unenthusiastic negotiations with the Plains tribes in the wake of another gold strike, this time in the Black Hills, and Elspeth insists on going along for the ride. And then his lecherous nature leads him to lend his name to a land development scheme in North Dakota — and that will be his undoing, as Fate and Justice come back to bite him good and hard. The upshot is that Sir Harry is bound hand and foot in a Sioux tipi on the Little Big Horn when Custer and the 7th Cavalry show up.

I’ve never been a Custer fan. As Flashman notes, he was quite a good cavalry brigade commander during the Civil War (when he also didn’t have the leeway for independent action) — but he was a terrible army officer, which is a somewhat different thing. And by the mid-1870s, his political ambitions were driving his self-aggrandizement to a point of such reckless disregard for reality that he had become a positive danger to those in his command. In fact, Flashman makes a number of comparisons between the Sioux campaign and the Crimea regarding the lack of intelligence (in the military sense), the personal arrogance of those in command, and the sheer stupidity of not knowing when to quit. Plus, Gen. Terry was basically a nice man with not nearly the bloody-mindedness of Lord Lucan or Colin Campbell. Plus, face it, Custer was an idiot, so there. In any case, Flashman survives the massacre, as you knew he would, but he does so with the timely assistance of the very last person he could have predicted. And that leads to a rather sad ending.

This is, I think, one of the best of the entire series (though I wasn’t crazy about its prequel, Flash for Freedom!). But that may just be me. I generally have to take the author’s word for what the British Raj was like, but the Old Southwest before the Civil War is a time and a place in which I have taken a very close interest for a number of decades, both academically and personally. I’ve been to most of the places Flashman visits, I’ve read every one of the books he cites as sources in his footnotes, and I know a good deal about most of the major historical characters he meets, and I have to say Fraser has done a splendid job of it. He genuinely makes the New Mexico desert, especially, come alive. I agree that it’s a beautiful and frightening place, depending on the circumstances. A terrific yarn. But I have to say it’s a shame that the author died before he got around to writing of Flashman’s often-referred-to adventures on both sides of the American Civil War.

Published in: on 8 August 2011 at 8:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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