Cover image for The contract surgeon : a novel
The contract surgeon : a novel
O'Brien, Dan, 1947-
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Publication Information:
New York : Lyons Press, 1999.
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316 pages ; 24 cm
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A tale of bravery, medical daring, justice and love that recounts the unlikely friendships between the great war chief Crazy Horse and a U.S. Army surgeon.

Author Notes

Dan O'Brien ranks among the West's most celebrated writers. He divides his time between working as an endangered-species biologist, running a cattle ranch, & writing. He is the author of four novels, a short story collection, & three works of nonfiction, including the forthcoming "Buffalo Bill for the Broken Heart: Restoring a Piece of the American West". He lives in Whitewood, South Dakota.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

General George Crook probably picked Valentine McGillycuddy to be the Second Cavalry's surgeon because of the young doctor's earlier work as a surveyor for the most accurate maps of the area yet made, which suggested to Crook that McGillycuddy had a feeling for the terrain. Certainly O'Brien, writing in McGillycuddy's voice, catches the flavor of the region well, but then he lives in South Dakota's Black Hills. At age 90 in the 1930s (shades of Little Big Man), McGillycuddy recalls Crook's 1876 Yellowstone Campaign and Starvation March as the cavalry chased the Sioux through the sunburned countryside. McGillycuddy's narration clearly registers the psychological impact of Custer's badly planned engagement and massacre, and it shows neither the army nor the Sioux exemplifying high military ethics. His description of the increasing tension at Camp Robinson when Crazy Horse turns himself in is effectively low-key, especially coming, as it does, before the dramatic climax of his efforts to save Crazy Horse after the great warrior is treacherously stabbed. An intriguing, well-written, down-to-earth medical western. --William Beatty

Publisher's Weekly Review

Humanizing heroes on both sides of the conflict, O'Brien reimagines the capture and tragically suspicious death of Crazy Horse, the great Sioux war chief, while in the custody of the U.S. Army in 1877. O'Brien's (Equinox) eighth book is a sensitive drama based on the true story of the unusual friendship between Crazy Horse and Dr. Valentine McGillicuddy, a civilian surgeon contracted to serve with the army during the Indian wars on the Great Plains. McGillicuddy relates the tale as an old man, recalling the heady days on the frontier when he was still idealistic and na¬čve enough to believe that his fellow Americans meant no harm to the Indians. His years as a contract surgeon, however, take him on the great campaigns to eradicate the Sioux, and McGillicuddy soon learns that not all men are noble, honorable or even trustworthy. No shrinking violet or hand-wringing moralist, he faces his greatest moral test when Crazy Horse is bayoneted in the back by a soldier, and McGillicuddy is pressured by the army to keep the famous warrior alive, because his death would spur on the Indians to renewed battle. McGillicuddy and Crazy Horse had met briefly four years earlier, in a friendly, chance encounter at a waterhole, but during the chief's final hours, the doctor and his dying patient cement their instinctive connection, with far-reaching consequences. The treachery of the army and the complicity of Crazy Horse's own allies finally convince McGillicuddy to make a startling decision. This powerful story is a thinking man's western, in which action is secondary to O'Brien's nuanced exploration of character and the tragic dimensions of a morally fraught conflict. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

School Library Journal Review

YA-Based on actual events and characters, this novel is a wonderful dramatization of the final defeat of the Lakota Sioux and the death of the famous warrior, Crazy Horse. The story is told by Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, who looks back on his experiences as a contracted surgeon for the army in the 1870s. Through Mac, the Dakota and Wyoming territories come to life. Readers learn of the Indian wars, the enmity between various segments of the Sioux nation, and the terrible treachery foisted on the Indians by the U.S. government. The real power of this story is the three dimensionality of the characters. Readers see Crazy Horse as a fierce warrior, a leader in the savage destruction of Custer and his troops, and as a worried husband when his wife falls ill. Willing to massacre troops he shrewdly leads into a trap, he also surrenders when his people are starving. While Mac also tells about the suffering of the U.S. troops during the brutal Indian wars, this book ultimately becomes a tribute to the tragedy of the Native Americans who were devoured by the growing pains of the United States. YAs should be caught up in this saga, and will come away from it with a vivid picture of this period in the country's history.-Carol DeAngelo, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



IntroductionThe Sioux Indians of the nineteenth century were a loosely connected group of nomadic horsemen made up of several subgroups speaking a language with common roots. After acquiring the horse, the most tenacious subgroup, the Lakota Sioux, pushed the less aggressive inhabitants of the Great Plains south, west, and north. Within a hundred years they ruled a great portion of the high plains, from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains. By nature the Lakota were a combative people and, even before the United States took possession of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, had made mortal enemies of nearly all the other tribes on the plains. From their first contact with representatives of the United States the Lakota were defiant. With the exception of a few incidents of petty thievery by West Coast tribes, Lewis and Clark had trouble only with the Lakota, who blocked their progress along the Missouri River and made war on Indian nations with whom the United States was making alliances. Between the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the opening of Montana's gold fields, the Lakota concentrated their energies on keeping the Crows, Shoshones, Arikaras, Pawnees, and others in a subservient position with regard to the fertile buffalo hunting grounds of the northern plains. But once the people of the United States began to move into that same territory, the Lakota were forced to divert increasing amounts of resources to stemming the flow of pioneers. In the 1860s a chief of the Oglala band by the name of Red Cloud rose to prominence and led the Lakota and their allies in a successful war against the United States that stopped pioneer emigration into Montana over the Bozeman trail. After two years of war, Red Cloud, along with Spotted Tail of the Brules Sioux band, signed the treaty of 1868 that excluded whites from their territory and, after trips to Washington, settled in northwestern Nebraska on reservations named for them. They became known as "friendlies," living on the reservations and, in exchange for their passivity, receiving their subsistence from the United States government. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail had won their war and had been recognized as supreme leaders of their people by the U.S. But the political structure of the Lakota was very different from that of the United States. A Lakota leader was only a leader when the people followed him, and the fact that two chiefs had retired to reservations did not mean that the Lakota would cease hostilities toward the United States or any of the other nations on the northern plains. The Lakota, under other chiefs, continued to wage war on their neighbors, red and white. Two chiefs who emerged during the 1870s were Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapas band and a charismatic young warrior named Crazy Horse of the Oglalas. What were known as the northern Sioux or the "hostiles" fought the United States Army nearly to a standstill in the Great Sioux War of 1876. But the superior resources of the United States finally wore the Sioux down. In the winter of 1876 Sitting Bull retreated into Canada, but Crazy Horse, with his defiant band of starving Oglalas, remained hostile in the north until the spring of 1877. Crazy Horse became a symbol of resistance for the Sioux, and though his position as chief was not hereditary, he ascended to that position and was, at once, held in increasing esteem by some of his people and loathed or envied by others. On the United States side the war was executed by an array of generals who had won their fame in the Civil War. At the head of the army was General Sherman. Under him was Sheridan. And under Sheridan, among others, were Generals Crook, Gibbon, Terry, and Custer. Perhaps the most experienced of these generals, in both Indian fighting and management, was Crook. He had served throughout the West and recently secured the surrender of the Apaches in Arizona. He was a fair man, respected by the Indians, but he was rugged and a dogged adversary in battle. He was known for uncommonly efficient supply trains and relentless winter campaigns and was comfortable with long night marches and early-morning attacks. Among his hand-picked officers for the campaigns of 1876 was a young civilian surgeon, temporarily contracted to the U.S. Army, named Valentine Trant McGillycuddy. McGillycuddy would go on to become Indian agent at the Red Cloud Agency (later known as the Pine Ridge Reservation) in the new state of South Dakota. He would also be a signatory to South Dakota's constitution, the first president of the South Dakota School of Mines, a businessman, the chief medical insurance inspector for the state of Montana, one of the first licensed doctors in the new state of California, and a volunteer to the natives of Alaska during the influenza epidemic of 1919; he would finally retire as the house surgeon for the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, California. Crook, who had his choice of any officers or surgeons for his Sioux campaign, called the newly married McGillycuddy from Washington. It was true that McGillycuddy, although still in his twenties, had been with the geological survey teams that mapped most of the country over which Crook planned to campaign, but Crook never tapped that expertise. The two men were not old friends. Their paths had crossed only a time or two. But Crook was known for being a prophetic judge of character. He must have seen something that told him the young surgeon could play a key role in the turbulent years that were just beginning.Copyright 1999 by Dan O'Brien Excerpted from The Contract Surgeon by Dan O'Brien All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Author's Notep. xi
Introductionp. xiii
Chronology of Eventsp. xvii
The Contract Surgeonp. 1