The Contract Surgeon

Written by Dan O’Brien
Review by Sarah Cuthbertson

As an old man on the eve of WWII, Valentine McGillycuddy remembers an earlier conflict when he served as contract surgeon in the U.S. Army – the Great Sioux War, which ended in 1877 with the final surrender of Crazy Horse and his holdout band of Lakotas. Four months later, McGillycuddy tends Crazy Horse at Camp Robinson, Nebraska after the chief is stabbed while being taken into custody. McGillycuddy recalls a chance encounter in 1873, and the mutual regard that developed between them after Crazy Horse’s surrender, while he was treating the chief’s sick wife.

At first McGillycuddy is desperate to save his friend and avoid an uprising. But as the hours wear on, things begin to look very different, and the young surgeon must make a tough decision.

The novel’s structure is complex. McGillycuddy’s philosophical old age bookends the story. The fateful day stands inside as a framework upon which threads from both men’s pasts are interwoven in flashbacks and reminiscences that reveal the startling differences (and the fewer but even more startling similarities) between their respective outlooks. Tenderness and atrocity, love and hardship, all are described with an emotional economy that avoids the lurid or mawkish. Although McGillycuddy admires the courageous tenacity of the Sioux, he doesn’t gloss over their barbarity. Nor, while he knows that civilization must win, does he excuse American duplicity.

This is an insightful novel, moving yet hard-edged, on a period about which it’s all too easy to get sentimental or angry. Dan O’Brien puts the tragic, inevitable clash of cultures in perspective and his spare, muscular and occasionally poetic prose evokes the beautiful, harsh vastness of the Great Plains, which he obviously knows and loves.