Historian T.J. Stiles (Michael Lionstar/Michael Lionstar)

Almost 150 years after Custer’s last stand, a new history of the infamous general is standing tall.

“Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America,” by T.J. Stiles, won the best biography prize from the Western Writers of America on Saturday at the Tucson Festival of Books .

For Stiles, the Spur award, as it’s known, is particularly special. “It’s just tremendous to be honored by the Western Writers of America,” Stiles said via email, “because so many of them have read and written a great deal about Custer.”

In fact, that wealth of previously published material was a major challenge for Stiles, who won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for his 2009 biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. “Custer is a well-worn subject,” Stiles said, “but the wear is extremely uneven — mostly on the western side of his story. I wanted to write about him as a man on a frontier in time, immersed in the greatest changes America has ever experienced. I also wanted to foreground the women in his life, who brought the great issues of the day into his household.”

Novelist Sandra Dallas (Povy Kendal Archinson)

“Custer’s Trials,” which is also a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award in biography, captures the dramatic tension between the modern society that was quickly developing on the East Coast and the wild territory that still existed in the West. “Custer could hunt buffalo far beyond the line of settlement in Kansas, and a few days later sit down to dinner at Delmonico’s with a circle of stockbrokers or check into the Willard Hotel,” Stiles says.

“Relatively few people lived in the huge expanse of the West, where they waged battles with the elements and each other. Custer, Sitting Bull, Wild Bill Hickok, Black Kettle, Buffalo Bill Cody, Crazy Horse, Rain-in-the-Face, Calamity Jane — all these outsized personalities knew each other or were, at most, one degree of separation apart. And the stakes couldn’t have been higher: life or death, independence or conquest.”

Among the other winners announced Saturday by the WWA is “The Last Midwife,” by Sandra Dallas. A former journalist at BusinessWeek, Dallas has written more than a dozen novels. This is her third Spur award.

Anyone who thinks westerns died out with Louis L’Amour had better get outta Dodge. “These books are as American as apple pie,” Dallas says by email. “The independent westerner taming the land, overcoming obstacles, standing up for what’s right against the establishment, despite the consequences, is a uniquely American hero.”

Part of what keeps the genre alive, she notes, is its ability to change with the times. Once, the western hero was always a man as white as his hat, but that’s no longer the case. “Now, the western hero is as apt to be Mexican or Asian or Native American as Caucasian,” Dallas says. “Women are no longer appendages of men but star in westerns in their own right. But their stories are different. The challenge in writing about women is to find compelling issues they’ve faced and to make them as interesting as holdups and gunfights.”

And if you need any more proof that westerns are resonating with the next generation, consider the case of Lydia Schofield. Today, the 11-year-old author becomes the youngest Spur winner in the WWA’s 64-year history. Using the pen name JoJo Thoreau, she published “Buckaroo Bobbie Sue,” illustrated by Kristina Zack Young, and lassoed the “storyteller” prize for best illustrated children’s book.

(St. Martin's)

Here is a list of this year’s Spur winners and finalists:

Historical Novel

Winner: “Paradise Sky,” by Joe R. Lansdale (Mulholland)

Finalists: “The Memory Weaver,” by Jane Kirkpatrick (Revell)

“Playing Custer,” by Gerald Duff (TCU Press)

Contemporary Novel

Winner: “Crazy Mountain Kiss,” by Keith McCafferty (Viking)

Finalists: “The Canyon,” by Stanley Crawford (Univ. of New Mexico)

“The Darkness Rolling,” by Win Blevins and Meredith Blevins (Forge)

Traditional Novel

Winner: “The Last Midwife,” by Sandra Dallas (St. Martin’s)

Finalists: “The Long High Noon,” by Loren D. Estleman (Forge)

“Buell: Journey to the White Clouds,” by Wallace J. Swenson (Five Star)

Mass-Market Paperback Novel

Winner: “Lords of an Empty Land,” by Randy Denmon (Pinnacle)

Finalists: “Frontier,” by S.K. Salzer (Pinnacle)

“Frontier: Thunder at Dawn,” by S.K. Salzer (Pinnacle)


Winner: “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America,” by T.J. Stiles (Knopf)

Finalists: “The Gray Fox: George Crook and the Indian Wars,” by Paul Magid (Univ. of Oklahoma)

“Juan Bautista de Anza: The King’s Governor in New Mexico,” by Carlos R. Herrera (Univ. of Oklahoma Press)

Historical Nonfiction

Winner: “William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest,” by William Heath (Univ. of Oklahoma)

Finalists: “The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey,” by Rinker Buck (Simon & Schuster)

“Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and Their Adventures in the American Southwest,” by Lesley Poling-Kempes (Univ. of Arizona)

Contemporary Nonfiction

Winner: “The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin,” by Leisl Carr Childers (Univ. of Oklahoma)

Finalists: “Unbranded,” by Ben Masters (Texas A&M Univ.)

“Unruly Waters: A Social and Environmental History of the Brazos River,” by Kenna Lang Archer (Univ. of New Mexico)

Best First Novel

Winner: “American Copper,” by Shann Ray (Unbridled)

Best First Nonfiction Book

Winner: “William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest,” by William Heath (Univ. of Oklahoma)

Juvenile Nonfiction

Winner: “This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon,” by Nancy Plain (Univ. of Nebraska)

Finalists: “Wild at Heart: Mustangs and the Young People Fighting to Save Them,” by Terri Farley (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

“Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People,” by S.D. Nelson (Abrams)

Juvenile Fiction

Winner: “Walk on Earth a Stranger,” by Rae Carson (Greenwillow)

Finalists: “Chili Queen: Mi Historia,” by Marian L. Martinello (TCU Press)

“Rawhide Robinson Rides the Tabby Trail: The True Tale of a Wild West CATastrophe,” by Rod Miller (Five Star)

Storyteller (Illustrated Children’s Book)

Winner: “Buckaroo Bobbie Sue,” by author JoJo Thoreau and illustrator Kristina Zack Young (Little Hands)

Finalists: “Ol’ Jimmy Dollar,” by author Slim Randles and illustrator Jerry Montoya (Rio Grande)

“The Hero Twins: A Navajo-English Story of the Monster Slayers,” by author Jim Kristofic and illustrator Nolan Karras James (Univ. of New Mexico)

Short Nonfiction

Winner: “Cowboys and Capitalists: The XIT Ranch in Texas and Montana, 1885-1912,” by Michael M. Miller (Montana: The Magazine of Western History)

Finalists: “Where the Pronghorns Play,” by Dan Flores (Wild West magazine)

“Wage Work in the Sacred Circle: The Ghost Dance as Modern Religion,” by Louis S. Warren (Western Historical Quarterly)

Short Fiction

Winner: “The Scalper,” by Richard Prosch (Western Trail Blazer)

Finalists: “Tinsel Town,” by Deborah Morgan (Crossroad)

“Tough,” by Miles Wilson (Georgia Review)


Winner: “The Hand,” by Trinity Seely and Waddie Mitchell (Bucket Bail)

Finalists: “Dad’s Song,” by Caitlyn Taussig (Self-published)

“Parker Eyes of Blue,” by Almeda Bradshaw (Bendiksen)


Winner: “All-American Biography,” by Paige Buffington (Narrative magazine)

Finalists: “A Trailside Boulder Story,” by Joel Nelson (Range Conservation Foundation & Range Magazine)

“Woe to the Land Shadowing,” by Red Shuttleworth (Blue Horse)

Drama Script

Winner: “Slow West,” by John Maclean (See Saw Films/Film 4/New Zealand Film Commission; A24)

Finalists: “The Revenant,” by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Anonymous Content/Appian Way/Regency Pictures/Rat Pac Entertainment; 20th Century-Fox)

“Bone Tomahawk,” by S. Craig Zahler (Caliber Media; RLJ Entertainment)

Documentary Script

Winner: “Power’s War,” by Dodge Billingsley and Cameron Trejo (Amistad Entertainment LLC)

Finalists: “Murder on the Southern Pacific,” by Kami Horton (Oregon Public Broadcasting)

“Unbranded,” by Ben Masters (Fin & Fur Films/Implement Productions/Cedar Creek Productions; Gravitas Ventures)

The winners will be honored during the WWA’s convention in Cheyenne, Wyo., on June 21-25.