Study Guide

Little Big Man

by Thomas Berger

Little Big Man Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Little Big Man is 111-year-old Jack Crabb’s account of his life from 1852, when he is ten and most of his family is killed by drunken Indians, to 1876, when he becomes the only white survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. During these twenty-four years, Jack is adopted first by Old Lodge Skins, chief of a small band of Northern Cheyenne, and later by the Reverend Mr. Pendrake and his beautiful, unfaithful young wife. Leaving the Pendrakes, Jack alternates between white and Indian societies, never fitting in comfortably with either. He longs for middle-class comforts, but circumstances and his restless nature block his success.

Jack is constantly being victimized. His white wife and child are stolen by Indians and later killed by the cavalry, as are his Cheyenne wife and their newborn son. Except for Old Lodge Skins, all Jack’s Indian friends are killed—one, ironically, when he is unknowingly about to kill Jack. Jack is shot on four occasions, and only his roguish trickery saves him from being killed in a gunfight by Wild Bill Hickok. The novel builds to General George Armstrong Custer’s fiasco at the Little Bighorn and to the death of Old Lodge Skins, who chooses to die when he recognizes that the destruction of the Indian way of life is inevitable. Despite Berger’s presentation of the American West as violent, melodramatic, and absurd, Little Big Man has lighter moments stemming from a multitude of colorful characters and a plethora of coincidences recalling those in the novels of Dickens.

Always concerned with the differences between reality and the various ways it is perceived, Berger...

(The entire section is 673 words.)

Little Big Man Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Little Big Man, a white man becomes an Indian but eventually fits into neither white nor Indian societies. The novel is 111-year-old Jack Crabb’s episodic account of his life from 1852, when he is ten and most of his family is killed by drunken Indians, to 1876, when he becomes the only white survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

In between, he lives for five years with Indians as the adopted son of Old Lodge Skins, chief of a small band of Northern Cheyenne (earning the name Little Big Man because of the proportion of his courage to his small stature); is adopted by the Reverend Mr. Pendrake and his beautiful young wife; falls in love with Mrs. Pendrake, but leaves when he discovers that she is unfaithful to him and the reverend; and runs away into a turbulent adulthood.

Jack crisscrosses the Western states innumerable times while working as outhouse cleaner, guide for a mule train, prospector, wagon master of a supply train, storekeeper, army scout, mule skinner for the Union Pacific, freight hauler, gambler, confidence man, and buffalo hunter. At other times, he is a kept man, a drunk, a beggar, and a Cheyenne warrior. All this time, Jack aspires to the comforts of the middle class, but circumstances and his restless nature always get in the way of his success.

Jack lives the life of a professional victim. Except for his business partners’ swindling him during his storekeeping period, all of his bad luck...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Little Big Man Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In 1952, Ralph Fielding Snell, a middle-aged, jobless dilettante, lives off a modest stipend provided by his father. Snell fancies himself an expert on the American West and decides to tape the memories of Jack Crabb, a 111-year-old resident of a local rest home. Crabb claims to have met and witnessed many of the most famous American figures and events of the nineteenth century, including the Battle of Little Big Horn.

In 1852, an eleven-year-old Jack Crabb, his sister Caroline, his brother, and their parents depart Indiana for Utah, but, because of a misunderstanding, the wagon train is massacred in Nebraska, and Jack is taken hostage by a Northern Cheyenne tribe. He lives for the next five years as the adopted son of the chief, Old Lodge Skins. During his time with the Cheyenne, Jack evolves from an outsider to an accepted member of the tribe, and his relationship with Old Lodge Skins becomes increasingly intimate as the old man instructs the young one in both the traditions and the mythology of the tribe.

In his first battle against some Crow Indians, Crabb saves the life of another young warrior, Younger Bear, who is humiliated by his vulnerability and by the obligation that he now owes to Crabb. After the encounter, Crabb is given the name Little Big Man in honor of his valor and thus begins years of enmity with Younger Bear. In an ensuing battle with the U.S. cavalry, Crabb is returned to the white world and placed in the care of the Reverend Pendrake and his much younger wife in western Missouri. While Pendrake thunders on about sin and depravity, Crabb subtly comments on the reverend’s gluttony and hypocrisy and becomes increasingly enamored of his attractive wife. At this time, he also meets an emancipated slave, Lavender. Crabb’s domestic interlude ends when he discovers...

(The entire section is 740 words.)