Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 740
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 Mrs. Pendrake having sex with the owner of a soda parlor.
Crabb travels to Denver as a muleskinner and, after being ambushed, holds a series of other jobs. He pans for gold and when that fails opens a dry-goods business. On a trip with some cargo, he once more encounters the Cheyenne and has a brief reunion with Old Lodge Skins but returns to his business. During this period, he marries a woman named Olga and they have a son, Gus. Crabb’s business slowly fades after he is swindled by his partners. The family wanders through more of the Western states until they are attacked by Cheyenne and Olga and Gus are abducted.
Crabb’s peripatetic life continues until, now a hopeless drunk, he meets his lost sister, Caroline, and they hire on as muleskinners with a railroad party. Eventually, Crabb goes in search of his lost family. He stumbles on a Cheyenne woman giving birth, whom he protects and marries. They return to the tribe of his youth, and Crabb finds that Olga and Gus are now with Younger Bear. Crabb’s sojourn with Cheyenne is abruptly destroyed when General Custer and his forces massacre most of the tribe at the Washita River. Crabb vows to kill Custer.
Once more, he wanders through the white world, traveling to San Francisco and back to Nebraska in search of Custer. He befriends Wild Bill Hickok and becomes a gunslinger and gambler, and he meets a prostitute named Amelia whom he believes is his niece. Attempting to support Amelia and keep her from prostitution, Crabb becomes a buffalo hunter. He meets a swindler named Allardyce T. Meriweather and shares in some of his confidence schemes. When he discovers Amelia is not his relative and has run off with a senator, Crabb takes up gold mining in the Black Hills. He once again meets his sister, whom he places in an asylum in Omaha. Eventually, he joins Custer’s cavalry as a herder and scout. He follows the general to the Little Big Horn, where his life is saved by Younger Bear, who reunites him with the tribe.
Crabb’s reunion with Old Lodge Skins is bittersweet, as the aged chief praises his last living son, discusses the battle and Custer’s bravery, and predicts that Native Americans will decline and their way of life will be destroyed. After a series of migrations, the chief climbs up a hill and wills his own death.
Crabb’s narrative is followed by a brief epilogue by Snell. The dilettante ponders the veracity of Crabb’s story.
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