The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The “man of letters” who “edits” Jack’s tape-recorded story, Ralph Fielding Snell, describes the protagonist in his epilogue as “a cynical man, uncouth, unscrupulous, and when necessary, even ruthless.” Jack is a rogue, but unlike most heroes of picaresque novels, he admits his roguishness, explaining that he has had to be “shifty” to survive. Jack steals to prolong a stay in Saint Louis, lies to get a job, and runs up bills that he does not intend to pay. Worse, he leaves his pregnant Mexican mistress, gives up on Olga and their child after he discovers that they have adopted Indian ways, and decides to abandon his Cheyenne family as Sunshine is about to give birth. He never tries to justify such actions; they are merely part of daily life in the unidealized, cutthroat West. For all his sympathy for the Indians and mistrust of white civilization, he can be flexible, as when he briefly begins to prosper: “I thought it swell that white enterprise was reclaiming the Indian wastes.” He resents the Indians for not sharing his materialism: “Old Lodge Skins had spent more than seventy years on the prairies and what did he have to show for it?” This man with the ironic initials will not die for anyone’s sins but his own.

Berger gives Jack such flaws to make him a traditional picaro, both a victim and a victimizer, to make him a complex, believable character. Jack may be a rogue, but he has a conscience. He tries to rescue Amelia, the...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Jack Crabb

Jack Crabb, later called Little Big Man, an adventurer, pioneer, and adopted Indian, the only Caucasian survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Short, slender, red-haired, and fair-skinned, and always feeling undersized, the intrepid Jack relies on slyness and trickery to survive in his violent, tumultuous world. At about the age of ten, Jack is abducted from a wagon train in Nebraska Territory by a Northern Cheyenne tribe, and he spends the next five years with the Cheyenne, eventually becoming “Little Big Man,” a brave of the tribe. Jack’s values and outlook on life are shaped by his years among the Cheyenne. He feels sympathy for the Indians and their harmonious but difficult life in the natural world, but he also reflects the cynical realism of American adventurers and pioneers bent on conquering and possessing traditional Indian territory. At 111 years of age, Jack narrates the novel as an interview and thus serves as the novel’s unifying figure as well as its hero.

Old Lodge Skins

Old Lodge Skins, the chief of the Cheyenne tribe that abducts and then adopts Jack Crabb. He is Jack’s mentor. Robust, battle-scarred, and leather-skinned, Old Lodge Skins is elderly when Jack first sees him. When he dies gloriously on a mountaintop, almost twenty-five years later, Old Lodge Skins, who is by then perhaps ninety years old, offers a joyous death-chant to commemorate his long, vital life. Old Lodge Skins becomes Jack’s acknowledged spiritual mentor, a sage of an ancient, vanishing race who teaches Jack to accept all that befalls him as the mixed but necessary blessings of human existence.

General George Armstrong Custer

General George Armstrong Custer, the flamboyant leader of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, destined to perish at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June, 1876. With his long blond hair and dashing manner, Custer is egotistical, cruel, and ambitious. He is also undeniably heroic, and Jack acknowledges Custer’s authority and leadership as he watches Custer die, undaunted, at the Little Bighorn. Perplexing and loathsome to Jack, Custer is the opposite of and adversary to Old Lodge Skins and the Indians’ way of life.

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, a gunfighter and gambler, an uneasy friend to Jack Crabb. A “Wild West” figure, Hickok has curly blond hair and mustache, stands more than six feet tall, and possesses the Western hero’s slim waist and broad chest. Hickok becomes Jack’s friend and competing gambler in Kansas City, and he instructs Jack in the ways of “gun-handling.” His pearl-handled revolvers jutting dramatically from his silk waist-sash, Hickok...

(The entire section is 1125 words.)