Little Big Man Summary
by Thomas Berger

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Little Big Man Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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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 debunks the myth of the West. Legendary heroes are not that heroic: Kit Carson denies hard-luck Jack a handout, Wyatt Earp knocks him out for belching, and Hickok is tired, sad, and paranoid. Berger’s Indians are hardly noble savages: Their camps stink, they eat dogs, and their women and children mutilate wounded enemies. The West is so beclouded by myth, however, that the truth can never be known. Even eyewitness accounts such as Jack’s are untrustworthy because of the way matters are distorted to fit preconceptions and fulfill stereotypes.

Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Berger’s characters adhere to their romantic illusions. After their wagon train is attacked and members of her family are raped and murdered, Jack’s sister Caroline follows the Cheyenne because she thinks they lust after her and because she wants to be an Indian princess. The savages dispel her misconceptions by failing to recognize that she is a woman. Years later, she reminds Jack of how the Indians “brutally stole” her “maidenhood.” Since the truth is embarrassing, she has created her own myth.

Most important is Little Big Man’s presentation of Jack as the American innocent in search of his identity and the meaning of America. He is modern man trapped in a chaotic, often meaningless universe. The natural order of the Indian world is attractive but unrealistic when confronted by rampaging progress, but the more artificial order of the white world, in which all that can be aspired to is respectability, seems superficial. The only true order or meaning is that created by the individual, but he must recognize its limitations.

The Return of Little Big Man (1999) follows Jack’s story for the seventeen years after Little Bighorn, as he meets more historical figures, including Buffalo Bill Cody, Bat Masterson, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, and Queen Victoria. Working as Hickok’s bodyguard, a bartender, an interpreter at an Indian school, and several positions in Cody’s Wild West, Jack again finds himself explaining Indian culture to whites. Berger continues to contrast how Indians and whites see and often misinterpret each other’s behavior and motivations. His main satirical target is the ways Americans romanticize the past, as with Jack’s eyewitness account of the O.K. Corral shootout, which differs considerably from the legend....

(The entire section is 1,904 words.)