Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964) is both an entertaining comic novel and a moving exploration of divisions within the American character. Jack Crabb, a 111-year-old resident of a nursing home, recounts his life, from an Indian attack on his family, resulting in his being raised by the Cheyenne, to his being the only white survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In between, Jack moves between the two cultures, never truly feeling at home in either. The Return of Little Big Man continues Jack’s story for another seventeen years, during which he encounters numerous famous Americans and Europeans and watches helplessly as the Indians are gradually robbed of much of their dignity.
In Little Big Man, Jack recounts his early life to historian Ralph Fielding Snell and expires. The Return of Little Big Man reveals that he has faked his death to rid himself of Snell so that he, now 112, can tell his own story. After witnessing General George Armstrong Custer’s demise, Jack makes his way to Deadwood in the Dakota Territory, where he discovers his old friend Wild Bill Hickok. After being hired as the aging gunfighter’s bodyguard, Jack sees Hickok murdered by Jack McCall. Moving on to Dodge City, he becomes friends with yet another legendary lawman, Bat Masterson, who hires Jack as a bartender.
His sojourn in Dodge is most notable as the occasion for meeting Amanda Teasdale, who enlists Jack as an interpreter at an Indian school. Jack does not approve of trying to convert Indians to white ways, but he is fascinated by Amanda, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Like most of Jack’s experiences, this one ends ignominiously, and he soon finds himself following Masterson to Tombstone. Jack develops unfriendly relations with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and witnesses the famous shootout quite near the O.K. Corral, his account of this event varying considerably from the legend.
Jack next joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, initially as his boss’s personal bartender, and spends several years traveling with Cody’s show throughout the eastern United States and Western Europe, becoming friends with Annie Oakley and meeting such celebrities as Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. When Sitting Bull joins the show, Jack is his translator and confidant. The famous Sioux warrior’s commonsense wisdom is comparable to that of Old Lodge Skins, Jack’s mentor in the earlier novel.
In Little Big Man, Jack and Old Lodge Skins constantly encounter each other. Here, he finds himself crossing paths with Amanda, falling more deeply in love with her. Both are present at the Standing Rock reservation when Sitting Bull is murdered. The embarrassing display of the chief’s cabin at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago brings Jack and Amanda together again, and he joins her in working at Jane Addams’s Hull House. The Return of Little Big Man ends with the promise of more adventures to follow.
The critical reputation of Little Big Man has increased considerably since its publication for several reasons. One is Berger’s realistic, unsentimental portrait of the American Indian, and he continues this concern in the sequel. In the earlier book, the Indians fight to protect their way of life. In The Return of Little Big Man, even warriors like Sitting Bull recognize that change is inevitable. Going to school, learning English, wearing strange clothing, adopting currency, and becoming farmers is not giving in, from their perspective, but simply a necessary means of survival: “They kept thinking they could stay completely Indian despite all the evidence to the contrary. That was what was both great and hopeless about them.”
As in the first Jack Crabb novel, Berger not only tries to explain Indian ways but also attempts to show how the dominant culture appears to the original Americans. The Indians accompanying Cody’s show to Europe “had gotten tired of looking at the wonders of civilization that the whites had come up with before they went across the ocean to a land that didn’t have none of them and started from scratch, which didn’t make sense.” Such displays of logic are balanced with observations about the Indians’ lack of imagination and stubbornness, qualities that make them merely spectators in New York, London, and Paris, incapable of absorbing any ideas of improving themselves from the white perspective. The prevailing prejudices on both sides preclude any hope of serious...
(The entire section is 1835 words.)