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Little Big Man

A book by Thomas Berger

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Broad historical comedy--that cuts through to the truth

  • Apr 13, 2011
This is one of those books I remember reading as a high school kid and thinking it was hilarious, so when I saw a used copy at a book sale, I snatched it and reread it.  What I didn't remember was the depth of the historical power of the book.  Slapstick and ribald comedy abound for sure, but there is plenty of though-provoking intent here, too.

LBM is the first person account of Jack Crabb, the only living survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, captured in 1952 when he is a very old centenarian considered senile at a nursing home.  Crabb's memory isn't always precise, and his recounting, as he admits sometimes, isn't easily creditable, but by his telling he met many of the great figures of the American west in the last half of the 19th century--Custer, of course, who generally ignored Crabb or misremembered him and tried to have him thrown in the brig, and Wild Bill Hickok, who taught Crabb how to shoot and avoid being shot, being the most notable.  

Crabb's story starts as his family heads west in a wagon train, where he is captured by Cheyenne Indians as they kill most of his family--but not all; he will encounter surviving siblings along the way in less-than-flattering places and guises--in a bumbling and completely misunderstood encounter in the prairie involving cultural blindness on both sides of the racial divide.

While he has many adventures told in episodic fashion, the major set piece of the book is the Little Bighorn, Custer's last stand, which Berger recounts with a realistic eye for the noise, dirt, and confusion of a large battle with that days weapons in that setting.  I have not read much historical analysis of Little Bighorn to know if Berger's account has any historical accuracy, but it "feels right".

Much of the thought-provoking nature of Little Big Man (the name given by his Cheyenne captors to the short but feisty Crabb after he proved his worth, again through dumb luck and misguided daring) is in the cultural divide as he is raised by the Cheyenne, and learns what it means to "be Indian", yet remains still all white man.  Berger (through Crabb) is a sharp observer of the myths that both denigrate and romanticize the native American and their way of life, and at the same time of the false pride of the white majority in the moral and cultural superiority of their race.  As Crabb goes back and forth between native and white several times in the course of his long tale, he has many chances to ponder this intersection of misunderstandings from both sides, and the results are both broadly funny and sharply poignant. 

And his tale provides many examples of the admonition of James 4:13-14:  

"Come now, you who says 'today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.'  Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow.  You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away."

God (white or native) and circumstances seemed to drive much of his story, and Crabb ponders this too.  Little Big Man lived 111 years, so his vapor appeared for a little while longer than most, but his life proved the truth of the verse.  May his tale live on and encourage, enlighten, and entertain us today.

By the way, a note on the edition I read:  It was a 1964 paperback edition ($1.25 cover price!) with a line-and-ink cover drawing of a "Cowboy's and Indians" fight--except for a grainy black-and-white photo of a short dandy in a suit and bowler hat.  The picture was puzzled me for a bit, until I realized it was a still of Dustin Hoffman playing the role of Crabb in the movie version of the book.  Interesting, I thought, so this paperback was published after the movie--but when I went to the back cover, where there were a few reviewer quotes praising the book, and the inside front and back covers (another review quote in the front, a list of Fawcett Crest bestsellers available by mail for 15 cents postage and handling) there was no other mention of the movie!!!!  Either this was the most subtle stealth movie tie-in ad campaign in history, or there was in fact no attempt at all to cross-market!  How quaint and odd that is in today's world.  

But there's more.  At the same book sale, I also bought a 1962 paperback edition (75cents cover price, and no ISBN!  How times have changed) of Fail-safe, which proudly proclaims at the top of the cover "Now a major Columbia Pictures release" and on the back cover, above two stills from the movie, "A major new motion picture produced by Max Youngstein, directed by Signey Lumet."  So there is cultural evidence that it was acceptable practice by 1964 to tout the movie version of your novel on the cover  of the paperback.

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April 13, 2011
Talk about a great purchase! I've never heard of this one, but it does sound like a great read. It's nice to read a story as enjoyable, if not more, when first read.
More Little Big Man reviews
review by . February 16
Thomas Berger is a serious storyteller. His novel, "Little Big Man," was both an excellent novel and movie starring Dustin Hoffman.      In the story, we read the reminiscences of Jack Crabb, plainsman who dictated the story when he was age one hundred and eleven.      Jack Crabb was captured by Cheyenne Indians and raised by them after they massacre the members of Jack's family's wagon train. In a humorous manner, he describes being raised …
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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About this book


The story of Jack Crabbe, raised by both a white man and a Cheyenne chief. As a Cheyenne, Jack ate dog, had four wives and saw his people butchered by General Custer's soldiers. As a white man, he participated in the slaughter of the buffalo and tangled with Wyatt Earp.--This text refers to an alternatePaperbackedition.
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ISBN-10: 0385298293
ISBN-13: 978-0385298292
Author: Thomas Berger
Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback

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