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Book review: Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

A half century after its publication, Thomas Berger’s novel “Little Big Man” is still a fine read, interesting and entertaining.

But it doesn’t pack the wallop it did back in 1964 when it first hit bookstores.

In writing “Little Big Man,” Berger broke new ground for a literary novel. His central character, Jack Crabb — born in a white family but raised from the age of 10 by Indians who call him Little big Man — interacts with various famous historical figures, including Gen. George Armstrong Custer and Wild Bill Hickok, and lives through various historical events, such as Custer’s Last Stand.

Previous to this, a novel featuring historical figures would have had them at the center of the story. It would have been, essentially, a fictionalization of their lives. A literary novel, meanwhile, would have focused on characters who were the products of the author’s imagination, living a plot that he conceived.

Berger mixed the two genres, creating a fresh, piquant work — indeed, it was a bestseller — offering a kind of sideways look at well-known people and events from the past. Unlike works of history or earlier historical fiction, it was leavened with humor and enlivened by a low-brow tone.

Rather than writing a book in which Custer’s life, for instance, is seen through his eyes or the eyes of someone close to him, Berger makes the general a secondary figure in Jack Crabbe’s story. This gives him the opportunity to weave Custer’s appearance and personality into his book without needing to get into a lot of birth-to-death details.

Similarly, it enables Berger to write about historic events from the perspective of a nobody — a schmo like the rest of us.

In 1964, this was highly unusual, especially in accounts of battles. Indeed, John Keegan’s groundbreaking military history “The Face of Battle” in which he told the stories of three important battles in history (Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme) from the viewpoint of the foot soldier, wasn’t published until 11 years after “Little Big Man.”

Berger’s novel opened the way for such books as “Ragtime” (1975) and “The March” (2005) by E. L. Doctorow and “The Road to Wellville” (1993) by T. C. Boyle.

The book also broke new ground in depicting Native Americans as human beings. Indeed, the Cheyenne among whom Jack Crabb lives at several points in his life call themselves the Human Beings.

You have to understand that, in 1964, the American culture still saw Native Americans, or Indians, through the prism of John Wayne westerns. An individual Indian might be good or even trustworthy and white-like. But, as a group, Indians remained, in the general view, savages.

And not noble savages either.

What “Little Big Man” did was to show the Native Americans as humans, and it took their culture seriously, even to the point of contrasting some aspects of it favorably against the American way of life.

At many points in the novel, Jack Crabb, or Little Big Man, is viewing the collision of white and Indian cultures in the West through his dual Indian-white perspective, and it is easy to see how the two sides had difficulty understanding each other.

“There had been other troubles, with a chief called Big Head wounded while on a friendly visit to Fort Kearney. The Cheyenne felt especial put upon, for by their lights they had always been amiable to white men. Even after all these bad things, they sent a delegation to see the Government Indian agent and apologized. They also returned a woman they had captured. But you see the complication was this: Indians weren’t ever organized. Them that come in to apologize wasn’t the same as what killed the whites. And them that the soldiers usually punished was never the ones who had committed the outrages. The white people on whom the Indians took revenge had no connections to the soldiers.”

It is also easy to see how the two sides were caught up in a social-technological-cultural movement that was beyond their control.

“…I was young then and them distinctions bothered me, what with the conflicting claims: Indians believing they was more ‘natural’ than white men, and the latter insisting they themselves was more ‘human.’

“Whatever the judgment on that, I knowed right then that the Cheyenne way [of freely roaming the Plains] was finished as a mode of life. I saw this not in the present camp, but back in Denver; for truths are sometimes detected first in a place remote from the one to which they apply. Think of how if you was standing in China when gunpowder had been invented, you could have known that thousands of mile away some castles and armor was finished.”

A minor character in “Little Big Man” is Little Horse who is gay, hangs with the women of the tribe and is not thought of less for being a heemaneh, as such men were called.

“After the talk in Hump’s lodge,” Jack Crabb relates, “my other foster-brother Little Horse, dressed like a Cheyenne woman, come in and entertained us with very graceful singing and dancing. It did my heart good to see he made such a success of being a heemaneh.”

This was not the attitude of mainstream America to homosexuals in 1964.

So, to read “Little Big Man” half a century ago was to be constantly surprised by then-unusual perspectives about Indians, about homosexuals and about historical figures.

The fact that Berger’s story is much less startling now than it was back in 1964 may take away some of its original zest.

But it says something good about how far we Americans have come in our ability to see Native Americans, gay people and even our leaders as people.

Patrick T. Reardon

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