Book review: The Return of Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

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Book review: The Return of Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

Thomas Berger was born in 1924.

He was 40 in 1964 when he published his best-known novel, “Little Big Man,” chronicling the early life of Jack Crabb, a white who, at the age of 10, was adopted by a band of Cheyenne and who, over the next quarter-century, ping-ponged back and forth between the white and Native American worlds.

During this period, Jack, known to the Cheyenne as Little Big Man, was a friend of Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson and was present (on the Indian side) for the Washita Massacre by troops led by Gen. George Armstrong Custer and (on the soldier side) for the massacre of Custer and his troops at Little Big Horn.

Jack, 111 at the time and in a nursing home, tells his story into the tape recorder of a dilettante historian who transcribes the tapes — he relates that Jack died soon after giving his oral history — and publishes the result.

Highly popular, “Little Big Man” broke new ground by featuring historical figures as secondary characters in a literary novel — a fresh and piquant approach since adopted by many other writers.

Thirty-five years later, in 1999, Berger published “The Return of Little Big Man,” about Jack’s middle-age years. (As Jack explains, he staged his funeral to get rid of that pesky historian.)

And, at this pace, 35 years from now, in 2034, Berger will be 110 himself when he publishes “The Further Adventures of Little Big Man,” presumably about Jack’s old age.

I’m not looking forward to it.

It’s not that “Return of Little Big Man” is a bad book. It’s sort of beside the point, especially coming, as it does, after “Little Big Man.”

In its time, “Little Big Man” was a delightful oddity. By 1999, the idea of having historical figures in a novel centered on someone else — i.e., not a biographical novel about one or more of those figures — was no longer a surprise. It was a technique that could be done well or not, but, in and of itself, it wasn’t enough to make a book especially interesting.

In addition to its unusual nature, “Little Big Man” had going for it a climax in which Jack is the single white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. This gave Berger a chance to write about the well-known battle from the peripheral perspective of Jack.

Berger takes the same approach in “The Return of Little Big Man.” Indeed, he has Jack witness more history and come to know more historical characters — many more — than he did in the first book.

Jack is watching when Wild Bill Hickok’s murder. He sees the unfolding of the Gunfight at O.K. Corral — all right, near the O.K. Corral, as Jack insists. He’s a friend to Annie Oakley, a worker for Jane Addams and a buddy of Wild Bill Cody. He travels with Cody’s Wild West show to Europe where he charms Queen Victoria and her son Prince Edward. He’s a translator and friend of Sitting Bull, and is present when Sitting Bull is murdered by Sioux police.

The result reads, too often, like a history book. Not a bad thing, except in a novel.

I read a lot of history, and I’ve read here and there a good deal about the various characters who show up here. So their stories, as Jack relates them, were somewhat old hat. For someone not as familiar with the history of these people, this book could serve as a kind of primer — as a kind of history book, made a bit more digestible by its fictional framework.

But, as a novel, it doesn’t work.

Even in the first book, Jack was something of a cipher at the middle of his story. His distinguishing characteristic was his experience of growing up and living in the white and Indian worlds.

In other words, as a person, he’s not terribly compelling. As an “experience-r,” he has an interesting story. And as someone who, with his feet in both worlds, is able to comment somewhat objectively on the white and Indian cultures.

That tension of two worlds is lost in the second book. Instead, Jack wanders around, hooking up here and there with people who were or would become famous. He’s like David Copperfield who’s a fairly boring guy but who is surrounded by unforgettable characters, such as Uriah Heep.

Except Jack doesn’t have a Uriah Heep or anyone else who’s all that unforgettable.

And none of the novel’s events, such as the murder of Hickok, the O.K. Corral gunfight and the murder of Sitting Bull, has the iconic status of Custer’s Last Stand.

Indeed, I wonder how many people even know anything about those two murders.

So, in telling about them, Jack is providing a history lesson — but, alas, not something that approaches literature.

Patrick T. Reardon
9.8.11

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