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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man is a picaresque novel of the American frontier, structured as the incredible autobiography of 111-year-old Jack Crabb, who claims to be the only white man to survive the Battle of Little Bighorn. Berger’s episodic novel gives the reader a panoramic, microscopic view of what life might really have been like among the rough, hardened types who sought adventure and fortune in the West, and the Indians whose way of life struck the settlers as so strange and uncivilized.

Witness his parents being slaughtered by drunken Cheyenne warriors, Crabb winds up being adopted by the Cheyenne chief Old Lodge Skins, a wise chief prone to implausibly accurate visions. For the rest of his the novel, Crabb goes back and forth between the white world of his birth and the Indian ways of his youth, never fully at home in either and thus granted with special insight into the faults and attributes of each.

For a while, this homespun anthropology lesson is enough to sustain the novel by itself. Eventually, though, Berger’s episodic ramblings begin to devolve into a “who’s who” name-checking of Old West legends, and the novel starts to lose momentum. The lengthy closing segment devoted to Custer’s Last Stand is astonishingly anti-climactic considering the history involved.

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