Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

“Little Big Man changed the way I see the world.”  If you were around in the 1970’s, after the Dustin Hoffman film version of Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man hit the screen, you probably heard someone say this.  Maybe you said it yourself.   I was too young for R-rated movies in 1970, back then no one would have dreamed of taking a seven-year-old to a PG movie let alone an R-rated one, so  I was in college the first time someone told me Little Big Man changed them.

Thomas Berger’s novel turns out to be problematic in its depictions of Native Americans.  It’s not really about Native Americans; it’s about a white man who was raised by them.  This is a subtle but important distinction– one that separates the novel from the movie based on it.  The novel’s narrator, Jack Crab, functions as a Candide figure.  He moves through the major historical events of his day as an innocent.  He is captured by the Cheyenne after a rival tribe massacres his family’s wagon train.  For a time he lives with the Cheyenne and comes to see tribal elder, Old Lodge Skins, as his father.  He never forms a lasting bond with anyone else he meets during his life.  However, he abandons the Cheyenne in the midst of battle in order to save his own life.

Over the course of the novel he meets Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, and  General Armstrong Custer.  He moves among several Native America tribes, Mormon settlers, peddlers, buffalo hunters, former slaves, trappers, preachers, whore houses, school marms, and would be senators.  His story is all-encompassing.  He is the American west.  And while he returns to the Cheyenne several times, his attitude towards them remains problematic for 21st century readers.

Take the scene when the calvary, led by Custer, massacres the Cheyenne village at Washita creek. Jack Crab tries to save Old Lodge Skins who refuses to leave his teepee, claiming, “Today is a good day to die.”  Crab convinces his grandfather that a dream he had granted him invisibility– no soldier will be able to see you, we can just walk through the fighting to the river.  But before he’ll leave, Old Lodge Skins, who has become blind from a previous wound, insists on taking all of his magical possessions.

“Wait,” he said.  “I must take my medicine bundle.”  This was a sloppy parcel about three foot long and wrapped in tattered skins.  Its contents was secret, but I had once peeked into that of a deceased Cheyenne before they put it with him on the burial scaffold, and what was contained was a handful of feathers, the foot of an owl, a deer-bone whistle, the dried pecker of a buffalo, and suchlike trash: but he undoubtedly believed his strength was tied up in this junk, and who was I to say him nay.  So with Old Lodge Skins.  I got his bundle from a pile of apparent refuse behind his bed.

Crab’s attitude towards Old Lodge Skins beliefs here is typical of his stance on Native Americans.  He is critical, often dismissive of Cheyenne customs and beliefs in ways fitting the fashion of a 19th century man that border on racist today.  Look at how he describes Old Lodge Skins possessions in the quote above–‘tattered,’ ‘suchlike trash,’ ‘junk,’ ‘apparent refuse.’  The language here is fairly mild when compared to other scenes in the novel.  This is typical of the language used by 19th century authors to describe Native American tribes as the following passage from Mark Twain’s 1870 essay “The Noble Redman” illustrates:

His heart is a cesspool of falsehood, of treachery, and of low and devilish instincts. With him, gratitude is an unknown emotion; and when one does him a kindness, it is safest to keep the face toward him, lest the reward be an arrow in the back. To accept of a favor from him is to assume a debt which you can never repay to his satisfaction, though you bankrupt yourself trying. 

However, by the end of the novel I came to see Jack Crab’s ambivalence about Native Americans as a testament to how good Little Big Man is.  A narrator with nothing but praise for anyone Jack Crab met during his life, would not be a narrator we could believe in. I’m not going to say trust here, because I don’t think we can trust Jack Crab completely.  He’s well over 100 years old, or so he claims, and he’s telling us what happened to him  80 years ago.  Much of what he says is hard to believe, as hard to believe as most history texts about this period are.  We often can’t believe it, or don’t want to believe it.  Did the above quote from Mark Twain shock you?  Have you long believed he was an advocate in favor of civil rights and equality for all people?  How could the man who wrote Huck Finn hold views like this about Native Americans?     

The movie makers wisely decided to leave out some of the book.  While they have given Jack Crab a life outside of his time with the Cheyenne, the movie is concerned with making a statement about the treatment of Native Americans which the book is not.  Compare the movie’s depiction of the massacre at Washita Creek.  There really is little humor in this scene.  There is no business about Old Lodge Skins dressing himself in his fanciest clothing or looking for his medicine bundle.  Jack Crab does convince Old Lodge Skins that he is invisible and he does walk through the battle smiling but there is no overt comedy in the movie’s depiction as there was in the book.  It’s entirely tragic.  Chief Dan George, who portrayed Old Lodge Skins in the movie, smiles his way to the river, but his smile only serves to make the entire sequence more disturbing.

 

I’m not enough of a film historian to say this with authority, but I think this was the first time mainstream American movie audiences ever saw an Indian village massacred. We’d seen the reverse, Indians destroying farm houses and wagon trains like the one in the opening scene of Little Big Man, but this was the first depiction of what was done to the Native American tribes. It’s a brilliant piece of film making, though difficult to watch.  Jack Crab leads Old Lodge Skins to safety like Aneas leading his father from the burning ruin of Troy, but Jack’s wife and son will not survive the battle.   Pay attention to the way music and sound is used in this scene and to the way the editing makes it look like Jack is shot and killed along with his wife and child.  It’s easy to see why this movie changed so many of the people who saw it.

In both the book and the movie, Jack Crab returns to white civilization after the Battle of Washita vowing revenge on Custer for the massacre.  That’s how he ends up at the Battle of Little Big Horn where he is the sole white survivor.  Here again, the book differs from the movie in ways that I found problematic.  In the movie, events are telescoped. Little Big Horn follows the Washita massacre fairly quickly while in the book there are many years and chapters between these two events.  In the book enough time passes for Jack to meet General and Mrs. Custer and to come to admire them both.  It’s difficult to remain sympathetic to Jack throughout Little Big Man.  The reader wants him to be angrier about what happens to the Cheyenne, not  to praise General Custer.  The book is anti-establishment in its depiction of both white and native American society.  It pokes fun at everyone, victim and victor, which just seems unfair at times.

But in the end, I think that’s America.  In America Chief Sitting Bull leads the attack on Custer at Little Big Horn and ends up an attraction in a wild west show.  50 dollars a week was the pay.  The great scope of history is turned into fodder for circuses.  Jack Crab may look like Aneas in one scene but he’s really Candide with a more knowledgable Dr. Pangloss in Old Lodge Skins.  The movie version sums it up in Old Lodge Skins’ final line, “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

 

Thomas Berger, like Voltaire before him, looks at the horrors of history and concludes the only way to deal with it all is to laugh at it.  Towards the end of the novel Jack Crab, Little Big Man, speaks to his grandfather, Old Lodge Skins, about Custer:

I says: “He was not scalped, Grandfather.  The Indians respected him as a great chief.”

Old Lodge Skins smiled at me as at a foolish child.

 “No my son,” says he.  “I felt his head. They did not scalp him because he was going bald.”

 

 

This review first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back when I was running two reading challenges at once: The Hop-a-long, Git-a-long, Read-a-long; and the Read  the Book, See the Movie Challenge.  There were both fun.  I enjoyed reading challenges, but it’s been a long time…

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2 Comments

  1. alison41 says:

    I read the book years ago & loved it. Not being American, for me it was just a great Western story – all the cultural nuances passed me by.

  2. Andy Keller says:

    Yeah the movie was “graphic” for it’s time, but if you can’t see a portrayal of history and the ways things went down then you really are not in tune with the history of our country. I have Will Hutchison’s book Artifacts of the Battle of Little Bighorn. His pictures show a lot of both sides and what they fought with, what they wore among other things. We need to see the history to really grip what happened in these places.

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