Sunday, September 18, 2005

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

I liked this book and I’ll probably read it again someday. It reminded me a lot of Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen Ambrose. Of course, Ambrose’s work was serious history where Berger is writing fiction, but they both do an excellent job comparing and contrasting Indian and White civilization and the kind of individuals they produce. What’s neat about Little Big Man is that we’re talking about the same individual who vacillates back and forth between Indian and White culture.

Admittedly episodic, the novel seems to lose its way and sticks on the bit about Custer’s Last Stand as a way of having something important to say. That may not be entirely fair, but Jack Crabb’s presence alongside Custer at the Little Bighorn is the most unlikely aspect of the story, but one we have to accept if we want to hear what the story has to say. One of the remarkable things about the Little Bighorn is that it was the only battle between Whites and Indians in which the Indians fought like Whites—collectively, under strong leadership, with focus on a larger prize. They fought that way and won, something they should have been doing for years the way they often outnumbered the Whites. Indians had no leaders. They had chiefs, to be sure, but no one listened to chiefs if they also did not agree with what they were saying. The idea of one man ordering a hundred others to go and fight for a prize important only to him was a foreign one to most Indian peoples. An Indian warrior took no orders. He followed his own heart in all things. But thousands took orders at Little Bighorn, and in doing so, thousands wiped out six hundred members of the United States Seventh Calvary.

But Berger is doing more than just contrasting White and Indian culture. In a very real sense he is telling the story of the West, the story of how the America we know today came to be, and he is doing it through the life and events of one man. I guess what is most remarkable is that distilling such a grand and nuanced story down into the life of one man could be both coherent in its own telling and true to all the larger forces it had to contain. The part about Custer’s Last Stand was a little far-fetched, but no more I guess than the fact that Jack Crabb lived to be 111 years old, or that two peoples with such different views on life and war could create a conflict that would help define a continent.

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