Little Big Man

by Thomas Berger

Hardcover, 1964





Dial (1964), 422 pages


The astonishing reminiscences of an ancient and immodest Indian frontiersman form a witty, lusty, and highly impressive epic, a panoramic enlargement of the way of life in the Old West.

User reviews

LibraryThing member wandering_star
I fully agree with the last reviewer - this was a real romp. Tall tales of the Wild West, with every archetypal image and plot twist covered, from crossing the plains in a wagon train, hunting seas of buffalo, and playing poker in a saloon in a frontier town. It's all familiar stuff, but told with energy and gusto. I found it hard to stop and think about how to review it - I was enjoying it too much.

So, the best I can do: the main themes, for me, were unreliable narrations - from the framing story, to all the stories and con-tricks which crop up through the book - and the concepts of loyalty, savagery and civilisation - I enjoyed following the twists and turns in Jack Crabb's perception of the good and bad in the 'American' and 'savage' worlds - depending on where he is and where he's just been.
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LibraryThing member jennyo
My favorite cousin has always said Little Big Man is his favorite movie ever, so when my book-reading friend suggested we read it, I was happy to (besides, he always recommends good stuff). The cover of my copy has a blurb from Henry Miller that reads: "An epic such as Mark Twain might have given us . . . a delicious, crazy, panoramic enlargement . . . " And I couldn't agree more. The humor, the easy rendition of dialect, the observations on culture, all are reminiscent of Twain. And perhaps even more fun to read.

You guys probably already know most of the story, but just in case, it's about Jack Crabb, a man who was raised by Cheyenne Indians from ages 10 to 15. After that, he seems to run into almost every major historical figure in Western America. Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, Gen. Custer . . . they all make appearances. And the characterizations he uses for these historical figures are dead on with what I've read elsewhere about them. Berger was either fascinated by the American West, or did a lot of research for this book.

This is a great story with a terrific narrator. One I'd highly recommend.
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LibraryThing member dougwood57
Little Big Man is Thomas Berger’s classic anti-Western that tells the tale of 111-year old Jack Crabb. Actually, Berger has Crabb narrate his own story to Ralph Fielding Snell, a writer who appends his own foreword and afterword.

Crabb lived a marvelous varied and remarkable life in the Old West. He arrived in the West at age 10 and was taken captive (or volunteered due to a misunderstanding by Jack’s sister) by the Cheyenne – the Human Beings. Jack moves back and forth between the Indian and the white worlds. He tended to prosper when living with Old Lodge Skins’s band of Cheyenne, but he retains his white man’s view of the world. As the introduction to the Delta edition by Brooks Landon states, Jack’s aspirations were white, but his achievements were Cheyenne.

Berger’s characters, some famously historical, but most fictional, represent many Western archetypes. He marries a Swedish immigrant, befriends the card-playing gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok, goes into business with the bunco artist Allardyce T. Merriwhether, becomes a drunk, hunts buffalo with Wyatt Earp, rescues a niece from whoredom, falls in love with Mrs. Pendrake, the wife of the proselytizing minister, and fights with Custer at his Last Stand (not in that order). In the Indian world, Berger gives us the noble Indian, the fighting Indian, and the free Indian, but mostly shows the Indians living with an entirely different moral code than the whites, whom the Indians view as being crazy. Jack also turns up at two specific events: the massacre at the Washita River and the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Berger’s use of the fictional Snelling as Crabb’s editor introduces a couple elements of uncertainty as to the veracity of Jack’s story. Snelling is somewhat skeptical of parts of Jack’s story and after all, he is the one who interviewed Jack. And Snelling may not be all that reliable himself given that he delayed publication for ten years due to his own emotional collapse.

Berger’s characters are archetypes, but not stereotypes because he gives them a twist of his own. Little Big Man is a tour through the history of the Old West, sometimes sardonic, sometimes sobering, and always entertaining. Like most people I saw the movie well before I read the book and it was impossible not to hear Dustin Hoffman’s voice throughout. The movie and the book tell very similar stories in very similar but not identical ways. For once I can say that the movie is as good as the book. Read it and watch it. Highest recommendation.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
I loved this book from beginning to end, there was never a time where I felt slowed down, stuck in any dull part. This is framed as the first hand account of Jack Crabb, who claims to be 111-years old and the only White survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The first line of his narrative starts: I am a white man and never forgot it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from age ten. That first line telegraphs the rest of the story. Jack, whose Cheyenne name translates to Little Big Man, is caught between the two cultures--more than I think he even admits to in old age. It's part of what makes his story so fascinating, as he is witness both to the massacre by Custer of peaceful Cheyenne in Washita, including members of his own Cheyenne family, and the slaughter of Custer's troops by Cheyenne and Sioux at Little Big Horn.

The back of this book describes this as a "picaresque" tale--which is how another book I recently read, Kunzru's The Impressionist was described on the flyleaf. That book also dealt with a man caught between two cultures, in that case Hindu Indian and Anglo-English. Yet that book couldn't hold me while this one absolutely engrossed me. Part of that was a matter of differences in style, and because in this book a wry, ironic dark sense of humor was to the forefront--but the biggest reason is Jack, who manages to capture my sympathies--despite the fact he's by no means heroic--is something of a scoundrel--but a survivor and someone who does care about the family he makes along the way.

And along the way he's taught gun-fighting by Wild Bill Hickok, has a run-in with Wyatt Earp and encounters Calamity Jane. He's a mule train driver, a professional gambler, a buffalo hunter--oh, and yeah manages to inveigle himself as a scout for Custer. That alone, that depiction of Custer, is an interesting characterization. This was published in 1964. Way back then, I think Custer was still a hero to most Americans, a cultural icon of the West. So Berger's portrayal then of Custer as a "hard ass" a slaughterer of innocents and a fool was irreverent and brave on his part even if he also allows Custer an admirable quality or two. The book doesn't show one whit of its age despite being nearly 50 years old. It's an irreverent, funny and myth-busting look at the old West that makes me want to read more about the real historical figures featured in it.… (more)
LibraryThing member CBJames
"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 abivalence 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?
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LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
Lightning strikes very seldom, but this book was that rare. As well as being a very well crafted novel it was the basis of a wonderfully striking film, that did not detract from the message of the novel by the necessities of the cinematic world. The voice of Dustin Hoffman resonated through my head as I read the novel, for I had seen the movie first, but as I read, I found that in spite of knowing how it all worked out, i was still fascinated by the novel's style and structure. The book and movie can be done in whatever order you wish...and you'll not be disappointed.
Jack Crabbe, bounces back and forth between the world of the retreating Indians, and the encroaching frontier, and he's a better man for his time with the Indians, and needs repair after his experiences with the other white men. You'll never look at the "Myth of the Frontier", without a snort of laughter again.
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LibraryThing member gbelik
Gail Belikiewicz Although I thought this seemed a bit episodic, I enjoyed the journey. There is so much more to the story than the movie tells (of course). It is an epic and tragic story and the voice of this novel couldn't be better.
LibraryThing member PMaranci
I approached Little Big Man from a novel direction (forgive the pun): I'd seen the movie before reading the book. In fact, I owned the DVD before reading the book. The movie is one of my favorites, you see.

I imagine that had to influence how I read the book. But not too much, I think; in fact, I found myself thinking of Mark Twain far more often than the movie. Berger's style in Little Big Man is very reminiscent of Twain's (somewhat modernized of course). That's appropriate, since the book purports to be the personal reminiscences of a man who lived at approximately the same time as Twain.

It's rather a gory book, particularly at the beginning. It's also extremely funny. I was surprised, a number of times, to find myself laughing out loud. The adventures of Jack Crabb, a boy adopted by a Cheyenne family who never manages to be all white or all Indian, makes for very funny reading.

I find myself wondering if I should compare the book to the movie. In the past I've criticised movies for being unfaithful to the original novel, but obviously I can't criticize the novel for being unfaithful to the movie. The novel came first, after all!

That said, I'll simply say that while much of the flavor of the novel was preserved in the movie, the two diverge in some critical ways. The movie is far more negative about Custer, for example, and makes Jack Crabb a far more active character (in some ways) than he is in the novel. Some events were invented for the movie, and others were rearranged chronologically. And Chief Dan George's portrayal of Old Lodge Skins was simply outstanding.

But to sum up the novel: It's long, funny, well-written, but somehow a little unfocused. I'll certainly read it again, and will be on the lookout for more by Berger. Perhaps, in time, the novel of Little Big Man will be as much a favorite of mine as the movie is.
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LibraryThing member Sandydog1
I've little to add to the previous reviews. This is a funny, cultural, sad, tough, misanthropic, loving, story of a man who was orphaned by a Pawnee raid and raised by the Cheyenne. The Sand Creek Massacre and that minor altercation at Little Big Horn figure prominently in this historical novel. The movie with Dustin Hoffman is also a classic.… (more)
LibraryThing member mikedraper
Thomas Berger is a serious storyteller. His novel, "Little Big Man," was both an excellent novel and movie starring Dustin Hoffman.

In the story, we read the reminiscences of Jack Crabb, plainsman who dictated the story when he was age one hundred and eleven.

Jack Crabb was captured by Cheyenne Indians and raised by them after they massacre the members of Jack's family's wagon train. In a humorous manner, he describes being raised by the Indians and meeting many famous people that populated the west. He is the narrator who stands apart when Indians are being massacred by Union Cavalry, when the Civil War occurs and in great detail, the Battle of Little Bighorn where Gen. George Armstrong Custer met his end.

Jack returns to white people after a battle between soldiers and the Cheyenne. He marries a blond haired German named Olga, and they have a son, Gus. After a time of happiness, another raid kills people around Jake but Olga and Gus are taken by the Indians.

In one humorous and entertaining segment, Jack assumes that Olga and Gus are lost and marries an Indian named Sunshine. They have a son and come to believe that a child should be able to choose their own name. While out walking, their son made a motion toward a certain scene and was given the name, Frog Lying on a Hillside.

Jack meets and befriends such famous historical figures as Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp.

He also details the last days of Gen. Custer and the Company G of the 7th Cavalry.

Jack also meets a bar girl who introduces her to a younger woman who worked at the bar. She convinces him that she is his niece and he sends her to a school for young ladies and marries a wealthy man.

I enjoyed the reading and was sorry to see the story conclude.
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LibraryThing member Foghorn-Leghorn
The ending of the movie was better than that of the book. Otherwise I think the book and the movie were equally good.
LibraryThing member Tanya-dogearedcopy
Little Big Man
By Thomas Berger
Narrated by David Aaron Baker and Scott Sowers;
with an Essay by Larry McMurty narrated by Henry Strozier
2014, Recorded Books
20 hours, 30 minutes

This American Classic is a satire which exposes the falseness of the American Old West narrative. The main body of the work is a POV1- narrative from Jack Crabbe, a Zelig-like character who lives alternately amongst white people and the Cheyenne in the 1850s-1870s, a time when the landscape of the country was changing as rapidly as the steam engines could push in and the the government could push the Native Americans out. The story begins with Snell, a mannered and intellectually pretentious man going to see the 111-year old Crabbe in a nursing home. Crabbe, in turn, begins his account when he himself was a young boy and Redskins wipe out the party of pioneers (his family included) he is traveling with. In the course of the his recounting, outrageous claims are made, i.e. Crabbe manages to witness many key events and interact with a number of notable figures at the time; but Berger balances the tongue-in-cheek narrative with keen insight into the nature of man and the events of the time to give the story plausibility, if not in the sum of its parts, and least in the individual happenings. Berger researched this time period, and using original source material such as letters and diaries, constructed this novel to debunk the myth of the era, and to a certain extent he succeeded by incorporating the elements of avarice, filth, and moral equivocation that prevailed. On the other hand, rather than tarnish, the acuteness of the author’s barbs lends a sort of patina to the story by making it more realistic. Analogously, it would be like taking down a statue to discover there are cracks in the base; but nonetheless, the statue is still strong enough to stand.

The narrators were spot-on: David Aaron Baker starts the audiobook off as the effete and gullible interviewer Ralph Fielding Snell; Scott Sowers nails it as Jack Crabbe, undereducated but sharp, performing with a “cowboy” accent throughout his section; And finally, Henry Strozier caps the audiobook with a reading of Larry McMurty’s short essay, a laudatory missive read warmly and convincingly as if McMurty were reading it himself.

BUT, and this is a big “but” the production values were terrible: On Sowers’ section, there were page turns, mouth noises, booth noises, at least one repeating sentence, a couple sections out of order, and overall it didn’t sound as clean as the parts narrated by David Aaron Baker or Henry Strozier.

OTHER: I dnloaded a CD digital copy of Little Big Man (by Thomas Berger
narrated by David Aaron Baker and Scott Sowers; with an Essay by Larry McMurty narrated by Henry Strozier) from I receive no monies, goods (beyond the audiobook) or services in exchange for reviewing the product and/or mentioning any of the persons or companies that are or may be implied in this post.
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LibraryThing member memccauley6
I first read this novel about 30 years ago, shortly after seeing the movie with Dustin Hoffman, and it is still wonderful. Jack Crabb, the 111-year old narrator, spins one tall tale after another about his life in the Wild West, both as a white man, and a member of the Cheyennes. Re-reading this I was impressed by how much historically accurate information the author was able to include in this romp through the Wild Wild West. (Some of which the “white establishment” anthropologists and scientists have only recently begun to accept)

The only thing wrong with this book is its concentration on the Battle of Little Bighorn, the description of which takes up the last 15 – 20% of the book. I would have much rather had the battle summed up and gone on to Jack’s later exploits. Did he ride with Bonnie and Clyde? Fly with Amelia Earhart? Give story advice to Ernest Hemmingway? I hear there is a sequel, must find it.
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LibraryThing member dbsovereign
Berger resembles Mark Twain in this book that reveals what "really happened" at The Battle of Little Bighorn. With understated humor and an amazing amount of historical accuracy, he also paints a fairly realistic picture of the American West. If you have seen the movie (which is great!), you will realize that the book follows form for the most part. Without deigning to understand them, Berger gives us insight into the Amer-Indian, their tragic story - and provides a rollicking story of a pivotal time in our history.… (more)
LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Audible Audio performed by David Aaron Baker, Scott Sowers, and Henry Strozier.

Berger’s novel purports to be a memoir/autobiography of Jack Crabb, written with the help of ghost writer Ralph Snell. “Snell” opens the prologue thus: It was my privilege to know the late Jack Crabb – frontiersman, Indian scout, gunfighter, buffalo hunter, adopted Cheyenne – in his final days upon this earth. He goes on to relate how he learned of the reportedly 111-year-old man living in a nursing home, who claimed to be an eyewitness to Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The bulk of the novel is Crabb’s first-person account is life experiences from about 1852 to 1876. Snell then returns in an epilogue to explain that Crabb died shortly after relating that last chapter (Little Bighorn), and he regrets that he was unable to learn more of Crabb’s many exploits through the decades.

I was completely entertained by this novel of the American West. Berger gives the reader quite the raconteur in Crabb, with a gift for story-telling and colorful language. By the narrator’s own account, he certainly has a gift for landing on his feet, managing to get out of more than one potentially deadly scrape by his wits or sheer dumb luck. As he grows from boyhood Crabb is kidnapped / adopted by a Cheyenne tribe, taken in and sheltered by a minister and his wife, “works” as a gambler and gunfighter, hunts buffalo, marries a Scandinavian woman who speaks limited English, and eventually becomes a scout for George Armstrong Custer, thereby witnessing the US Army’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Along the way he rejoins the Cheyenne tribe numerous times, listening to the advice of Old Lodge Skins, and relating much of the culture and traditions of that Native tribe, as well as what life was like for the European settlers during that time period.

If the scenarios stretch credulity, well that is part of the fun. We have always looked on the American West with a sort of awe and wonder, elevating many of the historical figures to the level of superhuman legends. Berger sprinkles Crabb’s recollections with a number of these people: Wild Bill Hickock, Wyatt Earp and Custer, among others.

In the epilogue Snell writes ”I leave the choice in your capable hands. Jack Crabb was either the most neglected hero in the history of this country or a liar of insane proportions.. It’s fun to imagine that some “everyman” did witness so much history first hand. His exploits could easily be the inspiration for “Forest Gump.”

The audiobook is performed by a talented trio: David Aaron Baker, Scott Sowers, and Henry Strozier. I do not know which narrated which sections, but they were all good.… (more)
LibraryThing member jordanjones
This is a romp of a book, like Flashman, though slightly more believable.'

Berger gets to the heart of western language. He's direct, profane, awkwardly pedantic at times, in ways I imagine people were when they tried to be formal. By turns, the book is funny, poignant, and insightful.

A must for anyone who wants to understand the American west, and, indeed, the United States and its protracted genocide against the native peoples could do worse than start with Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Thomas Berger's Little Big Man.
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LibraryThing member runningbeardbooks
A hell of a good book.
Part True Grit, part Blood Meridian.
LibraryThing member ZacharyFarina
A laugh on every page. Good history, great action, and it's written by a historian. Go figure.


Local notes

1st edition


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