Thoughts: Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

It’s that time of the year, with a fresh Christmas haul and before work starts again for the year, where if you’re not looking directly at me, I’m hibernating somewhere with a book.

This one is going to be a bit complicated, though (and contains some mild spoilers).

I didn’t even have to open it to know that, because the first line is on the back, and it goes like this:

“I am a white man and never forgot it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten.”

This one, I thought, is going to take some defending.

I had never heard of Thomas Berger until he died, which was my cue to root around his bibliography and pick one to put on my list. I’d never heard of Little Big Man, in either book or film form, but that was the big one, the one people liked and compared to Twain and hailed as THE Great American Novel, so that was the one that went on the list.

I’m aware I can’t just start talking about how much I enjoyed this book as a story without getting some things out of the way first, so let’s get them out of the way. Yes, this book is about a white man living with Native Americans. No, I have no idea how accurate it is. Yes, it uses words like “Indian” and “redskin”. Yes, I’m a white Brit. My cards, they are on the table.

But you know what? It works. Despite being narrated by a grumpy. cynical old man, who thinks everything is stupid and everyone is mad, it works.

It feels silly to point out why and how it works, in the same way as it feels stupid to say “Animal Farm portrays the general populace as sheeplike by making them sheep, and it works because they’re sheep, do you get it? Do you?” or “To Kill A Mockingbird is anti-racist by having a white guy stand up for a black guy and stuff”. But I know that this is important to talk about, and I absolutely get that some people would shy away from the book based on its premise alone, and that’s fine. I’m not trying to convince people; I have no stake in how many people read Little Big Man. I just want to talk about my own opinions without any of these elephants in the room getting in the way.

So it works by not falling into common traps. No Noble Savages, no dewy-eyed casting off of a previous way of life, no romanticising the primitive. He could easily have fallen into any one of them. Let’s go point by point.

Old Lodge Skins, the leader of the tribe, can come across as pretty mystical and opaque when he wants to, but Jack (the narrator) finds him in turn baffling or infuriating or someone who’s earned his respect. Jack’s reaction to him changes as he grows up and gets new experiences under his belt, and how the world changes, and how Old Lodge Skins himself behaves. By which I mean to say, they’re two people who are immensely fond of one another, who have lived fundamentally different lives in a changing world. By which, of course, I mean to say they’re both very complex characters.

Jack casts off several ways of life during the course of the story, but he’s never dewy-eyed about any one of them. He’s forced into the Cheyenne group through an awkward misunderstanding and adapts because he has to. When he returns to white society, he does so because he has to, and if he finds he doesn’t fit in, then he keeps finding that no matter where he lives.

As for romanticising the primitive, Jack Crabb doesn’t romanticise anything. Ever. Except some ladies, perhaps, but he was young and you can forgive him.

It works because Jack doesn’t understand everything, and he accepts that. It works because he’s an unreliable narrator and a perpetual underdog. He observes everything, good and bad, and his judgements are his own. His ideas change depending on where he is, and the way he faces other cultures and the changing face of his own identity just rings really true.

Really, the reason it works is in that first line after all: I am a white man, and never forgot it. He never does forget it.

So, now that I’ve tried ineptly to justify my feelings, here are my feelings.

SUCH a good book. Loved the prissy academic whose comments bookend the story, loved Jack’s voice (and reading it, slow and rich, in that voice), loved the adventurousness of it, loved the beauty of the language. It rang true to me, as I’ve said before (and in that sense it doesn’t matter if there never even was a George Custer). Berger picks out exactly the right details to make it all sound real. He even managed the near-impossible feat of making me love a hero who pops up at the edges of historical events and tells us The Real Deal about revered historical figures, a trope I usually hate to death. Jack’s black, almost absurdist humour about the troubles he lands in is infectious – more than once I giggled aloud while reading.

Jack’s perception of the Cheyenne, and Native Americans in general, changes as he grows up and switches sides periodically, and that struck me as true as well. When you live in cultures that aren’t your own, your feelings about them change, sometimes quite violently.

And in the midst of all that, you can put your little hints of magic and they work. Sometimes the Cheyenne use superstitious rituals that accomplish nothing, and sometimes they pull off miracles, and it’s all done in that way that we all have our own private miracles, things that have happened to us that we can’t explain, things we’ve managed that we shouldn’t have been able to. Jack’s conversation with Lavender, when they can speak as two outsiders who have both lived among Native American groups, contained some of my favourite lines of the book.

I’m developing quite a taste for culture-clash frontier-y stuff (As I said yesterday, I loved Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon). I mean, I will say that I’m pretty squeamish about the idea of exterminating people (oh dear god) and would probably not enjoy reading accounts which are, let’s say, black and white about it. During the time when settlers and Native Americans lived and rubbed up alongside each other must have been a really interesting time, back when cultures could be so alien and unknown to one another. Nowadays we’re sort of globally smoothing out our differences. We have resources to learn about practically every people in the world without leaving our houses, and I’m not saying we should go back to when we were all so walled off along identity lines, but you know, it was different, and I can’t help being curious as to how it must have been.

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