In 1964, Little Big Man gave us the reminiscences of Jack Crabb - a white orphan raised among the Cheyenne - who returns to "civilized" society, where (among other things) he tangles with Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok, and ends up as the only white survivor of Custer's Last Stand. At the end of Little Big Man, Jack's supposed death at age 111 cut short his tale. A newly discovered manuscript, however, reveals that Jack had faked his death to get out of his publishing contract, and he now picks up the story of his extraordinarily action-packed life.
Jack Crabb, supposedly the only white man to survive Custer's Last Stand, first disclosed the brimful and dubious chronicle of his life in Thomas Berger's 1964 charmer, Little Big Man
. There the 111-year-old, a shade of history who strutted unnoticed through the mythic West, recounted his acquaintances with notables such as George Custer and Wild Bill Hickok, as well as his shuttling between the worlds of whites and Indians. In The Return of Little Big Man
, ostensibly a long-lost addendum to these memoirs, we get more of the tale--or more hot air, perhaps. "Just listen to what I tell you, and then check it against the facts if you can," our hero invites.
Return has much in common with its predecessor. Once again, Crabb seems to have known everyone and been nearly everywhere, and his many associates--both notorious and anonymous--reappear as if by miracle. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Annie Oakley all check in; while Crabb himself wanders the globe as Buffalo Bill Cody's right-hand man, witnesses both Hickok's and Sitting Bull's murders, and crouches behind a wagon during the O.K. Corral shootout. Berger's Twain-esque ruminations lend an air of purposefulness to Crabb's meanderings, a sense that separation is merely provisional, that existence only appears haphazard.
Crabb, however, seems more than occasionally dispirited--friends pass, younger men ascend. Midway through, though, the book gets its real charge, as Crabb confronts a fading world and a future both bright and bewildering. Sustained by an enormous heart, an affinity for exaggeration, and a conscience both weary and sentimental, he acknowledges the best--and worst--in everyone he meets. It's a story you'd like to believe. --Ben Guterson