Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Something Wild

I don’t think I have much in common with Western folk hero “Wild Bill” Hickok, but one trait we share is never sitting with our backs to the door. At least, that’s how he’s portrayed in Little Big Man, by the late Thomas Berger. In Berger’s book, Hickok was worried about getting shot in the back, so he always wanted to sit with his back to the wall. I’m not so worried about getting shot, but I don’t like the sensation of people standing behind me, carrying things, walking around, etc.

I’m telling you this for two reasons. First, you can appreciate what a charmingly quirky and idiosyncratic guy I am.

But the second reason is that I want to sing the praises of Berger’s 1964 novel. It recounts the story of Jack Crabb, who was abducted/adopted by Cheyenne as a child, and spent most of his 111 years wandering the “wild” West, living among both native and non-native Americans, and encountering notables like “Wild Bill” Hickock, Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill. He was at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but it’s not clear whose side he was on.

It’s also very funny.

I have to admit that I read Little Big Man a good many years ago, and I’m a somewhat fuzzy on the details. There’s also a movie adaptation from 1970, starring a heavily made-up Dustin Hoffman as Crabb, but it’s not as good. (Not bad as a movie though!)

But the main point I remember is the sense that the warring between the Cheyenne and the “white” men is an unavoidable clash of civilizations. In fact, this book and the movie roughly coincide with the founding of the American Indian Movement, the publication of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and other milestones in recent Native American history. Berger is clearly more sympathetic with the Cheyenne, depicting the non-natives as boorish, brutal and stupid. Yet he doesn’t blame them. Boorishness, brutality and stupidity are just part of their culture.

Come to think of it, that stuff may not have been Berger’s intention at all. Maybe that’s just what I took away from it. I’ll have to read it again. Or rent the movie.

Anyway, there’s probably something in here that’s applicable to the current Israel/Gaza fighting, but I’m damned if I know what. I’m not saying that, for example, one side’s constantly trying to kill all members of the other side and obliterate their nation doesn’t qualify them as the aggressors, but there are clearly bigger issues here that are not ever going to be settled by warfare.

Not that I’m qualified to comment. Just another of my endearing quirks.

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