One reason for the appeal of Garst’s biography is doubtless its depiction of the exploits of its protagonist. Yet the book is more than one hair-raising episode after another. Several of the author’s preoccupations emerge throughout the work, augmenting its appeal and its significance for young readers.
One important theme is that of compensation and competence. Born in 1809, Carson was a small infant. His father referred to him as “the runt of the litter,” and even his name Christopher was shortened to Kit because a short name was more appropriate to his size. Yet, in spite of his underdevelopment, he became a respected leader on whom frontiersmen and soldiers could count. Accordingly, Garst’s book possesses what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called humanity’s universal need for esteem, and it thereby resonates with the reader’s own feelings.
Related to the achievements of Carson is Garst’s emphasis on him as a figure of destiny. Even as a boy, he had half-formed feelings that he was fated to play an important role in history, and like the heroes of myth, he felt the strong pull of his destined quest and the need to complete the pattern of his life. Consequently, the book contains the mythic, although real, motif of the journey, as Carson traveled the Santa Fe Trail. Although challenging tasks abounded as he had to prove his worthiness, he was not alone because mentors such as Broadus the teamster and Kincaid the trapper aided in his education. Passing such tests as the heady chase and killing of buffalo, treks through inhospitable terrain, and battles with...
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Based upon more modern standards for biography, Garst’s work may be less than acceptable. Besides the excessive praise for its subject and the inadequate treatment of the viewpoint of Native Americans, Kit Carson may also be charged with stereotyping. Words used in reference to Native Americans include “redskins,” “red varmints,” “Injuns,” “wily,” “cowardly,” and “slink.” Such terms are understandable when contained in the dialogue of trappers or soldiers, but Garst frequently uses these expressions in the descriptive portions of her narrative.
A defense of the book, however, is that it is written from the perspective of frontiersmen, not Native Americans. In addition, some of Garst’s other biographies do present Native Americans sympathetically. For example, Sitting Bull: Champion of His People (1946) depicts a Native American leader’s heroic attempts to check the encroachments of whites, and Crazy Horse: A Great Warrior of the Sioux (1950) describes the whites’ broken treaties and inhumanity. Concerning her own motivation for writing about the West, Garst found it a fertile and virtually inexhaustible source of material. With its ironic portrayal of the frontier explorer as the agent of his own doom, her biography of Carson fits into the tradition of classic American literature about the Old West.