Hal Borland’s When the Legends Die, published in 1963, immerses the reader in two worlds, that of the wild West and that of wild nature, two topics with which Borland was quite familiar. Written in 1963, around the height of Borland’s writing career, the story follows a young Native American boy as he struggles not only with the rite of passage to manhood but also with the harsh realities of the clash of his native culture and the modern white society. Having been raised in the traditional ways of his Ute ancestors, the protagonist of the story must first learn the “new ways” of the white people who dominate his world before he can create a clear identity of who he is and where he fits in his environment.
The novel was well received and eventually was produced by Twentieth Century Fox as a movie in 1972. When the Legends Die is often compared to Jack London’s Call of the Wild (1914), which takes up the theme of the wilderness, and Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest (1953), which deals with the clash of cultures in the West. All three books explore rite of passage or coming of age themes, and all three were produced as movies.
The story of Thomas Black Bull, the protagonist of Borland’s novel, is one of constant transformation as a young boy searches for an identity. Symbolizing this most clearly is the fact that, throughout the story, Thomas’s name is changed several times. He receives the name Little Black Bull from his parents, which is changed to Thomas Black Bull when a white minister baptizes him. Then, as he nears puberty, Thomas gives himself the name of Bear’s Brother. When he becomes popular on the rodeo circuit, his fans dub him with the moniker Killer Tom. As he works out his frustration and anger from losing his parents before reaching puberty, being forced to enter a school to learn white society’s ways, being used by swindlers and crooks as well as by people who need heroes, Thomas tries on many personas, but, in the end, he finds his way back home and is finally able to define his own identity.
When the Legends Die may be Borland's most celebrated book, for good reason. In it, he tells the story of a boy who takes a long time to come to grips with the realities of his life. Raised in the "old ways" of the Ute Indians, American culture is alien to him when he is tricked and captured and forced to attend a reservation school after living alone in the wilderness for nearly two years. As an early adolescent, he already was set in the ways of the Utes before they were absorbed into America's culture. After many travails, he becomes a great rodeo star. This is where many young adult novels would end, but in When the Legends Die, Borland shows how the experiences of the boy's youth play themselves out in a man who is famous and admired, but who is nonetheless angry all the time and hateful toward others. His eventual rediscovery of the old ways and his mainly reconciliation of his past with the realties of American life is grand and profound.
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Part I: Bessie
When the Legends Die begins in the company town of Pagosa, Colorado, where the protagonist’s father, George Black Bull, a Native American of the Ute tribe, works at a sawmill. George enters the scene running. He is being sought after because he has killed Frank No Deer, a common thief. George is afraid that he will be put in jail, so he tells his wife where he is going in the wilderness and tells her to follow him after dark. His wife, Bessie, when asked by the sheriff if she knows where her husband is, denies knowing. As she waits for nightfall, Bessie thinks back on how she and her husband and son ended up in Pagosa. Then, in the middle of the night, she packs a few belongings, wakes her young son, and takes a circuitous route to the location of the planned rendezvous with her husband.
In the wilderness, George and Bessie return to their traditional ways, capturing meat, finding seeds, and picking berries for food. They make clothes and a shelter from the natural materials that they gather. They sing songs and tell stories that their grandparents had taught them. At the end of the first year, before the winter has ended, George is trapped and killed in an avalanche.
Before the next winter, Bessie takes Thomas back to Pagosa to buy supplies. Bessie is an expert basket maker and trades her wares for the winter clothing and the utility items that she needs. She worries that the sheriff is still looking for her husband and might take her son away from her. A while later, when she returns to town, she feels more confident and asks the shopkeeper for details about the sheriff. Jim Thatcher tells her that the sheriff has decided that her husband acted in self-defense and that her family is free to return to the town.
Another winter comes, and Bessie becomes sick and dies. Thomas befriends the animals around him, including a small, orphaned grizzly bear cub. He becomes what he believes to be the bear’s brother. One summer, Thomas ventures back into Pagosa, with the bear trailing behind him. When some of the citizens of the town threaten to shoot the bear, Jim Thatcher stops them.
Blue Elk, a man who one character states would sell anything to make a profit, including his own grandmother, befriends Thomas, who does not speak English, only to betray him. Blue Elk strikes a deal with the local minister, who believes that Thomas is not fit to live on his own and must be taken to the nearby Indian school, a place where Thomas can learn the ways of the white men. To get Thomas to agree to leave his wilderness lodge, Blue Elk tells Thomas that the other Native American children at the school need to learn the traditional songs and old ways of the Ute people. He suggests that Thomas go with him to Ignacio, the center of the Ute reservation, to teach the children the things that Thomas has learned. The bear cub tags along.
Part II: The School
Once he arrives at the school, Thomas quickly discovers that he has been tricked. His bear is chained and caged. Thomas is roomed with Luther Spotted Dog, a boy close to his age but who lives in world totally different from the one that Thomas is used to. Thomas dislikes the bed he is told to sleep on, the clothes he is told to wear, and the food he must eat. He lashes out in anger at almost everyone who demands that he must change.
The bear must be gotten rid of, so once again it is Blue Elk who schemes to get Thomas to return the bear to its natural surroundings. Thomas, who believes Blue Elk is taking him home, agrees to go with Blue Elk. However, once they arrive in the vicinity where Thomas used to live, Blue Elk blackmails Thomas by threatening to leave the bear chained to a tree to starve unless Thomas returns to the school.
Upon his return, Thomas does not fare much better than he had before. After a fight, he is put on restriction and locked in a small room. One night, he escapes and returns on his own to the lodge in the wilderness. When he arrives, little remains of his former dwelling. Blue Elk has ransacked his home, taking everything he can use or sell and burning the rest. Thomas, after discovering that Benny Grayback, one of the counselors from the school, has followed his trail, returns to the school, resigned to his fate.
In the next episodes, Thomas dons the white man’s clothes, has his braids cut off, and tries to learn the skills of farming and the language of his oppressors. He learns to...
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