(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

This story of a Native American’s search for identity alternates scenes from the lives of the two main characters, Set and Grey. Interspersed among these scenes are tales from Kiowa myths and Western legends, each with relevance to the main characters’ quest for identity.

Early in the novel, Grey watches over the deathbed of her ancient grandmother, Kope’mah. She dreams of the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid, and imagines herself as his lover and companion. She is at this time also growing gradually aware of her powers as a medicine woman.

Set, in San Francisco, is at the peak of his career as a painter. Orphaned at the age of seven, Set has been reared by his adoptive father Bent with love but with little or no sense of his heritage as a Native American. Now in middle age, he enjoys a strong and mutually supportive relationship with Lola, although he and Lola remain fairly independent of one another. When a cryptic telegram summons him to Oklahoma by telling him that Grandmother Kope’mah is near death, he is intrigued. He has never heard of Grandmother Kope’mah and almost believes the telegram has been sent to him in error except for its tantalizing mention of his biological father, Cate. He goes to Oklahoma but arrives too late; the grandmother is dead. There, however, he meets Grey and is unsettled and captivated by her beauty and dignity. His other relatives convince him to attend an Indian gathering before returning to San Francisco. At the gathering, Grey asks Set to paint her face for a dance, and she presents him with a medicine bundle that contains “bear medicine” that she says belongs to him. This brief exchange creates a bond between them that Set cannot yet fathom.

Back in his own world, Set’s stature as a painter continues to grow. His agent, Jason, arranges an opening for Set in Paris, and he travels there with Lola. When they learn that Bent has had a small stroke, Lola returns to San Francisco to attend him. Set has a one-night affair with the Parisienne owner of the gallery where his...

(The entire section is 839 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

A complex and richly evocative work, N. Scott Momaday’s The Ancient Child is the story of two Native Americans—a middle-aged painter and a young woman—who come to a fuller understanding of themselves. Native American folklore and mythology are woven into their story, lending cultural and psychological depth to the two’s quests for, essentially, rebirth.

Locke Setman, called “Set” throughout the novel, is in many ways a representative Momaday protagonist because he is cut off from his past and therefore lives an unexamined life. Brought up in an orphanage by an embittered academic, Set’s connection to the Kiowa culture of his ancestors is tenuous. Because Set does not know his past “it was in Set’s nature to wonder, until the wonder became pain, who he was.” His quest to achieve a more profound sense of self begins when he receives a telegram begging him to attend the funeral of one Kope’ mah. Mystified by a past he has never known, Set goes to the funeral and meets Grey, who is training to become a medicine woman because she “never had . . . to quest after visions.”

Like Set, Grey has not achieved her true identity, largely because she rejects the modern world. After being raped by a white farmer, she goes to live in an abandoned sod house in a ghost town. She literally dwells in the past. She speaks Kiowan fluently, so she is befriended by Kope’ mah, and becomes the link between Set’s past and his...

(The entire section is 415 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The title The Ancient Child refers to the Kiowa creation story of a boy who, while chasing his seven sisters, turns into a bear. Frightened, they climb a giant tree and become the constellation the Seven Sisters. The boy/bear pursues but cannot climb so high. His slide back down the tree leaves claw marks that, when the tree falls and its clawed trunk petrifies, appear as the slashes on the Devil’s Tower, Tsoai-talee. Tsoai-talee is also Momaday’s Kiowa name, so he is connected to both sacred land and bear power. Within the context of the story, his alter ego Locke “Loki” Setman, or Set, can find inner peace only if he, like the boy of the myth, finds his spirit identity and is transformed by wrestling with the bear within him, The creation story is connected with another ancient tale of a male child who mysteriously appears in a village; no one knows who he is, but in their memories he is transmuted into a bear cub so that villagers can comfort themselves with an identity that makes sense of their failure to otherwise identify him. Likewise Locke Setman, whose name means Walking Bear or Bear Above, is unknown to the Native Americans whom he encounters in Navajo areas and must become “Bear” in order to gain his place and his native identity. Thus, ancient and modern merge and the stories of the past recur in new forms.

Locke Setman’s parents died during his childhood, so he has been cut off from family and tribal land. He is a...

(The entire section is 562 words.)