Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 839
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 paintings are being shown; on returning to his hotel, he finds a frantic massage from Lola telling him that Bent’s condition has worsened. He returns immediately but finds that his father has already died.
Orphaned a second time, Set is plunged into grief and depression. Lola suspects Set’s infidelity, and their relationship suffers. Cut off from his only loving relationships, the lost and alienated Set experiences a kind of mental breakdown. He wanders the streets aimlessly and spends days on end in his studio, painting and drinking, often forgetting to eat or sleep. Lola and Jason eventually have Set hospitalized.
Meanwhile, on the Oklahoma plains, Grey is slowly, intuitively becoming aware both of Set’s crisis and of her own role as his savior. Touched by the spirit of her grandmother, she feels her powers as a medicine woman growing. She begins writing an account of her dream life with Billy the Kid and also begins creating masks. She waits, knowing that Set will be drawn to her. One stormy day, he arrives.
With Grey’s aid, Set begins to recover from his breakdown. As she leads him on a journey, both physical and spiritual, to the Navajo lands of her mother’s tribe, Set and Grey begin to fall in love. Along the journey, she guides him through a spiritual metamorphosis into a bear, a necessary part of his spiritual recovery and of his discovering his identity as a Native American. At home with Grey’s mother, sister, and niece in Navajo country, Set is completely healed. He and Grey are married and conceive a child. At the novel’s close, Set goes alone on a “vision quest” to capture the full power of his bear medicine and to complete and solidify his identity as an American Indian.
The Kiowa myths and legends interspersed throughout the story are an important part of the novel. One myth tells of a boy who is suddenly transformed into a bear while he is playing with his sisters. Another is the story of the “lost boy,” a lone child who one day appears at a Kiowa camp. The Kiowa are astonished, because the boy has appeared as if from nowhere; he speaks a strange language and amazes them by his total lack of fear. They give him food and shelter and are ready to adopt him as one of their own, but when they awake the next day he is gone. The mystery of the lost boy is so troubling to them that they find they must invent a story to explain his sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance. Another legend that recurs throughout the novel is of the historical figure Set-Angya (“Sitting Bear”), a Kiowa chief whose courage was so great it seemed a kind of madness. The figures in these stories all provide parallels to Set’s experiences.
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