Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The titles of the novel’s two editions suggest that its major thematic concerns are the “darkness” in Saint Louis Bearheart and Bearheart’s “heirship chronicles”; the preface, which sets up a metafictional frame, also serves as an exposition of the titles. The novel can be understood as a historian’s statement, in the form of an imaginative narrative derived from tribal archives (“chronicles”), about the predicament of American Indians (“darkness”), the sources of their problems, and the solutions. “Darkness,” understood psychologically, also stresses the sense of destiny, with hints of a radical response (which Vizenor implies in his use of the term “word war”). “Heirship,” though not necessarily without ironic implications, also refers to predicament and destiny, but the term’s emphasis appears to be on survival and renewal. The name of the fictional narrator, “Bearheart” or “St. Louis Bearheart,” who claims that the bear is in his heart, alludes to the tribal myth of bear-becoming.

According to the novel’s sociomythical framework, the bear-becoming of Cedarfair is a response to the historical disaster that has annihilated American Indians, their original habitats, their meager reservations (“circus”), their culture, and their identity. The ongoing oppression is further aggravated by the ecological and energy crises that Western civilization has brought upon whites and Native Americans alike. The grim,...

(The entire section is 461 words.)