Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Though the progress of the narrative is charted by means of the trial, it is also closely tied to the changes in the land brought about by the new Oahe Dam. Likewise, John’s search for those who stole his cattle is part of a larger struggle to make sense of the sweeping changes multiplying around him. The focus of the narrative is therefore not primarily on either John’s investigation of the theft or on the trial that follows. Rather, the narrator takes readers with John as he visits his friends and neighbors, his own thoughts, and, through his memories, the spirits of former members of the Sioux tribe. Through these journeys, John’s struggle to reconcile personal history and tradition with the new values he finds in the modern world is shown.

Interspersed among John’s recollections of the past, and especially his remembrances of Old Benno, are the scenes of the trial itself. In these, the author takes the opportunity to examine the continuing mistreatment of Native Americans through the American legal system. Her tone is often moderate rather than angry, however, and her method is often to portray characters ironically. The episodes of John’s testimony and cross-examination during the trial, for example, while unmistakably critical of the button-down rigidity of the justice system, show that those who represent “justice” are clearly themselves unjust. Another example is the district attorney’s preoccupation with the history of Custer....

(The entire section is 470 words.)