Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409
There are four major characters in the Indian Lawyer: the Indian lawyer of the title Sylvester Yellow Calf, Sylvester's girlfriend Shelley Hatton Bowers, the convict Jack Harwood, and Jack's girlfriend Patti Harwood. In addition, there are two minor characters who play important roles and are worth mentioning as well: a...
(The entire section contains 1666 words.)
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- Critical Essays
There are four major characters in the Indian Lawyer: the Indian lawyer of the title Sylvester Yellow Calf, Sylvester's girlfriend Shelley Hatton Bowers, the convict Jack Harwood, and Jack's girlfriend Patti Harwood. In addition, there are two minor characters who play important roles and are worth mentioning as well: a sports writer and Sylvester's old school counsellor Lena Old Horn.
Sylvester was brought up in the Indian reservation of Blackfeet in Montana. His parents, both alcoholics, left him to be brought up by his grandparents. The writer describes Sylvester's upbringing as follows:
He studied hard, he took care of his grandparents . . . . he didn't drink at all, he was always the best athlete, but now without dwelling on it, he knew he had become an outsider.
His status as an outsider is confirmed when a sports writer, who has taken an interest in him, says,
Many of your teammates, Sylvester, will have had their brief moment in the sun and will fall by the wayside perhaps to a life of drink and degradation-so much a part of Indian experience-but you will, must, carry the torch.
From there, Sylvester takes the advice of his friend and high school counsellor, Lena Old Horn, to leave the Indian community and become a lawyer.
Years down the line, Sylvester is living in a white community and seeing Shelley, the daughter of a prominent senator. Yet he is still not happy. First he feels the white community sees him as
an Indian free and easy with a lovely blond woman.
and second he sees himself as living
in a world that had little to do with his people.
Sylvester becomes a member of the state parole board and is at the hearing of Jack Harwood who the author describes as not your typical criminal.
Harwood was something else. He came from a good family, he had a normal childhood, and he hadn't committed a crime until he was twenty four.
With the help of his wife Patti, Harwood blackmails Sylvester after Sylvester declines him for parole. Sylvester feels he has no choice but to drop out in the run for congress and go back to his roots and become a lawyer of Native American causes.
He had learned to live with the fact that his parents had abandoned him. He had had a good life with his grandparents and he was proud of them for having raised him up to be a decent human being.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477
Sylvester is the central focus of The Indian Lawyer. The other characters in the novel exist primarily as foils; they illuminate aspects of Sylvester through their interaction with him.
Sylvester is a man of both physical and intellectual prowess who is accustomed to achieving his goals. From the basketball court to the courtroom, Sylvester’s victories have been of heroic proportion. He is never sure whether he competes for his own glory or for the sake of the tribe and race he always represents but from which his success has made him feel detached. This distance between Sylvester and his people creates a sense of loneliness that is the hero’s tragic flaw. Giving way to the temptations of Patti Ann is a mistake that costs Sylvester his biggest game, the congressional election. His defeat strengthens him, however, and the novel suggests that the Indian lawyer has regained his sense of cultural mission by joining the Sioux’s legal battle.
Jack Harwood is not a typical convict. He is more intelligent and compassionate than his fellow inmates. His fascination with the concepts of crime and punishment, not a truly criminal nature, seems to have led him to prison. Subject to the harshness of incarceration, Jack gradually loses his strength and assuredness until he is reduced to the role of a cornered animal. Flashbacks to better times, to the days when he was able to protect himself from prison predators—or, better still, to his happiness with Patti Ann—contrast with the vulnerable, desperate state of mind in which Jack now finds himself. Through this comparison, the novel depicts how easy it is for an individual to fall from grace, a descent Sylvester narrowly escapes.
Patti Ann illustrates the process by which an individual reawakens to the world. A small-town girl before her first marriage, Patti Ann is quickly overwhelmed by the pressures of adulthood. After twice miscarrying and being abandoned by her husband, Patti Ann is rescued by Jack’s love. When Jack is sent to prison, Patti Ann slips into limbo, waiting for the happiness she remembers to return. Her affair with Sylvester tests Patti Ann’s innocence, but she endures, helping Sylvester to bluff his way out of the blackmail plot and committing herself to wait for her husband’s expected release. The novel hints that Patti Ann will be able to reclaim her former happiness with Jack.
Significantly, it is through the wearied perspective of Lena Old Horn that Sylvester is last shown. Lena knows that she will always be a Crow in Blackfeet country, a member of a strange tribe. Like Lena, Sylvester will always be an outsider, an Indian in the courtroom and a lawyer in Indian country. Lena’s inability to conquer the loneliness of the outsider suggests to the reader that Sylvester’s battle with alienation is far from over.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780
Sylvester Yellow Calf
Sylvester Yellow Calf, a Blackfeet Indian who is a model of achievement. Formerly a college basketball star, he went on to study law at Stanford and then to become a well-regarded lawyer in a firm in Helena, Montana. Far more materially successful than the childhood friends he has left behind, but not entirely comfortable in upper-middle-class white society, he feels caught between two cultures. As the novel begins, he is being courted by national political organizers as a possible congressional candidate. He also serves on the state parole board, as one member of a group that decides which inmates will be paroled. Vaguely dissatisfied with his relationship with his girlfriend, he is easily seduced by Patti Ann Harwood, an attractive young woman trying to help her husband, a convict who has just been denied parole. As the resulting love affair becomes the focus of a blackmail plot, Sylvester realizes for the first time how easy it is to make a disastrous, life-changing mistake. He discovers that the distance between himself and the convicts he evaluates is smaller than he thought. Fearing that his relationship with Patti Ann will haunt his political career, he withdraws from the congressional race. Disappointed because he thinks he has let down the Indian peoples of Montana, he realizes that he can still serve them. As a lawyer for Indian causes, he will combat the problems of poverty, racism, and alcoholism.
Jack Harwood, a convict in his mid-thirties who was sent to Montana State Prison for two armed robberies. No one in the prison system can understand why he is there. Smart, educated, and married to a lovely, loving woman, he seems to have no reason to commit crimes. Paranoid and fearful, he develops a hatred of Indians after he is stabbed by a tough Indian inmate. His belief that he must leave prison immediately or be killed drives him to concoct a blackmail scheme. He convinces his wife, Patti Ann, to sleep with Sylvester Yellow Calf, who is the only Indian on the parole board. Despite his outward callousness, Jack was once capable of great tenderness toward his wife. He ruined his chances of an early release from prison by escaping to be with her when she needed surgery.
Patti Ann Harwood
Patti Ann Harwood, Jack’s wife of nine years. Married to Jack for one and one-half years before he went to prison, she has remained faithful to him despite many opportunities to stray. She feels guilty for enjoying her affair with Sylvester. The happiness it brings her contrasts sharply with her sad personal history. Her four pregnancies ended in near-fatal miscarriages; ultimately, she required a hysterectomy, which was paid for with the money from one of Jack’s robberies. Her relationship with Sylvester eventually offers the promise of a deep friendship.
Shelley Hatton Bowers
Shelley Hatton Bowers, a financial analyst and single mother. She is a prominent senator’s daughter and Sylvester Yellow Calf’s girlfriend. Her relationship with Sylvester has been growing distant for some time. She is not entirely sure how she feels about the difference in their races and is further troubled because Sylvester will not or cannot be open and frank with her. She is cool and collected when Sylvester tells her of his unfaithfulness, her emotions betrayed only by her wet eyes. Their relationship remains in question at the end of the novel.
Lena Old Horn
Lena Old Horn, Sylvester’s high school guidance counselor, who first encouraged him to become a lawyer, the new kind of Indian warrior. Their relationship was more intimate than is usual for students and counselors, although they were never lovers. Sylvester seeks her counsel again as he considers running for Congress.
Buster Harrington, Sylvester’s boss and political mentor. As the cap to his long career, Harrington hopes to convince his protégé to run for office. Deeply pragmatic, when he hears of Sylvester’s entanglement with the Harwoods, he is not angry. Instead, he is merely disappointed that Sylvester did not come to him right away, so that he could have used his considerable power to end the scheme before it snowballed.
Woody Peters, a paroled convict who is Jack Harwood’s eyes and ears outside the prison. A key actor in Jack’s blackmail plot, he decides to drop Harwood’s scheme in favor of one of his own, and he attempts to blackmail Sylvester himself.
Bobby Fitzgerald, another paroled convict, a partner of Woody Peters in the blackmail plot. Although equally as unscrupulous as Woody, Bobby is the less threatening of the two because he is less intelligent.