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Kit Carson Analysis

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

One reason for the appeal of Garst’s biography is doubtless its depiction of the exploits of its protagonist. Yet the book is more than one hair-raising episode after another. Several of the author’s preoccupations emerge throughout the work, augmenting its appeal and its significance for young readers.

One important theme is that of compensation and competence. Born in 1809, Carson was a small infant. His father referred to him as “the runt of the litter,” and even his name Christopher was shortened to Kit because a short name was more appropriate to his size. Yet, in spite of his underdevelopment, he became a respected leader on whom frontiersmen and soldiers could count. Accordingly, Garst’s book possesses what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called humanity’s universal need for esteem, and it thereby resonates with the reader’s own feelings.

Related to the achievements of Carson is Garst’s emphasis on him as a figure of destiny. Even as a boy, he had half-formed feelings that he was fated to play an important role in history, and like the heroes of myth, he felt the strong pull of his destined quest and the need to complete the pattern of his life. Consequently, the book contains the mythic, although real, motif of the journey, as Carson traveled the Santa Fe Trail. Although challenging tasks abounded as he had to prove his worthiness, he was not alone because mentors such as Broadus the teamster and Kincaid the trapper aided in his education. Passing such tests as the heady chase and killing of buffalo, treks through inhospitable terrain, and battles with hostile tribes, Carson at last achieved heroic dimensions and national fame. In fact, Garst’s glorification of Carson may cause some readers to see the biography as bordering on the monumental and partaking of hero worship.

Another consideration emphasized by Garst is the issue of mutability and its ironic implications. As individuals contemptuous of civilization and its superfluous niceties, frontiersmen such as Carson were nevertheless destroyers of the untamed world that they prized. In their wake came the ranchers and farmers who settled the wild lands of the West by cutting the forests, plowing the prairies, and fencing the open spaces. Thus, despite his love for the wild, free life, the trailblazer was the unconscious instrument of its end. He doomed not only the buffalo and the Native Americans but himself as well.

As early as the 1830’s, Carson realized that changes were afoot on the frontier. Yet, throughout his life, he spurned the civilized world that resulted from his exploits. This conflict in his life between the lure of the streams and mountains and the call of domestic duty in the settlements is a final preoccupation treated in Garst’s biography, particularly during Carson’s marriage to Josepha in the 1840’s and beyond. Several times, Carson tried his hand at ranching, but his activities as scout, soldier, and Indian agent kept him from home. In reading this biography, one is surprised that he and Josepha managed to have four children. In fact, Garst indicates that Carson never really had time to appreciate his family and saw them infrequently.

In detailing Carson’s life, Garst occasionally fictionalizes events in order to heighten the sense of drama. Sometimes she adds dialogue or tells what a character may have thought, but these additions tend to be plausible. Problems do occur in her interpretation, however, when she writes of Carson’s conflicts with various Native American tribes. For example, his campaign in the 1850’s against the Navahos is sanitized because Garst does not describe Carson’s aggressive tactics and the subsequent suffering of the tribe on an inadequate reservation. For a more complete perspective, the reader must turn to such works as Scott O’Dell’s historical novel Sing Down the Moon (1970) or Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1971).