The Manly-Hearted Woman

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

With the publication of The Manly-Hearted Woman, Frederick Manfred has returned to the world of the Plains Indians before the arrival in force of the white man, first depicted in his novel Conquering Horse (1959). Like that novel, and intended to be read as the first of his five-novel Buckskin Man series, The Manly-Hearted Woman describes the coming of age of a Yankton Dakota brave. It has some of the familiar strengths of Manfred’s previous writing: a sharply defined sense of place, vivid appeals to the senses, and a profound sense of sympathy for his protagonists. It lacks, until the concluding battle scene, the striking depictions of action which are found in his other books: the fights with the white stallion in Conquering Horse, with the bear in Lord Grizzly, and with the puma in Scarlet Plume. It also lacks the suspense of Manfred’s other books, perhaps because the author is attempting for the first time to achieve a psychological density in describing an Indian woman.

A relatively slight novel in terms of length, The Manly-Hearted Woman turns around the dramatic encounter of two comparative outcasts from sister tribes, each of whom might be described as the protagonist. The title character is one seldom if ever encountered in fiction about American Indians: a female bisexual. Having had two husbands, Manly Heart declares herself a man of the tribe; this declaration is accepted and Manly Heart is given Prettyhead as a “wife.” Into their village and their lives then comes a young Yankton Dakota named Flat Warclub; he, though scorned in his own village for reasons not entirely clear, has been assured in a vision that his destiny is to die heroically in battle with the Omahas, who have ursurped his tribe’s buffalo hunting ground.

There are technical problems of no small magnitude for a modern white American author who writes about an essentially vanished primitive culture. Not the least of these is character motivation. The Indians were animists, and as such intense symbolists; living in nature, as they did, and not merely close to it, every storm and sunset, every curled snake and darting lizard, was potentially a sign of divine favor or discontent. The problem for a modern writer and for his modern readers, who presumably do not share these beliefs, any more than they “believe” the Greek myths or the Icelandic eddas, is to bridge the distance between the characters’ actions and the beliefs that prompt those actions. The actions are usually comprehensible to us—they may involve ritual mortification of the flesh to show sorrow or formal apologies to a deer one has just shot. The beliefs which prompt the actions are so distant from our industrial urban society, resting as they do on a mystical union with nature, that the modern reader is more likely to feel the curiosity of an anthropologist, observing strange customs and mores, than he is to feel intensely about the characters involved.

Manfred attempts—successfully, for the most part—to bridge the gap for us between a character’s beliefs and his actions by entering into his mind and recounting the dialogues he has with his “helper.” Each Indian brave had a helper, some object that was secret to everyone else; for Flat Warclub it was a piece of stone fallen from the heavens, still warm when he found it. The helper is “wakan,” or magic, an intermediary between the observed, tangible world, and that of the spirit. As it is represented in the novel, the helper talks to its owner, advises him, warns him, and interprets the actions and motivations of others for him. It might be said to be the equivalent of the devout Christian’s conscience or of the artist’s muse. In terms of the art of fictional narrative, the helper serves to explain what a character thinks and why he does what he does; it is useful for spiritual and psychological development in a way that is not available to other kinds of realistic fiction.

Because she has become in effect a man, Manly Heart also has a helper, a triangular piece of rock which she calls Point from the Clouds, a fit mate for Flat Warclub’s helper, called Stone from the Clouds. Too many helpers may spoil the book, especially when we learn that the helpers get together, independent of their owners, to discuss mutual problems of interest. At any rate, Manly Heart, Prettyhead, and Flat Warclub are soon engaged in a peculiar, not-quite-fulfilled ménage à trois: because Flat Warclub is going to die for the village, after killing (according to his helper) seven of the enemy braves, he has requested and been granted the right to “talk” with any of the village maidens he chooses. This privilege corresponds nicely with a problem that has been worrying Manly Heart since Prettyhead came to live with her, a matter of weeks: how will they have children? The solution is obvious: invite Flat Warclub to “talk” with Prettyhead. The consummation is realized, at which time the watching Manly Heart realizes that she is indeed a woman, not a man, and offers herself to the spent Flat Warclub. He rejects her out of both decorum and fatigue, but later sees as he dies that she was more...

(The entire section is 2130 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

America. CXXXV, November 13, 1976, p. 332.

Booklist. LXXII, January 15, 1976, p. 667.

Library Journal. CI, February 15, 1976, p. 636.

New York Times Book Review. May 23, 1976, p. 38.