In The Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems 1961-1991 Characters

N. Scott Momaday


The middle two sections, "The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid" and "In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields," focus on two disparate aspects of the American West: the legend of Billy the Kid and the material folklore behind the highly-decorated plains shields.

The Billy the Kid collection contains both poems and short stories In the preface "A Word on Billy the Kid." Momaday establishes the physical reality of the famous outlaw: his date and place of birth, family, aliases; he also establishes the facts regarding Sister Blandina, who met Billy the Kid twice in his lifetime. However, Momaday announces his caveat: "All else of what follows is imagined; nonetheless, it is so." What follows, then, are Momaday's adult versions of the stories that he heard as a boy living in Jemez, the stories he told himself about riding along with Billy the Kid. Yet the epigraph, a couplet, indicates that the other characters in his rhyme are "Death and Death's dog, Time." Clearly, this is more than Momaday's walk through memory lane, and Billy the Kid is more than fodder for a boy's fantasies.

Throughout the collection the narrator's identity is fluid: white, Native American, Westerner, hero, observer — as fluid as Momaday's own identity. And his exploration of Billy the Kid is equally probing yet mysterious. For example in "The Man in Black," Momaday gives a detailed physical description of Billy the Kid. His black clothing might have been dramatic or ominous; instead it pointed out a sense of somberness, "as if the Angel of Death had long ago found out his name." Beyond his teeth or lips or eyes, he struck the narrator as being a creature of instinct, of survival, like a shark. This description of Billy the Kid is not atypical of an outlaw or criminal.

But Momaday's exploration of Billy the Kid does not leave us with a stereotypical Western outlaw. In the poem "He Reckons Geologic Time According to His Sign," he records a moment when Billy the Kid discovers a fossil fish embedded in rock and ponders upon the significance of an existence...

(The entire section is 854 words.)