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Bear’s Brother See Thomas Black Bull

Killer Tom Black See Thomas Black Bull

Bessie Black Bull Bessie is Tom’s mother. After her husband runs to the mountains to escape jail, she waits until the middle of the night, then packs up a few items of clothing and utensils, takes her...

(The entire section contains 4464 words.)

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  • Themes
  • Characters
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Bear’s Brother
See Thomas Black Bull

Killer Tom Black
See Thomas Black Bull

Bessie Black Bull
Bessie is Tom’s mother. After her husband runs to the mountains to escape jail, she waits until the middle of the night, then packs up a few items of clothing and utensils, takes her young son, and follows her husband into the wilderness. When her husband dies, she teaches Tom all the old stories and songs of his native culture.

Bessie gathers seeds and berries for food. She also is a basket maker and sells her wares in town in exchange for blankets and winter clothing. During one winter, Bessie becomes sick. When her condition worsens, she tells Tom to “Sing the song for going away.” She dies shortly thereafter.

George Black Bull
George Black Bull is Tom’s father. In the beginning of the story, he gets into trouble for having killed the thief Frank No Deer. Afraid that he would be sent to jail, George tells his wife to follow him; then he runs into the wilderness. In the mountains, George builds a lodge and lives off nature, providing his family with food, shelter, and clothes made from animal skins. One winter while hunting, he is killed in an avalanche.

Little Black Bull
See Thomas Black Bull

Thomas Black Bull
Thomas is the protagonist of the story. He is the son of George and Bessie, who take their son to the wilderness and raise him there until their deaths. Although barely a teenager, Thomas is able to physically provide for himself upon his parents’ deaths. However, he is forced to go to the nearest Indian Service school to learn the ways of the white people.

Thomas spends most of his youth learning what other people think is best for him. In the process, he becomes a man who has little awareness of his own identity. He endures many hardships and abuses along his path to physical maturity and learns to suppress his emotions. Of all his emotions, anger is the first to express itself, and it comes out in deadly bursts of energy. As a rodeo cowboy, he takes out his frustrations on the horses, many of which die in their efforts to throw Thomas off their backs. Thomas does not escape his own wrath, as his body suffers from multiple bone fractures, punctured lungs, and concussions.

When his body reaches the point at which it cannot endure the physical abuse that Thomas’s riding demands, he is subconsciously led back to his emotional source, the wilderness. At first Thomas barely remembers what it felt like to live in nature, but something holds him there. Slowly, as his body heals, so do his mind and his emotions. He learns to reflect on the events of his life, untangle the feelings that he has been hiding, and make decisions that are based on his welfare.

Blue Elk
Blue Elk is a Native American man who makes a living swindling other people, mostly people of his own tribe. His famous line, which is often repeated in defense of others, is “my people do not lie.” Blue Elk, however, lies all the time.

Blue Elk is responsible for George and Bessie Black Bull ending up in the sawmill town of Pagosa. Probably paid off by the sawmill boss, he was responsible for George and Bessie’s owing money to the tribal council for hunting without permits. He then lies to them, promising that if they work for the sawmill, they will soon be out of debt and have plenty of money left over. However, the sawmill owners make sure that George and Bessie stay in constant debt to them so they will never be able to leave.

After George kills Frank No Deer, Blue Elk later lies again, telling them that it was because of him that George no longer is a wanted man. He tells Bessie that she owes him something for this favor. When she refuses to pay him, he steals from her. After Bessie and George die, Blue Elk misleads Tom into believing that the people at the Indian Service school of Ignacio need Tom to teach them the “old ways,” to get him to leave his life in the wilderness and go to the school. For his efforts, Blue Elk receives a few dollars. Later, Blue Elk lies to Tom again to get Tom to take his bear cub off the school grounds and leave the bear in the wilderness. When Blue Elk does not get paid for his efforts, he returns to Tom’s lodge in the woods and steals everything that Tom has left there.

Red Dillon
Red is a former circuit rodeo rider who likes to gamble and swindle people. When he sees Tom ride a horse for the first time, he realizes the potential Tom has for making money at the rodeos. So he takes Tom away from the school and teaches him how to ride at his squatter cabin in New Mexico.

Red sets up bets at each of the rodeo events, telling Tom when to win and when to fake a loss. He does this to increase the odds in his favor and is often run out of town when the bettors discover that they have been swindled. He feeds and clothes Tom but seldom gives him any of their winnings.

As Tom grows older, stronger, and more skilled, he tells Red that he is going to win as many events as he can. Tom had grown tired of losing on purpose. Red, an alcoholic, does not take the news well, and Tom must bail Red out of jail. A few months later, Meo and Tom hear that Red is in the nearby city of Aztec. He is dying. Tom goes to get him, but Red dies in the hotel bed.

Rowena Ellis
Rowena is an English teacher at the Indian Service school. She is in her forties and acts as a surrogate mother to the children who live at the school. Rowena speaks several of the Native languages and is able to communicate with Tom in Ute. She tells him that he must learn the new ways. When Tom returns to the school after having sent the bear back to the wilderness, Rowena suggests that Tom be given a private room. She describes Tom as “an unusual boy, exceptionally reserved and self-sufficient.”

Benny Grayback
Benny is a thirty-year-old Ute who lives at the school. He is a vocational instructor. Benny wears his hair short and dresses in the white man’s style, but he still remembers how to speak his native tongue, so he translates for Tom. Thereafter, Benny tries to condition Tom for his life in the world of white people. In one attempt to discipline Tom, Benny locks Tom in a small room.

Charley Huckleberry
Charley is a council member on the Southern Ute Reservation in Arboles, Colorado. The fact that Charley belongs to the council makes Tom’s mother and father trust that when they go fishing and hunting without the required official permits, they will not get into trouble. However, Blue Elk reports them all to the council, and they are forced to pay a penalty. Since they have no money, they are tempted into going to work at the sawmill. That is how Bessie and George Black Bull end up being trapped in the town of Pagosa, perpetually in debt to the owners of the mill. Charley tried to warn them not to go, but the money they were promised sounded too good.

Albert Left Hand
Albert is the owner of a herd of sheep, and Tom is sent to him as an assistant. Albert is described as a short, fat man who constantly berates Tom for being lazy. It is when Albert takes Tom to Bayfield to sell his sheepskins that Tom meets Red Dillon, who takes him away from the school and into the world of rodeos.

Meo works at Red Dillon’s place. He is an old man by the time Tom meets him, but Meo used to ride in the rodeos. Meo cooks and tends the garden. He also helps Red teach Tom to ride horses. Several years later, when Tom returns to the cabin, he notices that the garden is run over with weeds. He goes into town and discovers that Meo has died.

Frank No Deer
This is a minor character; however, he plays a pivotal role. He often stole money, food, and other things from Tom Black Bull’s father, pushing him to the point of getting into a serious fight in which Frank No Deer ends up dead. It is because of this death that Tom Black Bull’s father, George, runs into the wilderness, with his family eventually following him.

Mary Redmond
Mary is a nurse in the New York hospital where Tom is taken after he suffers a very serious fall during a rodeo in Madison Square Garden. She is described as a plump woman in her thirties who has a strong urge to nurture and take care of people. Mary is single, and it is implied that she would like to take Tom home with her to help him recuperate.

She is a good healer, but Tom suspects that she, like everyone else in his life before, will force him to live his life the way she wants him to, not the way that is best for him. Mary encourages Tom’s healing, but she also tries to thwart his progress in order to keep him dependent on her longer.

Luther Spotted Dog
Luther is Tom’s first roommate at the Indian Service school. He is fourteen and wants to grow up to be like Benny Grayback. Tom and Luther get into many fights, and eventually Tom kicks Luther out of the room they share. Later, Luther joins in with other students to tease Tom, calling him a girl because he is very good at weaving baskets.

Neil Swanson
Neil is a teacher at the Indian Services school. He tries to teach Tom how to farm. When Tom gets into a fight with some of the other students, Neil beats him. This causes Tom to run away. It is through Neil’s efforts, however, that when Tom comes back to school, he learns to ride horses and herd and shear sheep.

Jim Thatcher
Thatcher is a store owner who befriends Bessie and Tom. He tells Bessie not to worry about the sheriff because George is no longer being hunted as a murderer. He also offers Bessie decent prices for her basketry. He is honest and often generous with her. When Tom brings the grizzly bear cub to town, Thatcher stops the other townsmen from shooting it.

Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2663

When the Legends Die is a study of character, focusing on the main character's inner-life. Borland uses part of the Utes' culture to organize his study, using names to indicate the state of the character's spirit. Thus, the main character has several different names, each representing a stage of his spiritual life. At first he is "Little Black Bull," son of George Black Bull and Bessie Black Bull. His parents were raised in the old ways and only reluctantly have accepted a life in the new ways. Only five years old at the outset of the novel, in 1912, Little Black Bull plays among weeds and flowers, and learns by imitating his parents. Following Ute custom, his name is temporary, to be replaced by an adult name when he realizes who he is.

Events of his life conspire to prevent him from self-discovery, making his primary motivation throughout When the Legends Die the discovery of himself. He repeatedly asks himself, "Who am I? Where am I? Where do I belong?" The desire to know where one belongs is an important one for most people, and its working out in When the Legends Die helps to account for its lasting appeal for young adults. For Tom, he will not know where he belongs until he knows who he is.

Blue Elk and a minister, representing the new ways, already have decided who Tom is: they have had him christened "Thomas Black Bull." This name has little meaning for Tom, who sees himself as the son of his father, Little Black Bull. When his parents take him to Horse Mountain, deep in the Colorado wilderness, the new ways seem far away and have little hold on him. When he discovers that he has an affinity for bears, eventually adopting one as a companion, he declares his name to be "Bear's Brother." His father dies in an avalanche soon after they arrive at Horse Mountain, but his mother survives several more years, teaching Tom the old ways. He is very adept at learning from her, even becoming a better basket weaver than she. After her death, his companionship with a bear cub and other wild animals only strengthens his identification as Bear's Brother. This name has deep meaning for him; it defines who he is. This is one reason why he has great difficulty adjusting to school, and it is the source of much of the misery of his life. Eventually, he discovers that he no longer knows who he is, and most of the rest of the novel involves misadventures as he tries to reconcile himself to American culture.

The crisis in identity comes not when he is tricked into coming to the reservation school and held prisoner there, but after he has run away to his lodge on Horse Mountain. There he discovers that the lodge has been looted and burned to the ground. Also while there, he calls for his friend the bear to come to him, but it does not. This results in his deciding that whoever he may be, he is not Bear's Brother. Typical of how he will handle pain during his life, he suppresses his pain: "For small griefs you shout, for big griefs you whisper or say nothing. The big griefs must be borne alone, inside." He sees this as the proper way to deal with sorrow, and later in his life he will see it as a general trait of the Native Americans he knows: "But time after time he had seen an Indian just sort of draw the curtains and retreat, as though he was slipping back into the remote past, into a kind of pride that was all mixed up with hurt and resentment."

At this stage of his development, Tom becomes Thomas, the schoolboy who does as he is told while resenting it all the time. At school, he is teased by some of the other students for his skills at Native American crafts, especially basket weaving. He is even referred to as "she" by other boys, until he beats two of them up at the same time, unleashing an intimidating ferocity that increases his isolation because the other boys learn to stay away from him. Boys such as Luther Spotted Dog regard him with some scorn because he does not embrace the new ways as they have and yields only grudgingly to the rules. In submitting to the dictates of his teachers and the agent, he buries his anger in himself, expressing it only in sullen behavior and a passive resistance to activities his upbringing has taught him to regard as unnatural, such as plowing a field for planting: "When you plowed up the grass you were making the earth into something it did not want to be." He expresses his view of his status when he tells his bear to go away and leave him: "Go, or they will kill you. They do not need guns to kill. They kill without guns." His identity as Bear's Brother is dead, and with its death comes a spiritual death; he no longer knows who he is, and the name "Thomas," not of his choosing, is as good as any.

He finds some solace in leather working and caring for horses, both of which are eventually denied him by the school administration, which wants to mold him into a new Indian and to have him learn to farm or to care for sheep. He is terrible at farming but is a passable shepherd. A trip to the town of Bayfield introduces new elements to his life: ambition and a trade that he can master. When he looks in a store window he sees a saddle that he much admires, and he sees with it a bridle he himself has made, with a pattern he has invented. At that moment he wishes to earn enough money to buy the saddle, and he wishes to profit from his own work rather than having someone else—in this case, his school—profit from it. This ambition provides him with a new motivation in life and makes him ripe for Red Dillon, a master of scams.

Under the instruction of Dillon, Tom learns to become someone new, neither Bear's Brother nor Thomas Black Bull, although he remains Thomas Black Bull for awhile. From Dillon, he learns how to ride broncos, as well as the ins and outs of rodeo competition, but he also learns how to take falls and to run gambling scams. His ambition to earn for himself, to be his own person, puts him at odds with Dillon, and he eventually breaks free, insisting that he will ride to win. About eighteen, perhaps nineteen, years old, he buys new clothes, has a haircut, and changes his image from unkempt Indian boy to confident, handsome man: "He was no longer a boy. He was a man," he observes. He becomes Thomas Black, rodeo cowboy and champion.

He chooses to take charge of his life, noting that "You have to ride your own furies," no one can do it for you. And he struggles with terrible inner furies: "They [memories] were like scars. You looked at them and remembered old hurts that had healed over." The anger distracts him; he begins losing his skills on the broncos. Then he remembers something Dillon told him: to focus on the horse, not on the other details of the rodeo such as glamour and popularity. He does this "and rode with cold and ruthless fury."

His identity changes again, but it is a change of choice—he chooses a way to deal with his wrath. This way is to ignore winning points to win championships; the championships become almost irrelevant. Instead, he focuses on the horse, making it all that he hates, and he rides to master the horse, to make it submit to him. In doing so, he often breaks rodeo rules, gouging the horse with his spurs, biting its ears, doing what it takes to madden the horse into a supreme effort to buck him off. He becomes legendary over many years of performing; when youngsters ask old hands what championships Tom has won, the reaction is one of disdain—Tom was beyond championships, he was almost a force of nature. In this new incarnation, he becomes "Killer Tom Black" or "Devil Tom Black," a man who has ridden several broncos to death at rodeos and who has broken the spirits of many others, ruining them for rodeo competitions. From one rodeo to the next, he tries to kill the memories of his past, particularly people in his past who separated him from himself. He becomes a celebrated rider, but a feared one; a legend whose name is spoken with respect.

He is a "dark-souled hero." After many years on the rodeo circuit he has become a bitter man, with no kind words for anyone. When in the hospital after his most damaging injuries, he stubbornly insists on pushing himself to heal faster than his doctor thinks is wise. Curt to the nurses who help him, he responds positively only to Mary Redmond, the therapist who massages his legs and the nurse who spends the most time with him, and she seems to come close to breaking down his reserve. But her solicitous kindness reminds Tom only of others who tried to control his life, sometimes supposedly out of kindness like his school teachers, sometimes for personal gain like Dillon. Her effort to put him in a convalescent home where she can visit him, or even to have him stay with her while he continues to heal seems to Killer Tom Black like the efforts of too many others to make him be someone he is not.

His return to Colorado is a way to escape from Redmond and is part of his strategy for recuperating and then returning to the rodeo circuit. He still has memories to kill. It is in Colorado that his youth returns to him, but in surprising ways. He sees Luther Spotted Dog sitting like a derelict in a street; the schoolboy who tormented him seems no threat at all, and Tom's wealth and success set him apart from that aspect of his past. He also rediscovers an affinity for the wilderness; when he takes a job caring for sheep on the slopes of Bald Mountain, he finds himself slipping into patterns he learned as a child, even bathing in a cold pool early in the morning. Old songs come back to him in snatches, as he remembers how he experienced the wilderness when all he knew were the old ways. Even while he concentrates on his plans for returning to the rodeo, he plainly is undergoing another transformation.

The scene in which he chases after a bear and, unarmed, yells at it, is an ironic one, for Tom does not realize what the novel's audience likely recognizes—that he is repeating a scene from the reservation school, when unarmed he yelled at his pet bear and told it to go away. Borland adroitly turns this episode into the beginning of Tom's final journey to his identity. After tracking the bear down, a bear that is almost certainly his pet from years before, Tom breaks down, unable to kill it. Later, he realizes that had he killed the bear, he would have committed suicide. The episode with the deer meat that goes foul is a reminder of how wasteful he has become; as a successful rodeo cowboy he spent money freely, saving little. In the wilderness, he brings the wastefulness of the new ways with him. Between the deer and the bear, Tom realizes that he has missed an important aspect of his existence, that he has never been a whole man. In a vision he sees a woman, the All- Mother, saying: "He is my son." The All- Mother is the sum of his mother and all the mothers before her, back to the first one; she is a reminder of how he once was connected to the Utes by customs that represented generations of cultural experience. This moment of catharsis, a cleansing of his spirit in which his hatreds are washed away, as if he were bathing in an icy pool, transforms him. He learns who he is, a man able to live at peace with both the old ways and the new ways. Borland takes pains to make it clear that Tom does not reject modern America, that he instead comes to understand himself as a modern man as well as a man of the old ways: "He was Tom Black Bull, a man who knew and was proud of his own inheritance, who had come to the end of his long hunt."

Although the focus of When the Legends Die is always tightly on Tom and his inner life, the secondary characters of the novel are exemplary creations. No one is a caricature; no one is one-dimensional. For example, Blue Elk, who could easily be portrayed as a pure villain because of how he often betrays his own people, is given depth by his indecisiveness, by his thoughts that the old ways have much merit. He earns his living through scams, but he stoutly defends his Ute culture from criticism, often insisting that "My people do not lie." He is even halfway convinced that he is doing Tom good—that Tom needs to learn the new ways if he is to survive. In him, as in Tom, the old ways survive, with snatches of song and old customs just beneath the surface of his personality.

Even cruel characters have their redeeming qualities. Those who run Tom's school are sure that he needs to learn from them; they misunderstand him, but they do not hate him. Red Dillon, alcoholic scam artist, is a sad man who sees in Tom an opportunity finally to earn enough money to live a good life; he bullies Tom into doing what he wants, but he is not truly abusive. Dillon's simple trust in Meo, who loots Dillon's pockets every time he sleeps off a drunk at home, reveals a man in need of care—he even seems to be aware of the need, never rebuking Meo, who saves the money. Dillon's death is pathetic, an alcoholic dying of the diseases caused by his abuse of alcohol, and it serves to reveal that there is compassion somewhere in Tom, who sees to it that Dillon's remains are properly, respectfully dealt with.

Mary Redmond may be the most complex secondary character in When the Legends Die. Her conversation with Tom hints at a lifetime of attaching herself to cold men, perhaps accounting for her effort to attach herself to Tom. She has her own furies to conquer, and Tom may be right to believe that she wishes to control him the way Dillon and others have. He dominates horses; it is possible she would like to dominate him. Even so, these are impulses of which she seems barely aware; she is a devoted nurse who sees her passion for her work as a devotion to healing rather than a way of suppressing her past hurts. Perhaps she is an example of a positive way for an adult to deal with almost crippling childhood wounds, a contrast to Tom's legendary cruelty. Tom goes to Colorado as much to escape her as to follow his doctor's suggestion, but notably he still ends up submitting to a woman, the All-Mother. All his life he has ignored women except for his mother; he is handsome and women take note of him, but his heart has been closed to them. Redmond seems to loosen the doors to his heart a little, and the All-Mother seems to penetrate deep into his heart. The "mothering" opens him to a realm of experience that is important for his becoming a full man, the man Tom Black Bull.

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