Essays and Criticism
The Mother Figure in Borland's Novel
Borland’s When the Legends Die is mostly a man’s story, in that the main focus of the novel is on the development of a young boy into manhood, and, in the process of his growth, the main voices heard are masculine. However, there are minor female characters. The least significant of these female roles are the flirtatious young women or prostitutes who are used mainly to indicate to Thomas that he has emerged from puberty. More noteworthy are four more prominent women who represent various aspects of mother figures. Each of these four women appears in a well-defined and separate time frame and reflects the various stages of maturity as the protagonist Thomas Black Bull progresses from youth to full adulthood.
The first chapter of When the Legends Die is titled “Bessie,” referring to the biological mother of Thomas Black Bull. Bessie is a strong woman. She is also a Native American who is familiar with the traditional ways of her tribe. Although she has adjusted to reservation life, as well as to life in a small white community, she is capable of selfsufficient living in the wilderness. Bessie raises Thomas in his earliest years in an environment that is affected by a mixture of Native American culture and white society. However, when Thomas’s father gets into trouble with the law, Bessie teaches Thomas how to live in nature without the benefit of relying on others to provide him with the rudimentary elements of physical survival, such as food and warmth, or without the more light-hearted enjoyment of psychological pleasures, such as social education and entertainment. Thus Thomas learns to hunt and gather wild berries in order to satisfy his hunger, to build a protective lodge and maintain a fire to endure the bitter cold, to memorize the ritual songs and stories of his ancestors to improve his mind, and to make friends with the animals to provide a sense of kinship.
Bessie nurtures Thomas both physically and emotionally. She creates his foundation. By teaching him to survive in nature, she has given him a home to which he can always return. Bessie has also provided Thomas with a history, a connection to the past. Through the songs and the stories that she teaches him, Bessie provides Thomas with roots that give him a sense of self. Thomas’s mother also teaches Thomas respect for life. Through her, Thomas learns to honor the plants and animals that provide him with nourishment. To waste life frivolously, Bessie shows him, is the worst crime of all. Bessie is his birth mother. She establishes in Thomas a sense of self, his first identity.
Unfortunately for Thomas, Bessie dies while he is still very young. Although he is more capable of taking care of himself than most young people his age, the elders who live in the social communities around Thomas believe that the young boy needs guidance. Whether it is because the men do not themselves know how to survive in the Frederic Forrest (front) as Tom Black Bull and Richard Widmark as Red Dillon in the 1972 film adaptation of When the Legends Die wilderness or because they want the boy to conform to the society in which they live, the men conspire to take Thomas from his wilderness home and bring him back to the enclave dominated by white society. Although Thomas is self-sufficient, he is not physically strong enough to rebel against these men, nor is he savvy enough to understand their motives. With his mother gone, Thomas has no one to explain these new developments to him. So he is cast into a world of men who want to socialize and baptize him, as well as to capitalize on him. Thomas is taken to a school organized by white people to educate, and thus control, the native population. He is tricked into coming to this school by Blue Elk, a fellow Ute tribesman, who tells Thomas that the children and other people at the school need and want to learn the traditional ways that Thomas’s mother taught him. When Thomas arrives at the school, of course he discovers that this is not true. The school is there solely to teach Native American children how to exist in white society. Thomas’s anger explodes in fistfights with anyone who comes near him. His world has been quickly transposed from one of balance and mutual respect to one of aggression and common distrust. On a symbolic level, he is taken from the feminine and forced into the masculine.
The world of the school is not devoid of women. There is one teacher, Rowena Ellis, who is Thomas’s English teacher. She is one of the few people at the school who speaks Thomas’s native language. Rowena, the narrator states, is also the supervisor of the girls’ dormitory. She is described as unmarried, gray-haired, plump, and in her forties, and she represents an “unofficial mother to every shy, homesick boy and girl in the school.” In other words, Rowena is the universal surrogate mother. Her full figure and gray hair even push her into the realm of grandmother, a sort of double-cast mother figure.
Connecting Rowena more strongly to a mother figure, Borland, in one of the first few words that Rowena and Thomas share, has Rowena encouraging Thomas to learn English by saying, “Your mother would tell you to learn these things.” A few sentences later, Rowena asks Thomas to tell her about his mother. During a conference with some of Thomas’s other teachers, Rowena is the only one who acknowledges Thomas’s emotions. While the men see a defiant child, Rowena tells them that Thomas is doing well, learning more than he lets on. She also tells them that he is an “unhappy boy and hard to reach, but he learns fast.”
Thomas rebels even more drastically, and eventually he runs away from the school. Once he...
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