The Mother Figure in Borland's Novel

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2328

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...

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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 arrives at his old lodge in the mountains, he discovers that Blue Elk has burnt his place to the ground. All that remains of Thomas’s past is ashes. He returns to the school resigned to his fate in the world of white people. Upon reentering Rowena’s class, she notices a change in him and praises his determination to learn the language of the white people. It is through Rowena that Thomas is given the most important tool in dealing with the new world around him. As his mother taught him how to “talk” with nature, Rowena teaches him how to talk with the society that has taken over his world. She has given him the skills that allow him to communicate with the men who will soon introduce him to yet another world. Whereas Bessie introduces Thomas to the natural world and to the world of his ancestors, Rowena prepares Thomas to enter into the social world and into the world of the dominant culture.

Thomas next enters the rodeo world, a place that his mother, Bessie, would be diametrically opposed to. In this world, not only does Thomas learn to cheat and swindle, he becomes very abusive toward animals. His actions go against the natural world. The horses he rides are not naturally mean or wild; they are frustrated and hurt. They harbor feelings similar to the ones that stew inside of Thomas. His mother taught Thomas to love and respect the natural world, but the rodeo, as well as the cattle industry behind it, is about money, oppression, and greed. This is a mean world, and Thomas is forced to leave it a broken man.

At the end of his career as a bronco rider, Thomas suffers a terrible accident. He wakes up in a hospital under the care of the nurse Mary Redmond, who becomes the third mother figure. Mary is also plump, as was Rowena, a description that Borland uses to imply a motherly figure. Her personality is bubbly and her first impulse upon Thomas’s regaining consciousness is to get him to eat, a typically maternal act. Mary is a healer. She helps Thomas regain the feelings in his body. She massages his limbs, encouraging the flow of blood. Symbolically, Mary attempts to restore Thomas’s humanity. Thomas has become numb in more ways than just physically. His emotions, like his body, have been stomped on, kicked, bruised, and battered. The more cheerful Mary is, the more despondent Thomas becomes. He resents her because she makes him aware of his need for her. He cannot eat unless she brings him food. He cannot clean himself. He cannot get out of bed unless she helps him.

Although Borland portrays Mary as a mother figure, he also hints that she has something else on her mind. Mary is a caretaker, but she would like to have Thomas need her so much that he will come home with her when he is well enough to leave the hospital. This makes Mary a type of crossover female figure. She is both mother and temptress, mother and potential lover. However, Thomas is not attracted to her. He is forced to accept her help as a healer, but he feels suffocated by her need for a lover. Thomas deals with Mary only on the mother level, but even that gets old, as Mary, unlike Thomas’s real mother, does not encourage him to be strong. Mary would rather that Thomas remain dependent upon her. She believes that this is the only way she can keep a man. So, once again, Thomas rebels. He quickly moves beyond the parameters that Mary sets for him and heals himself on a schedule that is more efficient, more to his own liking. As soon as he is capable of walking, he leaves the hospital and Mary and, without knowing why, heads home to the place where he last saw his real mother.

Thomas goes back to the wilderness. He thinks he is going there to recuperate from the physical beatings he has endured while working the rodeo circuit. His plan is to find an easy way to earn a living that allows him to be outdoors. By coincidence, he meets a man who needs a sheepherder, and Thomas takes the job. One day while tending the sheep, a grizzly bear attacks and carries away one of the lambs. This angers Thomas, who feels that the bear has personally stolen something from him. Shortly thereafter, Thomas seeks revenge.

As if having completely forgotten everything about his childhood, even the close relationship that Thomas had with a grizzly cub when he himself was a child, Thomas hides and waits for the bear’s return. Thomas has a rifle in his hands and the bear’s death on his mind. At this point, Thomas still believes that he is in the mountains only to heal himself so that he will be strong enough to return to bronco riding. His mind remains in a fog, not knowing for sure who he is and not caring to find out.

While awaiting the bear, Thomas falls asleep but is awakened by an awareness of another being’s presence. At first he thinks it is the bear, but it is not. What Thomas sees is a woman. He cannot see her clearly, “but he knew, something deep inside him knew, who she was. She was the mother, not his own mother but the All-Mother, the mothers and the grandmothers all the way back to beginning.” This mirage of woman, this archetype of motherhood, begins to chant, much like Thomas’s real mother had done. Thomas chants, too. Then he recognizes the chant. It is the bear chant, and that is when he sees the bear.

While chanting, Thomas tries to shoot the bear, but he cannot. Every time he tries, he asks himself, why? Why does he feel this need to kill the bear? When he finally realizes that it is not the bear that he wants to kill, he, through this vision of the All- Mother, knows that he must go on a vision quest. He has questions that must be answered, and only through the traditional ways that his mother has taught him will he know how to answer them.

Thomas goes on a fast. He climbs to the top of a mountain and settles himself in a cave, where, out of hunger, thirst, and fatigue, he has several dreams. In one of them, he tells himself that he has forgotten who he is. He also admits that what he has been trying to kill is not the bear but rather his past. Before the dream ends, the mountain asks Thomas who he is. Thomas is incapable of answering. That is when he hears a voice. It is the voice of the All-Mother, who tells the mountain, “He is my son.”

Thus, the journey of Thomas is complete. Although throughout the story Thomas’s biological mother is not there to guide him, Borland creates other mother figures to nurture Thomas during his passage from boyhood to maturity. Each mother has a specific goal. Each goal, when reached, teaches Thomas something new about the world and about himself. The mother figures give Thomas skills to deal with life. They also give him reasons to reflect on the meaning of his life. In the end, Borland sums up all the mothers by creating a spiritual figurehead. She, the All-Mother, is the one who brings Thomas back to himself. She makes him feel at home. It is through the All-Mother that Thomas is able to reclaim not only his childhood but his heritage and his culture, everything that his real mother had presented to him, everything that all the mother figures along his path have taught him.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on When the Legends Die, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003. Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing and writes primarily on literary themes.

When the Legends Die: A Point beyond Culture

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2767

Hal Borland’s novel When the Legends Die vividly portrays the evolution and resolution of an identity crisis. The protagonist Tom Black Bull, a Ute Indian, finds himself caught between the old Ute culture and that of white America seeking the assimilation of Indians. Tom undergoes a somewhat circular metamorphosis by moving from a child’s notion of his identity as a Ute, to a repression of that identity as a survival response, and ultimately to a reaffirmation of his Indian heritage.

Although Edward T. Hall’s Beyond Culture is not a literary explication of Borland’s novel, at the crux of Tom’s identity crisis lurk several covert elements of culture as described in Hall’s book, which expose an array of these universal, cultural elements. In what might serve as a thesis statement, Hall writes, “Beneath this clearly perceived, highly explicit surface culture there lies a whole other world which when understood will ultimately radically change our view of human nature.” This “other world” is so subtly interwoven into cultural fabrics that its discovery necessitates a treacherous journey into the nether regions of Freudianism, sociology, and biology. Being so integrally founded upon these elements of this other world, cultures have paradoxically become blind to their forceful presences.

The more notable subsurface forces impacting Borland’s protagonist concern what Hall defines as synchronous movement in monochronic and polychronic time systems, bureaucratic irrationality, cultural bases of education, and the cultural identification syndrome. These forces exert tremendous tensions against Tom, who must in response ask the ageless question, “who am I” or, as Hall might put it, “to what should I attend.”

In order to point out the tension inherent in Tom’s identity crisis, we must first come to a basic, elementary understanding of the old Ute cultural concept of time which Hall describe’s as polychronic. A polychronic time system is not linear, segmented, or dependent on rigid adherence to arbitrarily set schedules and is characterized by many things happening at once. Such a system is demonstrated when a group of Utes, including Tom’s family, leaves the reservation and the confines of the cornfields to fish and hunt:

They stayed there a week. Then they went up the river another day and found a place where there were more berries, more fish. And the men killed two fat deer which had come down to the river to drink. The venison tasted good after so much fish, and the women told the men to go up on Horse Mountain and get more deer and they would dry it, the old way, for winter. There were many deer on Horse Mountain and they made much meat. Nobody remembered how long they were there because it didn’t matter. When they had made meat for the winter, they said, and had smoked fish and dried berries for the winter, they would go back to the reservation.

In this context, the activity and inter action, not time, are valued.

The Ute culture’s notion of time and one’s part in nature can be further explored in “the roundnessof- life” motif, a key cultural gestalt. Nature is cyclical as demonstrated in the rhythms of day and night, seasonal changes, birth and death, the regular “path of the stars,” lunar phases, etc. Such contextual rhythms serve as the basis of the Utes’ concept of time continuance and determine collective tribal activities and perception. Being in sync with this system is viewed with more importance than that given it by the white culture. The Utes are not as far removed or extended from their immediate dependence on nature by the implements of progress which demands that the tribal members not only act in sync with one another but with the cosmic clock of nature as well.

Borland demonstrates this synchronization symbolically in the guise of the Ute chants. The chant seems to be a microcosmic interaction of the Indians’ culture, personality, intellect, and even intuition with the mystical forces and laws of nature. Trivial as well as monumental occurrences are experienced within the “magic” of the chants. For example, after Tom, his mother Bessie, and his father George escape from the sawmill, George, using a bow and arrows, goes on an unsuccessful deer hunt. Bessie reminds him that they had not sung the deer chant. After singing the chant the following afternoon, George kills a doe. The chant, then, seems to be a key in affecting a union with an underlying harmony and subsequently to invoking providence.

Additionally, the Indians’ perception of one’s part in the “roundness of life” and this underlying harmony is much like the Bergsonian intuitional view of duration or “stream of life.” This is at least implied in Borland’s use of Bessie’s metaphorical explanation of the chipmunk stripes:

These stripes, she said, were the paths from its eyes, with which it sees now and tomorrow, to its tail, which is always behind it and a part of yesterday . . . They are the ties that bind man to his own being, his small part of the roundness.

In contrast to the polychronic time system in the “roundness of life” as perceived by the Utes, the American white culture into which Tom is forced mainly functions according to what Hall labels as monochronic or M-time. Ruled by metaphors of saving, spending, wasting, running out of, and making up time, M-time systems implement and religiously adhere to rigid schedules which have as side effects segmentation and narrower perceptions. Hall explains:

M-time can alienate us from ourselves and deny us the experience of context in the wider sense. That is M-time narrows one’s view of events in much the same way as looking through a cardboard tube narrows vision, and it influences subtly and in depth how we think—in segmented compartments

Such a time system is not necessarily conducive to personal creativity and biorhythms, for at the core of M-time is scheduled attendance to one thing at a time as exemplified by the schedule and curriculum at the reservation school. The window to which Tom withdraws from class participation graphically symbolizes the narrowness and segmentation. In this case, the institution literally “boxes him in.”

Tom’s first memorable introduction into the cultural paradigm of American white bureaucracy is initiated by the well-meaning preacher who discovers that the boy he once christened as Tom Black Bull is now living in the old Ute fashion as Bear’s Brother. Fulfilling what he interprets as his Christian duty, the preacher pays Blue Elk to take the boy to the reservation school, a prime exemplar of what Hall designates as institutional irrationality.

Hall views institutions as self-serving in order to nourish their own existences: “Established to serve mankind, the service function is soon forgotten, while bureaucratic functions and survival take over.” For Tom, the reservation system is inherently evil in that its purpose is primarily to imprison, conditionally modify, and assimilate the Indians—all for the good of the white culture. If in this context Hall’s thesis concerning bureaucratic irrationality is given credibility, one can then deduce that the reservation’s bureaucratic survival is maintained even to some degree at the expense of the service it is to yield the white culture. To compound the matter, the bureaucracy is inherently more sensitive to the goals of white culture than to the Utes. Hence, the Indians are doubly jeopardized.

Tom’s best interests are interpreted within the perspective of the institution; he is “served” whether he shares in this point of view or not for the bureaucracy “knows best” and must control. In the chapter “Cultural and Primate Bases of Education,” Hall writes the following bias:

Another guiding principle is that the American system of education is assumed to be the best in the world and equally applicable to all people and must therefore be imposed upon them . . . without regard to their own culture.

This principle is stereotypically mandated by the Indian agent’s judgmental sentencing when he orders, “He (Tom) will go to school here and learn the things he should know.” Tom reconciled to such imposition with the archetypical lament, “I do not need these things.”

The methodology and curriculum at the school seem to support Hall’s notion that America’s educational system is over-structured, is basically geared to teach who is boss, and limits man’s innate need for physical activity with “sacred” schedules and confinement to desks. Tom is forced into a cultural context much in the same manner that a square peg is whittled to fit a round hole. He is imprisoned in the dormitory, corporally punished, mocked by peers, forced to forsake his pet bear whom he considers a brother, and robbed of his possessions by Blue Elk, who loots and burns his lodge.

Furthermore, nature and Tom’s mother are replaced as instructors by Indian teachers already acclimated to the expectations of the culture and the institution. The curriculum emphasizing nature, practical arts, and the “roundness of life” is usurped by the school’s highly compartmentalized three R’s: woodworking, sheep herding, and basketweaving. In the different cultural paradigm, new aspects demand Tom’s attention; and intelligence is judged primarily in regard to how well and exhaustively that attention was given.

Regarding methodology, Hall believes that one of the primate bases of education is that man is a “playing animal” but that many educational practices contradict and frustrate this basic nature. Ironically, Tom, while playing yet breaking the school rules against riding the unbroken horses in the herd, gains the skills of what later is to be his occupational “claim to fame” as a rodeo bronco rider. The acquisition of these skills makes leaving the reservation system possible.

Borland uses Luther Spotted Dog, who remains in the system, as an example of the product or output of the reservation school. Upon returning to Pagosa to recuperate after his rodeo accident, Tom finds Luther, his one-time roommate, sitting on the curb and looking like a “skid-row character.” The contrast between Tom and Luther seems to echo Hall’s premise that education is “. . . a game in which there are winners and losers, and the game has little relevance to either the outside world or to the subject being taught.” The conclusion drawn from the contrast is perhaps that by eventually leaving the school via Red Dillon’s greedy intent to use Tom in the rodeo circuit in gambling schemes Tom achieves more “success” than did Luther, who remained. Such is Borland’s comment on what Hall deems as bureaucratic irrationality.

As previously noted, Tom’s transition from the Ute culture is abruptly violent. In the new environment Tom eventually denies his inner-being nurtured by the Ute cultural heritage, for only in the denial and disassociation does he find a tolerable degree of ease from tensions inherent in the change of cultural context. Upon returning to the school after having escaped only to find his lodge looted and destroyed, Tom begins to conform by cutting his braids, wearing the school uniform, uninterestedly attending classes, and perhaps most significantly speaking only English.

Yet, Tom’s ultimate submission occurs after he must, in order to save it from being shot, drive off his bear when it returns to the school after hibernation. The bear by this point has become a symbol of Tom’s Ute identity:

The boy backed away. “I do not know you!” he cried. “You are no longer my brother. I have no brother! I have no friends!”

“Go away,” the boy said. “Go or they will kill you. They do not need guns to kill . . .”

Triggered by the repression and denial, Tom enters Hall’s cultural identification syndrome. Hall writes:

Part of the frustration can be traced to anger at oneself for not being able to cope with a dissociated aspect of one’s personality and at the same time to defeat from being denied the experience of an important part of the self.

Being denied his Ute way of life and disassociating himself from the behavior patterns implicit in that life style prompt Tom’s frustration. From the rhythms of the “roundness of life,” Blue Elk betrays him into the structure of the reservation system where Tom’s denial of his heritage begins as a response to the tension exerted by being between cultures. The denial continues as Tom tries Red Dillon’s way in the rodeo circuit within which Tom’s life settles into the pattern or segmentation of hopping from one town to the next, from one gambling spoof to another—all the while with Red being the boss. But perhaps the denial deepened when Tom rebels and leaves Red to become the legendary Killer Tom Black, the killer of rodeo horses.

The horses become symbols for all the hurts Tom had experienced at the hands of Blue Elk, Red Dillon, and school personnel such as Benny Grayback, Neil Swanson, and Rowena Ellis. To the amazement but sadistic thrill of the crowd, he rides the horses to their deaths to be the boss over all the memories he sought to kill. Tom’s mania is symptomatic of the identification syndrome in that he views the loss of self as purposed by forces or personalities outside himself. The most intense segment of his daily life is the ten-second mastery over the horse. This is monochronic time fragmentation and narrowness of perspective epitomized to the point of mania.

Still, Tom can not totally deny his Ute heritage. During his recuperation on Horse Mountain, Tom finally confronts the grizzly which had once been his pet. Here he plans the ultimate denial of his heritage by killing the bear symbolizing the old Ute ways. Yet, when the “moment of truth” comes, Tom can not kill the bear; instead comes the reaffirmation of his heritage:

He closed his eyes, fighting with himself. I came to kill the bear! His throbbing pulse asked, Why? He answered, I must! And again his pulse beat, Why? He answered, To be myself: And the pulse asked, Who . . . are . . . you? He had no answer. The pulse kept beating the question at him. Angrily he said, This bear has made trouble: The question beat back, To . . . whom? And his own bitter answer, To me! Then the question, as before, Who . . . are . . . you? (italics in original) And he, having no answer he could face, said, whispering the words aloud, “This bear did not make trouble. The trouble is in me.” And he lowered the rifle

. Upon realizing that the trouble is in himself, Tom takes the first step in resolving the identity crisis. In the chronology following this insight, Tom subjects himself to various Ute rituals for purification. Finally in the last of a series of dreams, he rediscovers his part in the roundness. The All-Mother, symbolizing not only all the mothers in Ute history but nature as well, claims Tom as her son.

By understanding himself, he can now understand and accept others. Hall writes:

The paradoxical part of the identification syndrome is that until it has been resolved there can be no friendship and no love—only hate. Until we can allow others to be themselves, and others to be free, it is impossible to truly love another human being; neurotic and dependent love is, perhaps possible, but not genuine love, which can be generated only in the self.

This explains why Tom cannot accept Mary Redmond’s friendship offered before his reaffirmation of himself as a Ute and viewed as another form of entrapment. After this reaffirmation, Tom plans a return to Pagosa to learn what happened to Blue Elk and what motivated his betrayal of the Utes. Tom also wants to visit the reservation school and try to understand the system. However, he has no need to return to the rodeo arena because the legendary Killer Tom Black was no more; the person rediscovered on Horse Mountain is Tom Black Bull, a Ute.

In summation, reading Hall’s Beyond Culture as a companion book to Borland’s When the Legends Die reveals cultural axioms that provide some explanation as to the causes and resolution of Tom’s identity crisis which to some extent can be a paradigm. In Hall’s exposure of monochronic and polychronic time systems, bureaucratic irrationality, the cultural bases of education, and the cultural identification syndrome is found clarification of man’s response to his finitude in that these very gestalts are in part the parameters of that finitude.

Source: Mitch Holifield, “When the Legends Die: A Point beyond Culture,” in Education, Vol. 120, Issue 1, Fall 1999, pp. 93–98.

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