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...
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