The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531

The characters in The Woman Who Owned the Shadows serve largely as focal points for Ephanie as she examines her own pain and strives to take control of her life. The members of Ephanie’s family, namely her mother and grandmother and her children, are not developed characters. The short explanations...

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The characters in The Woman Who Owned the Shadows serve largely as focal points for Ephanie as she examines her own pain and strives to take control of her life. The members of Ephanie’s family, namely her mother and grandmother and her children, are not developed characters. The short explanations of the love Ephanie’s grandmother held for her tribal ways, despite being shunned, in addition to her mother’s own feelings of isolation, provide the necessary background for Allen’s development of Ephanie as a woman divided from both mortal women and the goddess women in her life. Similarly, Elena’s character is not developed to any significant degree, but instead the childhood friend’s apparent betrayal of Ephanie confirms Ephanie’s blame of external forces and people for her own internal isolation.

In the same manner, the two men in Ephanie’s life provide stimulus for further examination of her internal dilemmas. Stephen is presented as a ghostly character. He is introduced during Ephanie’s initial mental desperation, the most disorienting and fragmented passage in the novel. That he is continually rejected by Ephanie, though he seems to be a consistently loyal friend, hints at the (eventually revealed) underlying mystery in Ephanie’s unhappiness.

Thomas, too, is only sketchily drawn. He is rejected by society because of his Japanese heritage, yet he is also deprived by that same society of his Japanese culture. His unhappiness parallels Ephanie’s isolation. Neither can separate from his or her respective heritage and join white American society; neither can experience the life that ancestral culture offers. Thomas shows no interest in attending to Ephanie’s needs in any way, remains self-consumed and unconnected to his short-term wife, and thus leaves Ephanie still searching for understanding.

Teresa is both generous and good-hearted, though Ephanie is repeatedly disheartened by her impression that Teresa, too, fails to understand her. Teresa’s virtues, patience and tolerance, are exhibited by her efforts to convince Ephanie to accept the Colorado women, despite their insulting presumptions, based on their good intentions and their attempts to understand unfamiliar cultures. The rift that comes between the two women is temporary. Teresa will benefit from Ephanie’s final awakening—the spirit woman who comes to Ephanie tells her that she must now “Give it [her newfound knowledge] to your sister, Teresa. The one who waits. She is ready to know.”

Ephanie’s gradual awakening to and synthesis of the traditional stories, her family stories, and her own experiences is the heart of the novel. Allen fastidiously renders Ephanie’s initial depth of confusion and distress, attributing it to her divided and warring sense of self. The novel commences with Ephanie’s utter lack of comprehension of the time or place in which she exists. She looks inside herself, but she is bewildered by her external and internal senses. She is unaware of her inner division even though she expresses it from the very start, referring to her name as “half of this and half of that.” Allen sets up Ephanie’s fragmentation of self and then moves her continually toward a realization of that disunity and the ultimate “re-membering” of the parts.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755

Ephanie Atencio

Ephanie Atencio (EHF-uhn-ee ah-TEHN-see-oh), a woman who grew up among the Guadalupe Indians in New Mexico learning tribal stories from her grandmother. Because of her mixed racial background, she was never fully accepted by either whites or Native Americans. Her childhood friend Elena feels guilty about their closeness and deserts her. Ephanie’s other childhood friend, Stephen, also betrays her by invalidating her capabilities and her memories. It takes Ephanie a lifetime to remember the particular incident that sparked her change to a fearful, unhappy existence. When she was twelve years old, Stephen dared her to swing from a high tree, and the branch broke. She fell, breaking both her ribs and her spirit. Without understanding what she is doing, she acquiesces to the voices around her who urge her to be more ladylike, to be passive and silent. Ephanie’s first husband abuses and deserts her, leaving her with two children, Ben and Agnes. She moves to San Francisco, marries a Japanese American, suffers the loss of an infant son, and is divorced. She becomes absorbed in the history of the Native Americans and their systematic slaughter by whites. She sees that even those who romanticize or pity Native Americans perpetuate divisiveness and victimization. Increasingly, she feels isolated, fragmented, hopeless, and suicidal. What helps Ephanie regain a sense of self-worth and purpose are the old songs and stories from the women of the past. They show her that she is not alone and that she must do her part to pass on what she has learned.


Shimanna, called Sylvia by the whites, Ephanie’s maternal grandmother. She attended a mission school in Albuquerque and a school for Indians in Pennsylvania. She married a white man, and although she returned to the Guadalupe pueblo, she was not entirely welcome. Ephanie’s mother and Ephanie both inherited the label “half-breed.” Shimanna teaches Ephanie Indian mythology, including songs and stories about the spider woman who created all the worlds. Even after she dies, she appears to Ephanie at various times as a presence who cares for her and encourages her by reminding her of the old stories.


Elena, a Chicana neighbor, Ephanie’s childhood friend and true love. They grow and play together and share their dreams. In early adolescence, on the day they daringly climb Picacho Peak, Elena announces that she cannot see Ephanie again. Absorbing the homophobic prejudices of those around her, Elena had asked a nun at school about hugging and giggling with Ephanie, and the nun had pronounced that it was a sin. Thus Ephanie is betrayed and denied love before she even recognizes it as love. She never sees Elena again, but she thinks of their early years together as the only time she was truly happy.


Teresa, a white woman Ephanie meets in a therapy group in San Francisco. Teresa does a psychic reading and tells Ephanie that an older woman who wears a spider pin is watching over her, but that Ephanie needs to investigate something from her past that still troubles her. Ephanie recognizes the woman as her grandmother, who told her stories of the spider woman and her daughters. Teresa introduces Ephanie to some women in a lesbian commune. Ephanie likes them, but she cannot seem to make them or Teresa understand her anxieties and her problematic status as an Indian in a white-dominated culture.


Stephen, an older Indian friend, as close as a cousin or brother, who worked in the trading store run by Ephanie’s father. He sees himself as Ephanie’s teacher and guide; she sees him as bright and self-assured. He hovers around her over the years, helping out when her first husband abandons her and again when her infant son Tommy dies. Stephen is psychologically abusive, telling Ephanie that she needs him because she is helpless, saying he would marry her if he were not so much older, and denying her memories of the past. Ephanie has love/hate feelings toward him without understanding why.

Thomas Yoshuri

Thomas Yoshuri, Ephanie’s second husband and father of their twin sons, Tommy and Tsali. Tommy dies when he is a few weeks old, and they wrap his body in the Japanese flag that Thomas’ sister Sally had given to Ephanie. Thomas is bitter and isolated, a heavy drinker never able to overcome his childhood years in a relocation camp to which the U.S. government had sent Japanese Americans during World War II. The marriage soon ends in divorce.

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Critical Essays