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When the Legends Die

Hal Borland

Part I: Bessie: Chapters 4–6

Part I: Bessie: Chapters 1–3

Part I: Bessie: Chapters 7–9

Summary

Chapter 4

In this chapter the narrative returns to the present, as Bessie awakens her son, Tom, in the middle of the night so that they can leave unseen and unheard by the townspeople. En route to Horse Mountain, Bessie stops at three different inconspicuous locations to allow Tom a bit of rest. On the first night, mother and son sleep in the wilderness, and Bessie fishes in order that Tom has something fresh to eat. Alert to the possibility that someone may follow them to Horse Mountain in pursuit of her husband, Bessie cautiously proceeds to the foot of mountain, where she waits two additional days to confirm their solitude in their journey. When Bessie finally arrives at her destination to find her husband, they decide to travel further to Bald Mountain, where they build a shelter beside a spring.

Chapter 5

Bessie and George Black Bull seek meat to feed their family, hunting with bow and arrow rather than gun, in accordance with the traditions of their upbringing. Careful to gather and cure enough meat for the upcoming winter, Bessie makes storage bags to hold the supplies, in addition to leggings and shirts for the family. She and Black Bull both take deliberate care in informing Tom of the old Ute ways of survival in the wilderness, as well as demonstrating these methods to him. The couple considers the difficulties of the approaching winter and searches for a warmer site for the lodge they will construct and in which they will live for several years.

Chapter 6

Much as the woods grow green with spring after the long winter, Tom also grows in size and knowledge. Having matched his mother in height and strength, he has, most importantly, learned the ways of independence in the wilderness through the knowledge of the Ute traditions that his parents have imparted to him. The next winter arrives, and the weather becomes particularly harsh. One day, Black Bull ventures down to the lower valley to hunt for deer. An avalanche falls into the valley, crushing him with its force. When he does not return to the lodge, Bessie and Tom follow his tracks and find him covered in snow and ice. Carrying out Ute tradition, mother and son bury him by placing his dressed body in a cave with food for his journey to the next world and singing "the wailing song for the dead." After the burial, Bessie informs Tom that, as a consequence of his father's death, he must now adopt the role of the man of the family.

Analysis

These chapters investigate Bessie's personality with the most depth of any part of the novel. Borland demonstrates her ability to survive in the wilderness by describing incidents and behaviors that emphasize her level-headedness, courage, preparedness, and wisdom. She places the needs of her son Tom and her husband George Black Bull ahead of her own. While she deeply mourns her husband, she also demonstrates her capability and self-sufficiency through the execution of her daily activities. Familiar with all aspects of survival, she succeeds in providing her son with a decent life and in conveying her knowledge to him to ensure his survival if something should happen to her.

Borland's in-depth descriptions of Ute rituals and survival techniques provide us with vivid images, an acute sense of place, and a familiarity with the characters' daily lives. In addition, however, these descriptions provide a frame of reference that becomes central throughout the novel. As Tom's character undergoes significant transformations in the course of his life—geographically, emotionally, and physically—the author constantly refers to his past and his childhood in the wilderness. In this way, Ute traditions play a symbolic role in Tom's life. Borland alludes to various Ute practices, beliefs, and rituals later on in the novel, through Tom's dreams, thoughts, and flashbacks.

Borland also dedicates many pages to the description of Ute life in order to convey to us the Native American sensibility regarding nature. For example, when Bessie succeeds in catching fish for her and her son, she "thanked the grasshopper" who had served as bait for the fish. Bessie expresses her relief that Blue Elk has not followed them up Horse Mountain by saying "her thanks to the earth and sky and the quarters of the earth." In keeping with the Native American desire to leave as little evidence of human presence as possible on the land, Bessie and her husband build their new home so that "you could not see that lodge even when you knew where to look. It was a part of the earth itself."

At the end of Chapter 6, Tom becomes the man of the family after his father dies, despite his young age. He must become responsible for the duties his father had previously performed for the family. Although he has physically matured to attain a manly stature, his emotional development lags behind. In fact, the entire novel addresses his struggle to define his manhood. Tom's father's early death places a burden upon him to care for his mother and himself with greater attentiveness.

In When the Legends Die, Borland's style consists of sparse language and short sentences, especially in the passages about Tom's family and the Ute traditions. This style reflects the simplicity of the wilderness in which Bessie, Tom, and George Black Bull lived.

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