Skip over navigation

When the Legends Die

Hal Borland

Part I: Bessie: Chapters 7–9

Part I: Bessie: Chapters 4–6

Part I: Bessie: Chapters 10–12

Summary

Chapter 7

According to Ute tradition, when a boy becomes a man he must define himself by a name. Tom accordingly names himself Bear Brother following his father's death, as he has just killed a deer and left part of the meat for a bear he has spotted. Although he and his mother at times go hungry, they survive the harsh winter through hard work and perseverance. When spring arrives, they celebrate the growing facility of daily life with delight. One summer day, Bessie breaks the family axe while chopping wood and recognizes that she will certainly need to buy a replacement axe in preparation for the following winter. Despite her apprehensions about a trip back to Pagosa, Bessie determines that they have no other option but to return to the town where her husband has killed Frank No Deer. Unfazed by the townspeople's' stares as she and her son walk down the street, Bessie proceeds directly to Jim Thatcher's store, where Jim recognizes her and asks of the whereabouts of Black Bull. Assuring her that her husband's name has been cleared and the local officials declared the act one of self-defense, he suggests that the family return to Pagosa to live. Bessie ignores Jim's suggestion, pretending she has not heard it. She trades two of her handmade baskets for a box of ammunition, an axe, a knife, and some candy for Tom. Having completed their mission, Bessie and her son return to their lodge on the mountain.

Chapter 8

Bessie repeatedly thinks about what Jim Thatcher has told her about the clearing of her husband's name. The notion encourages her, but she remains uncertain as to the truth as his assurances. Deciding to return to Pagosa the following summer to confirm what she has been told, Bessie informs Tom that she will take a solitary journey into town. She departs with another two baskets, which she trades for calico for a skirt, cloth for a blouse, and a blue coat with brass buttons for Tom. At the store Jim Thatcher once again assures her of her husband's innocence. This time Bessie finds his words credible and answers Jim's inquiries about her husband by informing him of George's death. As she is departing Pagosa, Bessie encounters Blue Elk, who asks her for money in exchange for his alleged role in settling the matter of her husband's fight with Frank No Deer. Bessie, refusing to pay him, tells him of her husband's death and fails to respond to his many questions of her. Blue Elk then asks after Tom, emphasizing his need to enroll in the local school. When Bessie disagrees with him, he snatches her bag, claiming she owes him at least the equivalent of the purchases she has just made. After a brief struggle Bessie loses all but the blue coat and runs out of Pagosa toward home.

Chapter 9

Bessie demonstrates her pride in the young man her son has become, and now he has fully mastered the Ute ways in the wilderness. Bessie remains confident in her rejection of Blue Elk's idea that he attend school and in her belief that Tom belongs on Bald Mountain. Bessie again travels alone to Pagosa, inquiring into Blue Elk's whereabouts as she enters the town. Fortunately he has left town on a trip. Trading baskets with Jim Thatcher, she recounts to him Blue Elk's treatment of her on her last trip into town. Thatcher grows angry upon hearing that Blue Elk claimed to have helped clear her husband's name; he assures Bessie that Blue Elk had no role in the matter. Bessie returns home to Bald Mountain and proudly gives Tom the new red blanket she has bought at the store. During the harsh winter, Tom and Bessie take a fruitless journey to the lower valley in search of food. As they return to the lodge, Bessie becomes increasingly weak and can barely walk. Recognizing that she will likely die shortly, Tom attempts to gather food for her and comforts her with chants and songs. After reminiscing about their lives together, Bessie dies and Tom buries her next to his father. Singing and mourning her death, Tom returns alone to the lodge.

Analysis

Bessie's excursions back to Pagosa demonstrate her attitude toward the civilized world. Despite Jim Thatcher's warm welcome and his efforts to convince her to return to town to live, Bessie's position on the matter remains clear. She left the civilized world when she fled from Pagosa long ago, after her husband killed Frank No Deer. While she recognizes that, in some senses, life in Pagosa might present an easier option, at no point does she seem tempted by the idea. She places great value on traditional Ute life in the wilderness, and her subsequent experiences in Pagosa have only confirmed these feelings.

Blue Elk and Jim Thatcher represent widely divergent perspectives on Native American traditionalism. Interestingly enough, despite his familiarity the old ways, Blue Elk has rejected the Ute life; he has suppressed that aspect of his background and expects all Utes to act similarly. He constantly advocates the ways of civilization and its manifestations, treating those who disagree with him, such as Bessie, with excessive cruelty. Jim Thatcher, on the other hand, allows Bessie to think for herself. Although he urges her to return to Pagosa, he respects her strong will and her decision in favor of life in the wilderness. He also demonstrates far more compassion toward her than does Blue Elk, providing her with a sympathetic ear when she recounts Blue Elk's unkind behavior.

At the end of Chapter 9, Bessie finds that her illness has made her too weak to weave baskets. She urges her son to weave them for her, since he has watched her many times and has becomes just as skilled as she. She says, "My hands are your hands now." Here she not only hints at the many skills she has conveyed to her son and his consequently increased self-sufficiency, but also speaks to the continuation of traditions from one generation to the next.

Just before Bessie dies, she warns her son of Blue Elk's questionable intentions and malicious trickery, seeming to sense that Blue Elk will attempt to manipulate Tom into changing in ways in which he does not desire to change. This warning speaks to Bessie's profound wisdom and experience. In the course of her life, Bessie has lived in two drastically different environments. Having come of age in the wilderness, according to Ute traditions, she returned to the woods later in life. The circumstances of her husband's fight with Frank No Deer forced this transition, but the natural environment also embodied a lifestyle that she preferred. She also passed a few years in Pagosa, where monetary hardships and the poor treatment her family endured shed her of her naïveté and of her belief that people possess an inherent goodness. Having experienced and contemplated these divergent circumstances, Bessie has made the decision to remain loyal to the old ways. She has invested significant amounts of time and energy to instruct her son about these old ways. The prospect of his loss of heritage pains her, and she strives to protect him from it. Thus her warning about Blue Elk's schemes reflects her own life lessons. Additionally, it foreshadows his increasingly significant role in shaping Tom's life and the devastating consequences that result.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us