When the Legends Die
Part II: The School: Chapters 16–18
Following the loss of his cub, Tom begins to accept the new way of life that the townspeople have forced on him, cooperating when they cut the braids from his hair. He begins to behave in such a satisfactory manner that he is given a single room in the dormitory. Assigned to work in the cobbler's shop, managed by Ed Porter, Tom receives praise for his skillfulness with his hands. Porter recommends that the boy be placed in a basketry class, where he then excels. While the boys in the class ridicule him for excelling in a craft typically associated with girls, the girls pay him lots of attention. The girls' admiration provokes jealous behavior from the boys, who in turn begin to tease Tom. Reacting with vicious fighting, Tom receives a flogging for his aggression, but he receives it in silence. Storming into the school building, he tears his half-finished basket into shreds and locks himself in his room, refusing to answer to Benny or Rowena when they approach his door, pleading with and threatening him. Tom isolates himself, refusing to emerge even for meals. The schoolteachers assume he will come out when he can no longer stand his hunger.
Following his beating, Tom succeeds in locating a knife, some cord, and some food. Dressed in his Ute clothes, he escapes through a window in his room and immediately proceeds toward Horse Mountain on a journey that will take several days. In search of his bear cub, he returns to the place where Blue Elk had released him and sings the bear song in hopes of their reunion. When it becomes clear that his efforts have proven futile, Tom walks to his lodge in solitude. The squirrels, chipmunks, and jays, which had formerly recognized him as their friend, find his new appearance unfamiliar. Looking forward to returning to his lodge, Tom is shocked by what meets his eyes. Nothing remains of the lodge but a pile of ashes. The sight devastates him, as it represents his feelings of homelessness—he now has no place to which to return after his journeys. His sense of alienation becomes so profound that he finds himself unable even to sing a mourning song. Sinking into a miserable numbness, Tom spends the night in the wild and the next morning heads down into the valley in a dazed state.
Tom encounters Benny and a tracker named Fish at the foot of Horse Mountain and returns to town with them. Tom remains silent the majority of the time, conversing with others only when they approach him and initiate the conversation. However, when he does speak, he now uses English. Settling into an uneventful life in Pagosa, Tom resumes his work at Ed's cobbler's shop. As spring approaches, the town prepares for the annual Bear Dance. Intuitively, Tom feels that his bear brother will visit the town during the festivities, and he awaits his arrival. One day, as he sees the bear approach town, he begins to sing the bear song and runs towards it. However, when the bear has neared, Tom urges him to flee the town and return to the mountains, fearing that the townspeople will shoot him. Whining and moaning, the bear retreats, and Tom walks with him out of town as others watch the scene in silence. Upon his return to town, nobody comments on the incident.
In this chapter, Tom's inherent rebelliousness fades as he increasingly accepts his fate and his separation from wilderness life. While this transition means that authority figures have fewer difficulties with him, it also signifies a loss of a significant part of his spirit. As Tom adopts a stoic approach to both physical and emotional pain, numbness becomes an increasingly dominant element of his behavior. Unfortunately this sense of numbness not only bars painful experiences but also prevents him from fully enjoying life. His constant repression of emotion and pain takes its toll on his mental state as well as on his physical appearance, as he soon takes on the appearance of a troubled man rather than a teenaged boy. The circumstances of his life have demanded that he mature at too rapid a pace, and he soon leads a life devoid of carefree moments. This numbness later manifests itself in his lack of sensitivity and in his ability to inflict pain on other humans and on animals. Although his strong will and his high threshold for pain often impress those who encounter him, they mask an underlying cruelty that becomes a progressively dominant aspect of his personality.
Having spent his childhood in the wilderness, Tom had had only his parents and the creatures of the natural world as companions. Therefore he enters the social world of Pagosa with little experience in making friends. However, Tom's antisocial nature does not result primarily from his inherent social attitudes but rather has its origins in this phase of his life. After suffering from fellow classmates' and townspeople's ridicule, in addition to the loss of his bear brother, he becomes remarkably quiet. His decision to stop speaking his native language of Ute also represents another element of his lost sense of identity.
When Tom learns that his lodge no longer stands, the grief and sense of homelessness he experiences render him unable to sing. Throughout his life, he has sung to comfort himself and to process both the joyful and painful moments in life. His inability to sing at this moment represents a death of sorts; as a pivotal moment in the novel, it hints at the subsequent numbness and callousness that characterize his later life.
When the bear approaches Pagosa during the annual bear festivities, Tom's emphatic instructions that he return to woods echo his own situation. While Tom recognizes that he has lost his old way of life forever, he holds out hope for the bear that perhaps he will not have to suffer from a similar fate.
When Tom encounters with the animals who had been his closest friends before his transition to the civilized lifestyle, they react with hostility and a lack of familiarity. Their reaction foreshadows his later sense of alienation from the world as a whole. Having confirmed his status as an outsider in the civilized world, he returns to the wild only to have lost his sense of belonging there as well.
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