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When the Legends Die

Hal Borland

Study Questions and Essay Topics

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Study Questions

What factors make Tom's search for his own identity particularly difficult and complex? What circumstances finally guide him toward a conclusion?

While all human beings struggle with this search toward self-articulation, Tom's position, as a Ute Native American and as a child whose parents have both died young, renders his path toward meaning particularly difficult as well as particularly complex. Tom must negotiate countless societal pressures as he leaves the wilderness and enters the civilized world. As a Ute Native American living in the beginning of the twentieth century, the new life he begins in Pagosa forces him to reconsider his entire value system as well as the details of his daily patterns. The next phase of his life, in which he becomes a wild bronco rider in the rodeo, does not provide the peace and sense of accomplishment he has expected. Despite his fame, success, and relatively comfortable existence, Tom finds himself continually dissatisfied, angry, and in search of greater meaning in his life. After years of struggling with fundamental questions about his identity, Tom finally comes to terms with himself when he accepts a job herding sheep in the same area in which he spent his childhood. By facing his fears and painful memories, he overcomes them and learns that an embrace of his heritage and a new, simple lifestyle in the wilderness can provide him with the most contentment he has felt since his childhood. Because this theme provides the novel's central conflict, the novel concludes as soon as his search for his identity concludes.

Why does Tom resent authority figures so much? What harm does he feel they will do them?

From his very first interactions with the townspeople of Pagosa upon his arrival at the reservation school, Tom reacts to authority figures with resentment, hostility, and distrust. However, his experiences with these authority figures justify his behavior toward them. They have deprived him of the lifestyle of his heritage and treat him with prejudice because of his status as a Native American. Tom also feels as though these authority figures continually attempt to control his life in various ways. They exploit his abilities for their own material gain or for their own sense of worth. Tom's resentment of authority becomes so pronounced, however, that it sometimes causes him to distance himself from people who may genuinely try to help him.

What provides Tom with a sense of home and belonging as a young boy? How does this sense of home change throughout the novel?

Inextricably linked to Tom's search for his own identity is his search for his true home. Bald Mountain and the surrounding wilderness provide Tom with a sense of home and of belonging during his childhood years. Even in the painful time following the death of his mother, Tom lives peacefully in the wilderness, befriending the animals with which he shares the woods. However, when Blue Elk persuades him to leave the woods and enroll in the local reservation school, Tom first experiences the acute pain of displacement and will continue to experience it for most of his life, until he returns to the wilderness at the end of the novel. As Tom's teachers and bosses become increasingly frustrated with Tom's inability to complete certain tasks or with his passionate will to return to his old ways, they send him from place to place. As a result, Tom does not feel welcomed in any environment or by any individual. When he begins his career as a bronco rider, this pattern only perpetuates itself, as his competition takes him to many cities across the country. He lives a life on the road, with no sense of attachment to place or people. While he hungers for the comfort and ease a sense of home provides, he know not how to seek it until his return to the mountains.

Suggested Essay Topics

What role does Blue Elk's character play in the novel? What similarities does he have with Tom given their shared Ute background? What symbolic significance does Blue Elk's character have?

How do Tom's parents continue to shape his beliefs and behaviors, even after their deaths? In what context or what form do they appear in later parts of the novel?

What is the significance of the appearance of the All-Mother? How does this appearance mark the climax of the novel, and how does it permanently change Tom?

What sort of social commentary does Borland make in When the Legends Die? What message does he attempt to convey to his readers about the state of Native Americans in the United States at the time of the novel's setting?

Explain the symbolic significance of colors in When the Legends Die. What do the individual colors represent?

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