Sep 3, 2007

When the Legends Die

by Hal Borland

I found this book to be sombre and powerful. If you read other reviews, you'll find that some people are bored by the main character's lack of integrity and the dry writing style. But I thought that it precisely reflected the protagonist's state of mind: a paucity of feeling. There was no other way he could deal with the betrayal and heartbreak he faced than by denying his very identity and emotions. It created a lonely desert in his heart, and after a lifetime of pursuits that lead to nowhere, he finally travels a full circle back to confront his origins and seek healing.

I'm getting ahead of myself. When the Legends Die is about a Native American from the Ute tribe, who called himself Bear's Brother but came to be known as Tom Black. When all of his tribe and family either died or was assimilated into turn-of-the-century American culture, Tom as a young boy remained alone in the wilderness, struggling to survive by himself in the traditional ways of his people. Eventually he is discovered and betrayed by one of his Americanized tribe members, and coerced to live at an English school. There he is ridiculed and shamed into abandoning his heritage. He strongly resists adapting to the American culture and Christian beliefs that are forced upon him, and grows up to become a man full of bitterness.

Seeking an avenue of life that doesn't bore or disgust him, Tom becomes a bronco rider and for years travels the rodeo circuit venting his anger and suppressed sorrow on the horses. He becomes famous for his brutality to the animals and is feared by many people. Anyone who tries to get near him is pushed away by his abrasive personality and outright rejection of friendship. The number of people who try to take advantage of him doesn't help any. He does everything he can to forcibly renounce the memories of his past.

But he can't run away from it entirely. The message of the book is strong: attempting to remove yourself from the heritage that shaped you and gave you identity creates a vacuumn in your soul that cannot be filled. As the quote that gave the book its name states: "When the legends die, the dreams end. When the dreams end, there is no more greatness." A very good read, this book is a poignant story full of sights and sounds of the Southwest. It presents a clear portrayal of what many Native Americans faced when their culture was stamped out.

Rating: 4/5 ............Published 1963, 288 pgs

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