I first read this book as a Freshman in High School, some 32 years or so ago. I always remembered that I liked it, and as I am following the Literary Life Podcast’s reading challenge of #20for2020 this year, and they have a “Reread a Book You Read in High School” category, I thought it would be a fitting reread. Aside from the challenge, I wondered if it would be appropriate for my nearly 14 year old son.
I enjoyed it probably more this time. I read the whole book today. It is written in a circle detailing how our lives are a circle and how to find the starting place of our identity. The main character, Tom Black Bull has many names – the boy, Brother Bear, Thomas, Tom, Killer Tom Black – that each fit his identity for the duration of part of the story. Just how is for the reader to learn.
Set in the early 1900s and detailing the exploitation of the Ute people, there are harsh realities regarding the white people – marriage and baptism for money not truth, the administrator of the Reservation school is not shown in a good light, the gambling cynic who takes Tom “under his wing,” even the do-gooder teacher is shown as not really understanding and causing more trouble than good. These indictments are eased by other characters – the store owner, the flock owner, the and doctors (one of whom quotes George Herbert twice) who seem to understand and ease things with kindness. To some extent, the characters other than Tom are static and in their roles, but they serve a purpose and aren’t caricatures.
While I was frustrated by the portrayal of preachers/priests, the climax of the book – which is very near the end – is a spiritual awakening. Tom’s understanding of his identity is rooted in the pronouncement of the “All Mother.” This is by no means a Christian portrayal of Gospel, but it does point to human need for the transcendant. Thomas Black Bull’s beliefs shape who he is and how he will live going forward. He can now go forward after this dark night of the soul. There is much here that can be discussed.
Well written, engaging, it was a good way to start my reading year.