Book Review: When the Legends Die by Hal Borland

This book follows the life of Tom Black (aka Thomas Black Bull). He is the Ute son of two parents who had to live in the woods (in the “old way”) after his father got in trouble with the law for killing a man (one could argue the murder was well-deserved!). After his parents die, young Thomas is found by Black Elk, a slimy old Indian who will sell even his own family out for money. He convinces Thomas to leave the forest, where Thomas had been living with only the animals as friends yet in perfect harmony with the land, and enter civilization, where Thomas was forced to learn the “new ways” and adapt. Thomas hates it and becomes angry, especially when he is separated from the bear cub he befriended.

The entire middle of the book follows Thomas as an adult. He has become a rodeo master, riding wild horses in order to “punish” them, metaphorically killing those who have betrayed him. In the end, he returns to the wild and comes to terms with what his whole life has meant.

The back of the book was a bit misleading. I picked this book up because I am interested in Native American culture, and the back promised a connection to Jack London’s works. The beginning and end lived up to that promise. The middle disappointed: The book focused heavily on the horse riding segment of Thomas’s life, which was interesting but a bit drawn out. I really enjoyed the first and last part of the book, which focused on Native American traditions and the “old way” of living. It’s a good book, definitely worth the read, but watch out of the middle section. It will make you angry (at this point, Tom is going through an angry part of his life) and may upset you (the way he treats the horses).

What I really enjoyed were the metaphors in the book, often comparing people to animals. I also enjoyed the use of Black Elk, who Tom met as a boy, as a foil and/or comparison to the older version of Tom. It’s a great book about identity; and from a freedom angle, it is an excellent study in what happens to someone when society forces him to live and act a certain way—beyond his control. What happens to the fighting part of our spirit? Do we stifle it? Do we try to kill it? Do we fight to get it back? It’s definitely a book that could be taught in the classroom and discussed extensively in a book club.

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