The Ancient Child
by N. Scott Momaday
Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy. . . trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. – Kiowa story of Tsoai
N. Scott Momaday’s 1989 semi-autobiographical novel, The Ancient Child, has not, I admit, been an easy read. With its doubled main characters – the visionary girl Grey and the middle-aged painter Locke Setman (Set); a chronology that weaves through past, present and future – not necessarily in that order; and a composition that’s a collage of literary forms, it’s not a book to skim or scan. And as with last week’s discussion of Grey’s fictional biography of legendary outlaw Billy the Kid, a brief background history may be necessary to make the pieces fit together. Sort of fit together.
Momaday actually plays the roles both of Grey and Set, both male and female, young woman, mature man.
Grey, barely out of her teens, is a member of the Kiowa tribe on her father’s side (as is Momaday). On her mother’s side, she is Navajo, growing up in the desert Southwest as Momaday did. (His parents were teachers at a variety of schools on the Navajo reservation spanning Arizona and New Mexico, and at Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico.) The biography in prose and verse written by Grey is of course the work of Momaday himself, but he originally conceived most of the pieces in it as if they were written by a young man, and intended them for separate publication.
Then there’s Set, the mature, assimilated male. He’s a painter (as Momaday is also), described in Writers of the Native American Renaissance as “the first real, honest-to-God yuppie protagonist in Indian fiction.” Set was orphaned as a child and adopted by a white father, he has become a successful artist living in San Francisco.
Despite knowing little about the heritage of his birth, he uses the name “Set,” Kiowa for “bear,” the subject of the legend of the boy turned bear that forms the book’s prologue.
And Set, sated with worldly success, has lost his way, his identity, his artistic integrity. By the time he reached his mid-thirties, “It was fashionable – and expensive – to own one of his paintings,” Momaday writer. “At forty he was in the first rank of American artists, and he was in danger of losing his soul.” By his mid-forties, he has become ill both physically and psychically, fearing that he’s metamorphosing into an animal. Not just any animal, but a bear.
When a mysterious telegram informs him of the death of the great-grandmother he has never known (who is also Grey’s great-grandmother), Set arrives at the home of his birth father’s family to find the old woman already buried, and himself taken under the care of Grey, her apprentice shaman. United with Grey, feminine with masculine, maturity with youth, Set is able at last to place the final piece in the puzzle of his identity and seek his defining vision.
“. . . there was a terrible dissonance in his head. He was stunned, but in a moment the confusion of sounds subsided, and he heard things he had never heard before, separately, distinctly, with nearly absolute definition. . . He could smell a thousand things at once and perceive them individually. . . ‘The bear, the bear,’” the children of his dream shout.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics concludes a June of stories about the Southwest with a last look at Billy the Kid, in Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan.”)