The Ancient Child
by N. Scott Momaday
“My father was a great storyteller and he knew many stories from the Kiowa oral tradition. . . But it was only after I became an adult that I understood how fragile they are, because they exist only by word of mouth, always just one generation away from extinction,” says N. Scott Momaday.
And what happens if the stories are lost? Can a family, a people, a land exist without stories?
If you’re Momaday, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and professor of English, your work of preservation includes entwining and reimagining the myths and legends, as he has in The Ancient Child. This 1989 novel opens with a prologue of legend of a boy metamorphosed into a bear. Not satisfied simply with retelling, and anyway, aren’t all legends rewoven in the teller’s mind, Momaday links this story to that of another, more historical but in his own way legendary figure, Billy theKid.
Or make that William Henry McCarty. Or William H. Bonney, Henry McCarty, Henry Antrim. For someone barely beyond boyhood at the time of his death, the 19th century baby-faced outlaw turned folk hero has been metamorphosed as thoroughly as the boy who became a bear.
Momaday’s narrative follows two members of his own tribe – the artist Locke Setman (Set) and the visionary girl called Grey. Set (his name is the root of the Kiowa word for “bear”) was severed from his roots when he was placed for adoption following the deaths of his parents. Now completely assimilated into white culture, he has become so successful as a painter in San Francisco that he is also in danger of losing his artistic integrity.
“Those who exhibited his work, who praised and purchased it, and who demanded its proliferation became to determine it,” and Set goes along, until in middle age he begins to understand that he is squandering his talent.
Oh the other hand, 18-year-old Grey is only starting to discover her talents. She is also an orphan, estranged from her Kiowa father’s family when he moved away and married a woman from another tribe. Now on her own, she returns to her father’s people in Oklahoma, to the place where her ancient great-grandmother lies dying.
“Never had Grey to quest after visions,” Momaday writes. In fact, in visions she’s visited Billy the Kid, even participating through her dreams in his initial jail break escape from execution.
So Grey is hardly surprised when “one night, when the crickets and frogs made a strange synchronism on the creek and the green moon seemed to bog and float on the clouds, the grandmother Kope’mah whispered to her great-granddaughter Grey – it was unrelated to anything she had said before – ‘the bear is coming.’” And she dreams about a bear.
Far away in San Francisco, Set receives a telegram: “Grandmother Kopemah near death. Please come at once. Notify Cate.”
But who is this grandmother he never knew? And why is he asked to notify his father Cate, death for the past 30 years? And why, when he reaches the old family home, does he learn his great-grandmother was buried on the very day the telegram was sent by someone unknown?
What is real? What is visionary? What is historic? What is legendary? What will Momaday reveal to his readers, and what will he conceal? Adventure classics will begin to unravel these threads next Friday as a June of stories about the Southwest continues.