When the Legends Die is a story of the search for love, belonging, and identity, this eloquent narrative chronicles the life of Thomas Black Bull from 1910 through the Great Depression. After the death of his parents, he moves from the reservation school to life in the rodeo; along the way, he transforms from a gentle child to a rebellious adolescent and then to a sullen, taciturn young man. His experiences there allow him to continue to transform from the white man he had pretended to be to the Native American that he truly is. Readers can identify with the boy’s rebellion against conformity and regimen, reflect on their own journey, and appreciate both the novel’s literary form and its philosophical approach.
A young Native American walks between the lonesome forest where he was raised and the complicated modern world he must navigate to survive Thomas Black Bull's parents forsook the life of a modern reservation and took to ancient paths in the woods, teaching their young son the stories and customs of his ancestors. But Tom's life changes forever when he loses his father in a tragic accident and his mother dies shortly afterward. When Tom is discovered alone in the forest with only a bear cub as a companion, life becomes difficult. Soon, well-meaning teachers endeavor to reform him, a rodeo attempts to turn him into an act, and nearly everyone he meets tries to take control of his life. Powerful and timeless, When the Legends Die is a captivating story of one boy learning to live in harmony with both civilization and wilderness.
Hal Borland's When the Legends Die, published in 1963, immerses the reader in two worlds, that of the wild West and that of wild nature, two topics with which Borland was quite familiar. Written in 1963, around the height of Borland's writing career, the story follows a young Native American boy as he struggles not only with the rite of passage to manhood but also with the harsh realities of the clash of his native culture and the modern white society. Having been raised in the traditional ways of his Ute ancestors, the protagonist of the story must first learn the "new ways" of the white people who dominate his world before he can create a clear identity of who he is and where he fits in his environment.
The novel was well received and eventually was produced by Twentieth Century Fox as a movie in 1972. When the Legends Die is often compared to Jack London's Call of the Wild (1914), which takes up the theme of the wilderness, and Conrad Richter's The Light in the Forest (1953), which deals with the clash of cultures in the West. All three books explore rite of passage or coming of age themes, and all three were produced as movies.