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N O R A B A R R Y Bryant College Smithfield, Rhode Island “The Lost Children”inJames Welch’s The Death of Jim Loney James Welch’s The Death of Jim Loney “defies analysis” in Paula Gunn Allen’s view. Other readers, who admire the novel’s clarity of diction and painful realism, question the passivity and despair of the protagonist.1 Welch, himself, has insisted that Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney “show things the way they really are” and that characters such as Jim Loney and his strong sister Kate are types he has known. Yet he also asserts that the crisis of identity his characters face is not without hope if they can connect with their traditional past (“Interview with James Welch,” American Audio Prose Library, 1985). Because Jim Loney, the hero of Welch’s novel, is half American Indian, some readers do clarify his predicament by connecting his actions to those of a Gros Ventre warrior (Sands 8) and his visions to Gros Ventre religion (Purdy 17-24). Also, Paula Gunn Allen significantly notes Welch’s reliance on the vision quest ritual in his novels, for “Welch finds his resolu­ tions in self-knowledge gained in traditional ways that are adapted to modem contexts” (The Sacred Hoop 93). Welch also connects his characters’ predicaments and his narrative structure to the traditional past through motifs of the Gros Ventre and Blackfeet folktales of lost or abandoned children, adapted to a modern literary context. A recognition of this use of folktale enriches our under­ standing of the narrative, clarifies Jim Loney’s state of mind, and lends an elegiac rather than a despairing tone to the novel. Jim Loney is really in mourning for a traditional past and the loss of identity that past would provide. As his father says during one of Jim Loney’s visions, “He weeps for us, for all of us!” (23). 36 Western American Literature Although Welch makes no explicit reference to the folktale, motifs of “The Lost Children” echo throughout The Death of Jim Loney and pro­ vide a pre-text to the realistic narrative. Echoes of this folktale affect the structure of the novel in that the traditional story is what Northrup Frye would call “displaced” (The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance 37) .2In addition to the displacement, there is also a distortion of the narrative when certain motifs appearing in the novel bring about a reversal or mirror image of the results achieved by the children in the folktale. In turn, this narrative displacement and distortion reflect the displacement of Jim Loney, trapped between two cultures and mourning his lack of identity within a culture. Alfred Kroeber summarizes one version of “The Lost Children” in Gros Ventre Myths and Tales: A camp abandons little children. The children come to an old woman. At night she kills them all, except a girl and her little brother. The girl is sent to get wood and water, and saves her life by bringing the kinds desired by the old woman. Coming out of the tent with her little brother, she leaves an awl in her place, and flees. The two children cross a river on a water-monster, but the old woman is drowned by it. The children return to the camp, but are lefttied to a tree. A dog liberates them, and gives them fire. The boy kills buffalo by looking at them. In the same way he and the girl cut up the meat, dress the skins, erect a tent, and make clothing. The people, who are starving, come to the children, who select wives and hus­ bands for themselves, and then kill the rest of the people by looking at them.3 (135) Recognition of this displaced folktale structure clarifies both Jim Loney’s predicament and his actions. Like the children of the story, Jim and his sister Kate are abandoned by their parents early in life with dis­ astrous results for Jim. Loney’s dependence on imperfect memories of his parents and the woman Sandra, who in some aspects is analogous to the sinister old woman of the folktale, defines...


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