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A Man Named Horse by Dorothy M. Johnson

This title may jar your memory of a 1970 movie entitled “A Man Called Horse,” and for good reason.

Collier’s Magazine published Dorothy M. Johnson’s story under the same name in 1950. It was later republished in 1968 by the author in a collection of western tales called “Indian Country.”

This story serves as a good example of how Hollywood distorts literary material. The original story had little in common with the silver screen depiction.

The story was written almost entirely in an expository style. There was so little description I felt like someone was sitting across from me, verbally reciting the tale. I was told through the narrative about the man and his dissatisfaction with life.

I heard the narrator say the Crow Indians captured him. There were several key words that suggested it was a western setting but I was not able to step into the story’s setting for the lack of descriptions.

You receive a lot of information about the characters and the general plot but it was difficult to bond with them. This seemed to create a cultural gap in the tale, too.

When the story introduced the main character in the first three paragraphs, you only get a passing notion of his unhappiness. I thought he was ashamed of his father’s wealth and how well it sustained him. The story stated he wanted to live among his equals on the earth.

The rest of the tale focused on his journey of humility; a humility that first called him to shame and then to full understanding of a common man, a common man who didn’t have the availability of wealth but was sacrificial and honorable.

He called himself “horse” because a horse had more privileges than a dog or a slave. The horse was an animal of good service and he lived up to the name by accepting the old woman he was given to, even though he dreamed of escaping and bragging to his cultural peers of his “hideous adventure.”

The old woman was very sad and pitiful. She was a grim example of what a person experienced in their elderly years when they were without family or social assistance.

Horse learned that she had sons but they were all killed in battles and as a result, in her mourning, she cut her fingers at the first joint for each of her four slain sons.

Her only daughter captured the Horse’s attention and he eventually achieved the status of a man, who married and accumulated wealth the Crow way, but more tragedy followed. The marriage ended with her death and he had the tribal right to free himself from all obligations toward his mother-in-law.

Yet, his new understanding in humanity opened his heart to provide for her when no one in the tribe would. He remained with her until her death, three years later.

He went home, back to Boston. He acknowledged his time with the Crow Indians and his Crow name but he didn’t brag or tell the details of his “hideous adventure.” He became an equal to himself, in the eyes of the Crow and the human race.

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