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The Basket Maker
Mary Austin's The Basket Maker is, like all her other stories in the book, a very detailed description of the western landscape and its inhabitants. But this time she focused more on a single inhabitant, an Indian woman named Seyavi.
It is rather difficult to really define the plot of the story. Though the story seems to focus on Seyavi's life and experiences she is not the one who tells that story. The narrator, who is omniscient, takes over the role as a medium between her and the reader. The narrator is not determined, the reader does not know, who is telling the story, whether it is a woman or a man, though two things speak towards a female narrator: the first is a very obvious one, since the book was written by a woman I simply suggest that the narrator here is a woman, too. The second reason also speaks for a woman narrator, because she focuses more on things I would expect to be more of female interest and is more likely to be recognized or mentioned by women: I have read many diaries written by women on the overland trails and written about their lives at the frontier ( Willa Cather does that, too). All of them had a very special way of treating landscape and Indians in their writings. Especially with landscape they were very detailed, sometimes this was the only thing they wrote about for days. It also seemed to me that compared to male diaries, women used to have a very special curiosity about Indians and Indian behavior. So I will refer to the narrator in my analysis as she'.
The reason why I think the narrator is omniscient ( in the sense of she knows more about the topic she talks about as we do) as well as reliable, or at least she wants us to think she was, is because she simply says so. She feels authorized to tell Seyavi's story because she knows the land, the living conditions there and she knows how to survive in these lands. This is the moment when she forms a kind of conspiracy with those who also know the land, who have been there. " To understand the fashion of any life, one must know the land it is lived in and the procession of the year.
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"Mary Austin: The Land of Little Rain." 123HelpMe.com. 28 Mar 2020
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And she somehow has to, because all those who have never lived there and have never experienced the country, will neither understand her and the other inhabitants of that country nor what it means to live there.
The narrator becomes something like a spokesperson for Seyavi, maybe even a spokesperson to all native people. Although Mary Austin usually puts white and native people on the same level: it is men against the hardships of life in the desert, the color of skin does not matter, only if you can make it there or not!
Although the narrator seems to be undefined, besides that I am convinced that it must be a woman, there is another hint that shows some sort of character behind the narrator and this one also supports my suggestion of a female narrator: on page 48 when she asks " What good will your dead get, Seyavi, of the baskets you burn?" , she finishes that sentence with confessing that she is "coveting them for my own collection". How many men collect baskets? She also reveals a trait: it is not real interest in Seyavi's culture that makes her ask the question, but the desire to keep these baskets for herself!
Comparing Mary Austin's stories about life in the rough western landscape to Thoreau's " Walden" does work when we stay on the descriptive level. Both describe nature and how men depend on it, it is about the interdependence of nature and humans. But when it comes to the point where I should decide whether Austin belongs more into the transcendentalist movement corner or to the realistic corner, I would now say, she might be quite romantic in some way about life in the West, but she stays grounded and clear about the condition of life there. If you have once chosen to live out there you can not simply walk back the railroad tracks in order to get the newspaper and the newest gossip about Boston or the life you have lead before. And besides that there is no God to be found in a Saguaro cactus. But maybe it will serve as a source for water.
Austin does not describe these things as phenomena, but as a matter of the idea of how nature functions, it is a matter of relationship and only those who give themselves consciously into this relationship can survive. Seyavi is one of those who live within her environment and does not try to battle it. She is even better than Thoreau, because she is a part of a culture that has its roots in nature. Her baskets are all made of natural materials and the narrator regards her as an artist and her basket making as art ( Page: 47). She also sees Seyavi's personality linked to her baskets ( Page 46). And of course Seyavi is an artist in surviving in the desert.
The interdependence between Seyavi and nature, the wood for her baskets respectively, is not only to be seen in the fact that she is dependent
on nature for making her baskets, that she "made for love and sold them for money, " ( Page 47) and with them earning some money( with which she could life in the white men's environment, too), but the wood for those baskets show her the time of the year. During the different seasons the wood has a different texture', in spring she might find younger wood, which is more flexible, and in winter she might find wood, that is harder or drier and so nature and its seasons have an impact on Seyavi's work, on her art, on her culture. (All on page 47)
Although I have not read much from Willa Cather's O, Pioneers! I think that the kind of narrator is quite similar to the one in Mary Austin's story. It seems that it is somebody who really had experienced the life and conditions he/she is talking about. No one could ever fool them about it. All the other things about the narrator, like if there is a character behind it
or not, is not so really important. There is one important trait coming along with the telling of the story: because I believe that the narrator must know the country and life there, I assume that he/she had lived there, long enough in the end to write about it. That shows me that he/she had managed to live there somehow and still does so, because otherwise the story would be kind of hypocritical and not of interest for me. That is also the reason why it is important that there is a narrator at all. Seyavi and Alexandra could have told their stories by themselves, but it would not have been the same. The narrator functions as a guide into the story, at least I felt guided by someone I trusted, someone who knows all about that place, that Indian woman, the prairie and what it means to be a farmer out there with a family.