One of the most popular, recognizable, and enjoyable genres of storytelling is the bildungsroman, sometimes known as the coming-of-age story. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms (2003) notes that this kind of story can also be called an apprenticeship or formation story.
All stories that take this shape follow certain conventions. In the first place, the protagonist is a young man or woman. Over the course of the story, the young person grows from childhood to maturity. Often, by reaching maturity, the protagonist understands what his or her role will be in the world. To accomplish this, the protagonist goes through a series of developmental changes. Sometimes these changes can be intellectual, as a student moves from a place of ignorance to knowledge through study or school. Occasionally these changes can be psychological, as the protagonist learns about the interworking of human relationships or comes to know more about his or her own mind. A third kind of development can be spiritual, as a young person grows in understanding about what constitutes meaning in life. In many coming-of-age stories, the protagonist learns what it means to be human. In general, these changes take place because of external circumstances introduced into the story by the writer.
There are many fine examples of this genre in contemporary literature and film. One that will be familiar to many students is the film Star Wars. In this movie, young Luke Skywalker must develop physical, intellectual, psychological, and spiritual skills in order to fulfill his destiny as a Jedi warrior. Sneve’s story ‘‘The Medicine Bag,’’ while not on the scale of Star Wars, shares many of the same characteristics as the protagonist Martin matures.
As the story begins, readers are alert to Martin’s youth. Although at the same time, he seems on the verge of growth; he refers to his sister Cheryl as his ‘‘kid’’ sister, clearly identifying her with a childhood that he feels he has left. Further, when he talks about his great-grandfather, Grandpa, he understands the difference between Grandpa and the stereotypical depiction of Native Americans on television. Although he may understand this distinction, he immaturely exaggerates stories from his visits to the reservation for the benefit of his friends. His goal is to impress his friends, not to tell the stories accurately.
For this reason, when Martin looks outside one day and sees his great-grandfather walking down the middle of the street, he is mortified. He does not want anyone in his neighborhood to see Grandpa, because he is ashamed of the elderly man’s appearance. However, readers can begin to see Martin’s growth from this very early moment: although he would like to run and hide so that no one will associate him with Grandpa, he does the right thing and goes to help him with his luggage. In addition, he is aware of the inappropriateness of his own embarrassment, suggesting that he is open to changing his behavior and feelings. Thus, from early in the story, readers know that Martin must overcome his own immature vision of Native American culture and life to obtain a more mature vision, one that will allow him to incorporate an important part of his heritage into his life.
Although Martin needs time to mature, the events of the story force him to grow up quickly. The first night Grandpa is in Martin’s home, he tells everyone that he has brought an important artifact to give to Martin, a medicine bag that Grandpa wears around his neck at all times. The bag has powerful spiritual significance for Grandpa. Martin, however, can only imagine how embarrassed he will be if he has to wear the old bag in gym class, where his classmates will see it and know that he is different from the rest of them. Again, however, Martin is not rude to his Grandpa. Although he thinks he could never wear the bag, he steps forward to receive it, demonstrating his willingness to grow, even if reluctantly.
Grandpa waves Martin away, saying that it is not yet time for him to have the bag. It is as if Grandpa knows that Martin must grow more before he achieves a maturity worthy of the medicine bag.
Martin’s next opportunity for growth comes when his friends corner him about visiting Grandpa. Martin has avoided letting his friends meet the old man, but finally he has no choice. Again, he demonstrates immature embarrassment over the meeting. Over the course of the visit, however, he grows in understanding that his Grandpa has something important to teach his friends, and by extension, Martin.
Finally, Grandpa tells Martin the next day that he will give Martin the medicine bag. Martin’s response this time is not embarrassment nor disgust, as it had been earlier. Instead, he seems frightened, and has troubling dreams. Again, he overcomes his fear, and goes to Grandpa’s bedside after school.
At this point in the story, Sneve inserts an additional coming-of-age story. She allows Grandpa to share with Martin the story of the medicine bag’s creation. In the story-within-a-story, Iron Shell, Grandpa’s father, is a young man trying to achieve manhood himself through the vision quest. A vision quest is a demanding and often grueling experience in which a young Native American goes out into the mountains or prairie alone, to find his or her purpose in life. In this story, Iron Shell prepared for his vision quest by creating the medicine bag and purifying himself through sweat baths. Then he went off by himself to the high country, where he prayed and fasted. These preparations helped him to grow spiritually, so that he would be ready for the special dream that came to him. However, when it came, it was a dream of the white man’s iron. Later he found a piece of iron in a settler’s campfire. Iron Shell had matured enough to realize that although he did not understand the guidance he had been given, it was important to him. Not until much later did he understand the significance, when he was at an Indian boarding school where he learned the blacksmithing trade. Iron Shell’s coming-of-age occurred when he realized that he could maintain the old ways and the Lakota culture and function in the white world as a blacksmith.
The purpose of the story-within-a-story is to give Martin a model of how someone can honor tradition while living in the modern world. Martin learns through the story his Grandpa tells him, and when it is over, he is ready to accept the responsibility and the honor of wearing the medicine bag.
Martin’s coming of age is complete when he returns to the Rosebud Reservation after his great-grandfather dies. When he stands alone on the prairie of the reservation and places a piece of sage in the medicine bag, he follows Grandpa’s instructions and repeats a form of vision quest, just as Iron Shell has done before him. By the end of ‘‘The Medicine Bag,’’ Martin has grown from a child embarrassed by his cultural identity to a young man who honors and embraces his Native American traditions.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Medicine Bag,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.