Men on the Moon , that includes “The End of Old Horse,” is Simon J. Ortiz’s first collection of short stories: Ortiz has published children’s literature, non-fiction, and memoirs, but he is best known as one of the preeminent voices in Native American poetry. When this book was published, Matt Pifer, reviewing the book in World Literature Today , observed that the stories in it “illustrate the sense Simon Ortiz has of the subtleties and power inherent in language, a sense he developed, in part, from the tradition of storytelling so deeply rooted in the culture of his Acoma people.” Ortiz’s Acoma background is such an important part of his identity and the stories that he tells that few reviewers neglect to mention it. This is not to say that he has been pigeonholed by the reviewers: his heritage is a fact of Ortiz’s life and has been a central frame of reference throughout his long publishing career. In an unsigned Publishers Weekly review of Men on the Moon , for instance, his background is acknowledged in the fact that the stories in the collection “demonstrate the diversity of Native experience in modern America.” That review goes on to emphasize the fact that Ortiz is proud of his heritage and the fact that he is a gifted writer, as many reviewers of the book have done: “The language of these rich narratives reflect [sic] both Ortiz’s poetic gift and his intimate knowledge of oral storytelling.” Kelly is an instructor of literature and creative writing at College of Lake County and Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois. In this essay, Kelly looks at the story as a “coming of age” tale, questioning just who would be considered to have come of age.
Simon J. Ortiz’s short story “The End of Old Horse” is clearly a coming of age story. It tells of two boys of indeterminate age who go fishing one hot, boring summer afternoon. They pass by the home of an older friend, Tony, and point out to him what he surely must already know: that his dog, Old Horse, is barking and straining at his rope. Later, Tony tells them that Old Horse has strangled himself, and the boys are filled with anger and sorrow. The younger brother uses the word “hellfire” at the dinner table, and his parents, who do not approve of such language, respect his sorrow and do not punish him. As with all coming of age stories, the focus here is on a young person having a realization that will change the way he looks at life.
The significance of the story’s events, their unchangeable finality, is made clear in the story’s two uses of the word “end.” First of all, Ortiz uses it in the title, where it draws attention to itself by taking the place of the word “death.” It would be more specific to say that Old Horse died: to say that he ended is not incorrect, but it is notably vague. Ortiz brings the word “end” back in the story’s final line, when he writes that the boys’ father decided “that what my little brother Gilly said was the end of everything that happened that day.” This is a story about change, about a way of life that it is over for someone. Like any coming of age story, it represents the time when the old reality of childhood ends, and the reality of adulthood kicks in.
The question that arises, though, is just who is coming of age here. In many stories told in first-person point of view, the answer to this question is simple: traditionally, the story is about the narrator, who is the one most affected by the events. In “The End of Old Horse,” though, there are plenty of reasons to see how the story works by understanding characters other than the narrator as being recipients of the story’s lessons. Immediately upon reading it, one might assume that Ortiz means the story to focus on the younger brother, Gilly. Gilly is the one who is most clearly traumatized by the day’s events. He cries twice, and at the story’s climactic moment he clearly is unable to keep himself from using the kind of language at the dinner table that Ortiz has already shown to be forbidden in this household. The narrator, by contrast, acts as a silent observer: he has one emotional moment, when he wishes to drown his sorrow by running as fast as he can and he curses his little brother for refusing to run with him, but after exerting himself to the point of sickness he says that he “was okay” and he apologizes to Gilly. If this really is a story about Gilly coming of age, it might not necessarily be about his realization of death. It might just fall into that subcategory of the coming-of-age story called the “fallen idol” story.
From the third paragraph Ortiz makes it clear that Tony is a hero to Gilly; here, he likens the boy’s use of obscenities to the way Tony uses them. When the boys arrive home, their father asks how Tony is, implying that he would naturally have expected them to have spent at least part of their time at his house. Gilly’s fascination with Tony might be exactly the innocence that he loses. As events transpire, the older boy focuses on ways in which Tony is responsible for the dog’s death: he offends Tony by suggesting such, and later, when Gilly expresses his emotions with a string of random obscenities, the narrator focuses his own rage on Tony and the Ortiz, a native of the Acoma Pueblo, whose people have been in ‘the west’ for nearly a thousand years, incorporates this Eurocentric literary tradition to imply that Tony, in his sorrow, is leaving his past behind.” things that Tony could have done that would have kept Old Horse alive.
In the end, Gilly’s line, which is most noteworthy for its use of obscenity, is “Tony choked Old Horse to death, hellfire.” If he believes this, after struggling with it over the course of the story, then he has lost faith in a person he looked up to, possibly the person he esteemed most. His understanding of the world is changed permanently. It is also possible, though less likely, that it is Tony who is coming of age in this story. This would be unusual, because traditional coming of age stories occur when their subject is young and most impressionable: Tony is older than the brothers. Still, he is able to be affected by the event. The story does not say how old Tony is. Obviously, he is old enough to own a truck, which he is in the process of building a shelter for, but there is no indication that he is building that shelter on his own land, and not on, say, his parents.’ What is presented clearly enough is that the death of Old Horse is an event that affects Tony.
Tony struggles with his emotions after the death of his dog. When he first tells the boys about it, he is described as “stoic” and “blank.” Ortiz refers to the cliché, “a stoic Indian,” to show that this might be just the posture that Tony is trying to consciously adopt, a rôle that he is playing. When the narrator implies that Old Horse’s death might be Tony’s fault, his emotions flare, and he strikes out at the boy, though his rational mind regrets it and he immediately apologizes.
Reading this as a coming of age story makes apparent that Tony is awakening to adult responsibilities, realizing that his actions have consequences. The story starts with Tony ignoring his yelping dog, having tied Old Horse up with rope, unaware that an excited dog on a poorly designed restraint can die. It ends with Tony’s remorse. Ortiz does not go into detail about the lasting effect on Tony, but readers are led to infer it. He jumps the creek, crossing to the other side of the water, a movement that many cultures use to symbolize someone leaving their past behind. In addition, Ortiz’s short story “To Change in a Good Way” is about a suburban Indian man coping with the death of his youngest brother. The story is included in Growing Up Ethnic in America , a collection of contemporary fiction, edited by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan.
Tony is headed west: there is a tradition in white American literature of people abandoning the lives they knew and going westward, a tradition that dates back to the Europeans’ arrival on the continent, when the west was considered unexplored, virgin territory (the most famous literary example of this is the way Mark Twain has Huckleberry Finn simply “light out” for the west at the end of his adventures). Ortiz, a native of the Acoma Pueblo, whose people have been in “the west” for nearly a thousand years, incorporates this Eurocentric literary tradition to imply that Tony, in his sorrow, is leaving his past behind.
Even though his reaction is the most understated of all those in the book, it could well be the narrator who is coming of age in “The End of Old Horse.” As mentioned before, stories with a first-person narrator are often about that narrator. This narrator does not seem much changed by the events of the story but that may be the point: given these extreme circumstances (the sudden death of a helpless animal), readers expect some dramatic transformation. Instead, we see the narrator shaping into the sort of man his father is. Old Horse’s death shows him that suppressed emotion is the way to act like a grownup.
The narrator does have his moment of excitement when he reacts to the death of Old Horse by cursing Gilly and cursing Tony and running as fast as he can, but this is an exception. His ordinary life is defined in the fourth paragraph, in which he explains that “nothing ever [happened] in summer.” His life is boring at the beginning of the story and by the last line he is already looking forward to burying the events of the day, pretending like they are ended. Perhaps it would be possible to truly “end” them, but the fact that he is telling this story indicates that what happened before and after Old Horse’s death continues. If the narrator seems unchanged, he is at least more aware of what goes unsaid at his house than he was before. Gilly may take a chance by letting a curse word slip out, but the narrator, who curses less often, understands that suppressing the emotion behind cursing can sometimes be as potent as cursing itself.
It is difficult for writers to include children in their stories without critics assuming that they are writing coming of age stories: just about anything that happens to children in literature can be considered potent enough to redirect the course of their lives. Ortiz’s style, though, gives fair weight to all of the characters, raising the question of who might be most affected. Reading it as the narrator’s story, “The End of Old Horse” is a story about a boy’s induction into the stoic Indian posture that his father recognizes, mocks, but adopts when faced with uncomfortable circumstances. If it’s Gilly’s story, it is a story of a boy who is so outraged about the death of an innocent animal, and so hurt to believe that his role model might be responsible that he can no longer abide by his parents’ rules about obscene language. Seen as a story about Tony, it tells of a young man who is careless and causes his dog’s death, driving him into isolation. A lesser writer would be lucky to make one of these interpretations viable, not to mention all three.
David Kelly, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Simon J. Ortiz, Published by Gale Group, 2010