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The major theme of the novel is the frustration of growing up and finding oneís place in life. For Tom, the maturation process is made more difficult because he is dislodged from his natural environment and made to adopt the ways of the white man. It was difficult for him to know who he was during adolescence, for all the things he had known earlier in life were pulled out from underneath him. Never acclimating to the white manís world, he accepts Dillonís offer to become a bronco rider. Even though he stays in this career for years, he never really feels it was meant for him; he never settles down, but constantly travels from place to place. When he is injured and must retire from bronco riding, he returns to his roots and becomes a sheep herder, spending many hours alone in the mountains. One day, in a dream, he hears the Indian All-Mother speak to him and call him her son. Suddenly he realizes that he must be true to his heritage instead of trying to run from it and deny it.
Another important theme in the novel, which is closely related to the major theme, is the pain of displacement. Tom is forced from his environment and placed in an alien atmosphere, where he must submit to strange ways and the control of others. He is made to change the way he dresses, speaks, eats, and spends his time. The new ways are completely unnatural to him and cause him great frustration, which he cannot vent. As a result, he grows up to be an angry adult who takes out his repressed emotions on the broncos that he rides.
Another important theme is manís cruelty to his fellow man. Blue Elk tricks Tom and then steals everything from his lodge for his own profit. In town, Tom is treated cruelly, being taunted and teased for his heritage. When he fights back, he is always blamed for the trouble. When he agrees to join Red Dillon, he is terrible used and abused by Red so that he can gain money on his bets. Throughout his life, Tom is exposed to being treated cruelly by his fellow man.
The mood is largely angry, for Tom is upset that he has been forced from his natural environment and placed on a reservation against his will. Publicly, Tom is unable to express his anger, so he eventually becomes a bronco rider and takes out his frustration and anger on the horses in the arena. He makes them submit to him through force, the same way he was made to submit to his new life, where he was totally controlled by others. The bronco busting, however, never really gives Tom pleasure. He continues to feel angry to the point that he sometimes cannot bear to live with himself. He is so negative that he treats others rudely and can never develop any close human relationships. Towards the end of the novel, when Tom becomes a sheep herder and spends time thinking in the mountains, the mood shifts from angry to reflective and finally to peaceful, as Tom finds and accepts himself and his heritage.