Women and Western American Literature

By Helen Winter Stauffer; Susan J. Rosowski | Go to book overview

The Emergence of Helen Chalmers

Frances M. Malpezzi

In 1922 Edith Warner, the daughter of a Baptist minister, left her family home in Pennsylvania for New Mexico. She soon settled at Otowi, where she spent the remainder of her life. Here she was to come in contact with the inhabitants of San Ildefonso Pueblo and eventually with the atomic scientists of Los Alamos. Her tearoom at Otowi was thus at the crossroads of two very different cultures in American society at a crucial time in our history. The story of this woman who was equally at home with the pueblo cacique as with Neils Bohr or Robert Oppenheimer is the basis of Frank Waters' novel, The Woman at Otowi Crossing. 1 From the factual Edith Warner emerged the fictional Helen Chalmers, the protagonist of the novel.

As we examine the transformation from fact to fiction, we see the comparisons between the two constantly underscore Waters' thematic concerns in the novel. For Waters, The Woman at Otowi Crossing is a tropological application of the Pueblo and Navaho Emergence myth. Waters views that myth not only as the story of human creation and evolutionary development, but as symbolic of the psychic development, the inner journey of every individual. Waters makes clear the significance of the Emergence myth in an earlier work, Masked Gods: Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism. As critics have noted, what Waters postulates in Masked Gods he gives concrete form to in The Woman at Otowi Crossing. Jack L. Davis and June L. Davis, for example, draw a relationship between the two works: "Though the novel brings together a multiplicity of now familiar dualities in an unusual display of technical artifice, it is the psychic evolution of Helen Chalmers, cast in the form hypothesized in Masked Gods, which provides the primary integrative pattern." 2 The periodic and geographic setting of the novel-the beginning of the atomic age, near the Los Alamos project-further emphasizes Waters'

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