Hatter Fox

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Hatter Fox
Marilyn Harris

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Reading


Hatter Fox, published in New York in 1973, was Marilyn Harris's fourth novel. Tapping into an emerging public interest in Native American history and culture, Harris created a story about Hatter Fox, a rebellious, angry seventeen-year-old Navajo girl who is despised by white society in New Mexico. Locked up in a reformatory and on a path of self-destruction, Hatter meets Teague Summer, an idealistic young white doctor from the Bureau of Indian Affairs who is determined to save her from herself. Eventually, after many false starts, Hatter begins to make progress. Summer takes on more and more responsibility for her welfare, and an unlikely friendship takes root before the novel reaches its tragic conclusion.

The novel raises many important social issues that are as relevant today as they were in 1973. For example, how should society deal with young offenders and those who simply do not fit into the way society operates? How should society treat minorities, in this case Native Americans? Should Native Americans assimilate into the dominant culture or retain their own distinct cultural identity? As these issues unfold in the novel, it becomes clear that Hatter Fox is about a deep racism in society that creates individual victims and victimizers. Although there are some good, well-meaning characters in the novel, and the relationship between Hatter and Summer shows that goodness can triumph, the novel clearly shows the negative consequences for both groups when one culture oppresses and tries to change another.

Author Biography

Marilyn Harris was born on June 4, 1931, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the daughter of John P., an oil executive, and Dora (Veal) Harris. Harris was educated in her home state, attending Cottey College from 1945 to 1951, then transferring to the University of Oklahoma, where she received a bachelor of arts degree in 1953 and a master of arts degree in 1955.

Harris's first collection of short stories, King's Ex, was published by Doubleday in 1967. After that Harris proved a prolific author, publishing seventeen books, including novels, short stories, romance/historical fiction and children's fiction in a twenty-year period from 1970 to 1989. These works included In the Midst of Earth (1969), The Peppersalt Land (1970), The Runaway's Diary (1971), Hatter Fox (1973), The Conjurers (1974), Bleeding Sorrow (1976), The Portent (1980), The Last Great Love (1981), Warrick (1985), Night Games (1987), and Lost and Found (1991).

Harris also wrote the widely known, seven-novel "Eden" series, a historical saga about the Eden family of England. The series contains This Other Eden (1977); The Prince of Eden (1978); The Eden Passion (1979); The Women of Eden (1980); Eden Rising (1982); American Eden (1987); and Eden and Honor (1989).

Harris's work has received a wide readership; in 1983, nine million of her books were in print, and her work has been translated into many languages, including French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Japanese. She has been an author in residence at Oklahoma's Central State University, and has also received numerous awards for her writing, including the University of Oklahoma Literary Award, in 1970; Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1973, for The Runaway's Diary; Oklahoma Federation of Writers Teepee Award, 1974; Women in Communications By-Liner Award, 1975; Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame Award, 1980; and Cottey College Distinguished Alumna Award, 1981. Harris is also an O. Henry Award winner.

Harris married Edgar V. Springer, Jr., a professor, in 1953; the couple have two children: John P. and Karen Louise.

Plot Summary

Summer Attacked by Hatter

Hatter Fox is set in New Mexico in 1973. Teague Summer, a young doctor who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is summoned to a crowded jail cell in Santa Fe to attend to a wounded Navajo boy. He notices that among the group of about twenty imprisoned youths there is a Navajo girl of about seventeen who appears to be their leader. When he enters the cell, the girl, whose name is Hatter Fox, looks at him with a terrified expression on her face. Then she attacks him, stabbing him in the shoulder with a knife.

Summer Seeks Out Hatter

After Summer recovers, he is curious about Hatter, who is still at the jail. He visits her and observes her in an isolation cell chanting to herself. Within a few days, he receives a request from a social worker from the State Reformatory for Girls outside Albuquerque, asking if he has any information on Hatter Fox. He ignores the request, still haunted by the image of Hatter chanting in the jail cell. Two weeks later, Dr. Thomas Levering, head psychiatrist at the reformatory, sends Summer another letter, begging him to come down to the reformatory and give them whatever information he has about Hatter. She is unmanageable, having destroyed property, tried to escape, and attacked another girl. No one knows anything about her or her background, including the local Navajos.

On his initial visits, Summer is shocked by what he finds. First, he discovers that as a punishment, Hatter is sometimes confined in a dog pen outside in the freezing cold. Then he finds her in solitary confinement in a basement isolation cell, strapped down on a cot so she cannot move. She has also been subjected to force-feeding. Summer asks to be left alone with her, and Dr. Levering reluctantly agrees. Summer removes the straps from Hatter, and tells her that he is here to help her, but Hatter refuses to speak, and again looks terrified. Then, when he turns his back, she attacks Summer again, jumping on his back and clawing at his face and eyes.

Summer is determined to have nothing more to do with her, but a snowstorm prevents him from returning to Santa Fe. Levering persuades him to try once more to help Hatter. He meets the administrator of the reformatory, Dr. George Winton, who tells him that in seventeen years at the reformatory he has never had a failure and does not want one now. Though Summer dislikes the bureaucratic attitudes exhibited by Levering and Winton, he agrees that he will do what he can—but before he makes any decision, he wants to see Hatter once more.

Back in the basement again, Summer meets Clito and Claude, the two huge guards in charge of the cells. Summer takes Hatter a cup of coffee and talks to her, but still she refuses to respond. Then finally, she looks directly at him and drinks the now-cold coffee. Summer finds this an encouraging sign, and thinks that at last Hatter may be willing to let him help her. He arranges to stay at the reformatory for a few weeks.

Summer Moves into the Reformatory

The following morning he finds Hatter back in the restraining bed. Claude tells him that she has refused to sleep on her cot, insisting on the floor instead. This is against the reformatory rules. Summer again tries to get through to Hatter, worried by her condition. She is half-starved, and her struggles against the restraints have cut her flesh. He believes she will die if she continues in this way. He feels compassion for her, persuades Claude to release the restraints, and bandages her wounds. A lewd remark by Claude suggests to Summer that Claude may have raped Hatter at some point.

Summer has no proof, but he shares his suspicions with Levering. Angered by Levering's bureaucratic, unresponsive attitude, he declares that he is quitting and returning to Santa Fe. But in a bar in Albuquerque he quickly changes his mind, and decides to spend three days in the cell adjoining Hatter's. On the first day, Hatter refuses to eat. Summer physically struggles with her and forces the food down her throat; she bites his finger in the process.

The next day, Hatter begins to speak to Summer, but she is still fearful and resentful. She says she is sick and tells him to go away. Realizing that Hatter has developed a fever, Summer transfers her to the infirmary. Once there, the efficient but over-bearing nurse, Rhinehart, takes over.

Rhinehart understands Indian beliefs, and she tries to convince Hatter that Claude, not Summer, is the "witch" who has been tormenting her. She then performs a traditional ritual to destroy the hold the witch has over Hatter. Although Hatter claims that she does not believe in witches, she does becomes more cooperative. However, she is still subject to violent and unpredictable moods, and a screaming fit lands her in a straitjacket once more. This time she pleads with Summer to help her by killing her. After the outburst, Rhinehart convinces Dr. Winton, the administrator, to let Summer stay and work in the infirmary to keep a close eye on Hatter.

Media Adaptations

  • Hatter Fox was made into a CBS-TV movie-of-the-week entitled The Girl Called Hatter Fox and was broadcast in October, 1978. It was directed by George Schaefer and starred Ronny Cox as Dr. Teague Summer and Joannelle Nadine Romero as Hatter Fox.

During a late-night dinner in Rhinehart's apartment, the nurse relates her history to Summer; they begin to repeat these dinners each evening.

Hatter Begins to Make Progress

Days pass, and Summer works in the infirmary tending to various girls and watching Hatter, who is cooperative but silent. Christmas approaches. Summer returns to Santa Fe on Christmas Eve for some fresh clothes and a break from the monotony, and contemplates not going back to the reformatory.

He returns that evening, surprised to see that Rhinehart is throwing a private Christmas party for Summer and Hatter, who is charming and well-behaved. She even gives Summer a gift of hand-kerchiefs. But when Hatter retires to her room and Summer follows, she starts to tell him about the abuse that she has suffered at other institutions like this. Summer apologizes for these events, but tells her that if she behaves herself she can be out of the reformatory by spring. As he leaves that night, she asks him, "When it's all over, will I be white or Indian?" Summer doesn't know how to answer her.

He arranges for her to work in the infirmary where he can keep an eye on her. Some tranquil days follow, as Hatter works hard and well, and opens up more to Summer about her past. She seems to have become reasonably calm and productive.

But the calm is shattered when Hatter becomes jealous of Mango, one of the girls at the reformatory, whom Summer also befriends. Hatter tries to attack Mango with a knife as she sleeps, but Summer stops her. Summer is the only one who witnesses the incident, but he doesn't say anything.

Trying to overcome this setback, Summer gets permission to take Hatter on a trip to Albuquerque. She is nervous in the city, but seems to come alive when she guides Summer to a rocky ledge high on the side of a mountain, with a spectacular view of the surrounding area. She tells Summer she used to go there as a child, then tells him that the reason she was nervous in the city was because she had worked as a prostitute there the previous year, to make enough money to survive. She remains silent for an hour, lost in the beauty of nature.

But soon there is another setback. Back in the reformatory, Hatter is attacked by a gang of girls, who give her a merciless beating. Summer is angry that Winton will not hold an investigation to find out the culprits.

Hatter Leaves the Reformatory

Hatter recovers, and March passes uneventfully. But during April, Summer realizes that Hatter is expecting to go with him to Santa Fe when she is released. He is not prepared to take on this responsibility, and so raises no protest when the reformatory arranges for Hatter to be taken in by the Good Hope orphanage, even though the orphanage has a bad reputation. But when Summer sees her being dragged off roughly to the orphanage, he intervenes. Agreeing to become her guardian, he drives her to Santa Fe, arranges for her to stay in a rooming house, and tries to find her a job. She works briefly at a mock Indian trading post, where she has to dress in an Indian outfit and be photographed with tourists. She soon walks out and finds herself a better job, working at a grocery store owned by a Navajo man.

Hatter seems happy, and for several weeks Summer's friendship with her blossoms. But one day, Summer becomes angry with her and insists that before they go for a day out she must return to find a paycheck that she has lost. Returning with the check, Hatter is focused only on Summer and carelessly crosses the road, where she is run over by a bus and killed. Summer is grief-stricken and blames himself for her death.



Claude is the guard in charge of the solitary confinement cells at the reformatory. He is in his late twenties, and built like a football player. He insists that all the rules of the institution be carried out, but he is not very intelligent and does not know when to be flexible. He is sometimes crude in his manner, and Summer suspects that he may have abused Hatter sexually.


Clito is an assistant guard at the reformatory. He helps Claude deal with Hatter, and has the responsibility of force-feeding her. He is large and his face suggests he may be Mexican.

Hatter Fox

Hatter Fox is a seventeen-year-old Navajo girl. She is slender, with long straight black hair and delicate features. Her life has been characterized by abuse, neglect and abandonment. She does not know who her parents are, and she was raised in several different environments. As a young child, she was abandoned and taken in by an old woman, whom she called grandmother, but who was not her real grandmother. The old woman told Hatter that Changing Woman had given Hatter to her. Hatter was fond of the old woman, but she died before Hatter was five. Hatter was then taken in by a Navajo Indian family who were also caring for about a hundred other children. But Hatter was soon falsely accused of killing one of them, and the family cruelly abused and abandoned her. She was sent to a Christian mission school, where she was abused again, enduring many beatings and other abuse from the cruel couple who ran the school. She remained at the mission school until she was thirteen.

After this, Hatter appears to have just drifted for several years, and no details are given. Her story resumes when she is about sixteen. For a while she attended classes at the university in Albuquerque, but was kicked out because she was not registered. Then she lived for a year amongst the students in Albuquerque as a prostitute. This episode came to an end when the Indian students on campus told her to leave. Hatter interpreted this as another betrayal from her own people. Hatter then moved to Santa Fe, living in a commune before her arrest with a group of other teenagers. The kids were high on drugs and armed with explosives, which they were apparently going to use to blow up a building called the Palace of Governors. (It is never made clear the extent to which Hatter was involved in this plot.) Hatter's arrest lands her in the jail cell where Teague Summer first encounters her.

Hatter is so traumatized by her painful experiences in life that she can bring herself to trust no one. She is strong-willed, highly intelligent and stands out from the crowd. She is also violent and uncontrollable. She attacks Summer twice, as well as Mango, a girl at the reformatory to which she is sent. Hatter has no friends, and lashes out even at those who try to help her. The girls at the reformatory dislike her and give her a severe beating when they get the chance. Filled with self-destructive tendencies, Hatter has no interest in going on living.

However, Summer is fascinated by Hatter and slowly wins her trust. Gradually, she begins to cooperate with him and prepare herself for a life outside the reformatory. She shows that when she wants to be, she can be charming, graceful and outgoing. But she is still subject to violent moods and fits of despair and confusion. It is hard for such an unusual, high-strung Indian girl to fit tidily into white society, and she is aware of this. But Summer persuades her to make the necessary effort, and she seems to be succeeding, before a tragic accident ends her life.

Dr. Thomas Levering

Thomas Levering is the head psychiatrist at the State Reformatory. In his fifties, Levering is tall, with a gaunt appearance, as if he is about to succumb to an illness or has just recovered from one. He seems weighed down by dealing with all the problems in the reformatory. Levering invites Summer to help in dealing with Hatter, but then angers him by proposing that Hatter be sent to the state mental hospital. Summer dismisses Levering as a bureaucrat, concerned only with relieving himself of the responsibility for an unsolvable problem. However, Levering does care about the welfare of the girls in the reformatory, and he is well-liked and respected by them, and by everyone else in the institution.


Mango is an inmate of the State Reformatory. She is a big Mexican girl from El Paso who has been imprisoned for attempting to kill her father. Mango does well in the reformatory, however, despite being stabbed in the arm by Hatter, and she is due for release within a month. The staff of the reformatory trust her and she is given responsible tasks to perform. This is because Mango has shown she is willing to learn the rules and abide by them. Summer befriends her and buys her a carton of cigarettes as a gift, then comforts her when she has to delay her departure from the reformatory because she becomes sick. This arouses Hatter's jealousy, and she almost attacks Mango for a second time, although Summer stops her.


Rhinehart is the nurse in charge of the reformatory's infirmary, and is Summer's guide at the reformatory, letting him know about events that have gone on in the past and assisting him in rehabilitating Hatter, both physically and mentally. In her sixties, small and overweight (Summer thinks she looks like a woman wrestler), she has a strong personality. She quickly takes charge of the situation when Hatter is brought to the infirmary, and knows enough about Indian beliefs to concoct a ritual to free Hatter from the spell the girl believes she is under. Summer regards her as a good person, "a colorful, brusque, eccentric." Originally from Australia, Rhinehart came to New York when she was nineteen, and worked as a waitress at nights while putting herself through nursing school. She is lonely and regards the girls at the reformatory as her family; they are all she has.

Dr. Teague Summer

Teague Summer is a twenty-eight-year-old doctor, originally from Lowell, Massachusetts, who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He first meets Hatter Fox when he is called to a jail cell to attend to a wounded Indian boy. Hatter stabs him in the shoulder with a knife. From that point on, Summer can't forget Hatter. He accepts a request from the authorities to visit her in the state reformatory, and tries to explain to her that he wants to help her. Although sometimes he wants to wash his hands of the troublesome girl, he shows considerable persistence and resourcefulness in trying to get through to her, even though she continues to ignore him almost completely. He even comes up with the idea of going into solitary confinement in the cell next to her so he can observe her. He tells himself he must try to understand her on her terms rather than his. He must learn how to interpret her silences and understand her nonactions as well as her actions. Eventually, Hatter begins to respond to him. Their progress is like a slow dance, one step forward, three steps back.

Summer sticks to his task because he is idealistic. "I have an absolute and childlike faith in the goodness of man," he states, and he is deeply shocked by what he sees as the cruel and inhuman treatment of Hatter in the reformatory. Summer also shows himself to be levelheaded, usually able to evaluate situations calmly, although he is also subject to fits of anger and indignation when things do not go his way. He can be assertive, and is willing to stand up to the authorities at the reformatory when he thinks they are wrong. He dislikes the rule-bound institution and sympathizes with those who are imprisoned in it.

Summer is a modest man who does not have a high opinion of himself. He admits to having a lack-luster childhood, with no achievements to speak of. He joined the Peace Corps and went to Bolivia full of idealism but returned disillusioned, for what reason he does not say. He became a doctor in order to please his parents, even though it was against his better judgment. "I'm just a plain, second-rate M.D.," he says. He is also honest enough to admit that nothing in his medical training prepared him for dealing with a person in Hatter's situation.

Summer shows some development during the course of the novel. At the beginning he has a smug attitude about how much white people in Santa Fe have done for the benefit of the Indians. He thinks Indians should learn to adjust, as everyone else has to do. But later, when he has formed an attachment to Hatter, and she mentions Alcatraz, he points out that the Indians no longer occupy the island. Then he adds, "We had denied them even that," which suggests that he has become more sympathetic to the Indian cause. It is Summer's request for Hatter to find her lost paycheck that leads directly to her accidental death, for which he feels responsible.

George Winton

George Winton is the administrator in charge of the State Reformatory. He is in his sixties, and gives the impression of being "everybody's young-at-heart grandfather." With his ruddy cheeks he looks as if he could play Santa Claus. Winton has been at the reformatory for seventeen years, and believes that he has never had a failure; all the girls in his charge are eventually returned to society to lead productive lives. Although Summer accepts that Winton is well-trained and professional, he thinks Winton is concerned about Hatter more because he does not want his perfect record spoiled than from any real interest in her welfare. Summer wonders whether Winton has ever seen the solitary confinement cells or is aware of the brutal things that go on in the reformatory. But it is Winton who insists that Summer take on the task of Hatter's rehabilitation, so he shares some of the credit for the progress she makes.



Racism pervades the novel. Harris creates a picture of a society imbued with extreme prejudice against Indians. This is apparent from the very first page, in which Summer notes that "someone who should know better" referred to Hatter as "the worst of all possible bitches, an intelligent Navajo." Then when Summer first sees Hatter in the jail cell, he over-hears someone cursing, "Goddamn Indian kook."

At the reformatory, Levering and Winton do not exhibit racist attitudes, but the otherwise admirable Rhinehart does, offering the comment that Indians "aren't long on gratitude" and telling Hatter, supposedly as a joke, that she looks "almost human." Mango, another girl at the reformatory, believes that Hatter is "crazy in the head, like all Indians," and a matron offers the opinion: "Nothing but trouble, that one. What can you expect?" She suggests there is nothing wrong with Hatter that a beating cannot cure. Later, when Summer is trying to find work for Hatter, Mr. Duncan, who owns a mock Indian trading post, says, "I'm glad to see one of them who wants to work."

All these comments reflect attitudes based on stereotypes of the American Indian. Hatter herself is well aware of these stereotypes, sardonically commenting, "Navajos use buttons for money. And sheep. They're stupid."

There are also signs of more overt racism in the society, in the form of discrimination against Indians: the gallery owner in Santa Fe who does not want an Indian for a receptionist; the white police officers who arrest Hatter for panhandling but ignore the white teenagers who are doing the same thing.

Victim and Victimization

The theme of Hatter as victim is prominent throughout the novel. Summer notices her down-trodden status early on when he remarks, "If ever the Creator had wittingly or unwittingly created a victim, she was it."

Hatter is a classic example of a vicious circle: those who are victims of hatred will hate in return. Hatter's tales of her childhood reveal constant abuse. She was cruelly beaten at the Christian mission school. Then when she was taken in by an Indian family who cared for about a hundred children, she was falsely accused of killing one of them. She was tied up and made to lie next to the girl's bloody corpse. Even Hatter's own people reject her, as when Indian students on the college campus in Albuquerque tell her that she must get out of town because, as a prostitute, she is giving them a bad name.

When Hatter is sent to the reformatory, the pattern of abuse and victimization continues. Summer suspects that she has been raped by a guard, and he personally witnesses her undergo acts of cruelty and sadism such as being confined to a dog pen and being strapped down on a restraining bed.

Faced with this abuse, Hatter trusts no one. All she can do is hate in return, which can only create more victims and potential victims. She attacks Summer twice, stabs Mango once, and later stands over her, knife in hand, as Mango sleeps. (Only Summer's intervention saves Mango from harm, although Hatter later claims that she would not have hurt the girl.)

Topics for Further Study

  • Form an argument for why Native Americans should either assimilate into the general population or retain their own distinct cultural identity.
  • Is Hatter's death an appropriate end to the story or is it too tragic? What message, if any, does Hatter's death convey? Write a possible alternate ending to the story.
  • Research the history of some Indian tribes in the American Southwest, including the Pueblos, the Hopi, and the Navajo. What problems do Native Americans face when they leave their reservations to live and work in cities?
  • Research the history of the "red power" movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. What did Native Americans gain from this movement?
  • Do some research to find out what current conditions are like on Native American reservations. How has life changed on the reservations in the past fifty years? What are some of the main issues facing Native Americans living on reservations today?
  • Pick two Native American tribes and research the principal tenets of their worldviews as they relate to religion and the natural world. How do these tribes' belief systems differ from both Christianity and modern secular views? How do the tribal tenets, religious systems, or world-views differ from each other?

Hatter's hatred, born of her victimization, also manifests as self-hatred. Single-mindedly she pursues a course of self-destruction, refusing to eat, refusing to cooperate in any way with the authorities at the reformatory. Summer knows that if something is not done, she will soon be dead. On two occasions also, Hatter begs others (first Mango and then Summer) to kill her. Even at the end, Hatter cannot escape her victimhood, although this time she suffers not at the hand of humans but as the plaything of a cruel fate. It appears that however hard she and Summer try, destiny will not permit her to rise above her allotted role as victim.

Culture Clash

The clash between Indian and white culture is apparent at many points in the novel. There is a clash of Indian beliefs, customs, and attitudes with white civilization. It is clear that white people do not understand the way Indians do things. Hatter relates that when the old woman who cared for her died, the Indians held a four-day "Sing," which is a ceremony or chant. Hatter characterizes the contemptuous reaction of whites: "Thought they could sing away her dying."

Hatter is not well-versed in the Navajo beliefs embodied in such mythological figures as Changing Woman, Monster Slayer, and Child of the Water. She only knows the names that the old woman told her. But she is sufficiently imbued with Indian views and customs to conduct her own "Sing" while in her cell at the reformatory, to see the ghost of the old woman returning, and then to walk with her through the night. Hatter is Indian to the core in the way she responds to the ritual conducted by Rhinehart, the only person in the novel who appears to understand Indian beliefs, which frees her from the spell of a witch. Mystified by the procedure, Summer can find only this explanation for the transformation Hatter has undergone: "A child, lost in the twentieth century, has slipped effortlessly back to the roots of her origin."

For her part, Hatter has as little understanding of Christianity as the whites have of Indian beliefs. In the rooming house where she stays after leaving the reformatory, she removes the picture of Christ from the wall and puts it in a drawer. "Is that one of your gods?" she asks Summer.

The difference between the two cultures is seen again when Hatter leads Summer up to a mountain ledge, where she sits for an hour in a kind of mystical communion with nature. Summer tries to explain what he feels has happened to her: "a release, a relaxation, a return to absolutes—sun, wind, space." It is as if Hatter has become part of the natural world. The implicit contrast is with the oppressive atmosphere of the city, in which Hatter is uncomfortable. The passage illustrates the difference between the Indian reverence for nature, the sense that human life is intimately connected to the natural world, and the materialist white culture that experiences human life as separate from nature. In the latter view, nature is something to be exploited and dominated by technology, one result of which is that cities spring up in the deserts and large numbers of people crowd together in unhealthy conditions. Sensing this, Hatter wishes that the city of Albuquerque below them could simply go away, taking "all their bricks and smoke and keys and locks with them."

The culture clash is also discernible in Hatter's refusal to conform to the rules of the dominant society. One of the reasons that she remains a victim is that she does not acknowledge the validity of what Summer describes ironically as the rules of the "white civilized world." These are rules such as punctuality, obedience, conformity, "fitting in," working for pay, managing money carefully, pursuing a career. In the end, it is Hatter's failure to conform to what to her is an alien paradigm that literally kills her. Summer insists that she act responsibly and deposit her paycheck before she can take the day off. But to Hatter, the paycheck is "just a piece of paper." Doing what the white world demands, for the princely sum of $41.28, leads directly to her deadly encounter with the tourist bus.


Point of View

The novel is told in the first person ("I") by the character Teague Summer. The use of this technique means that the reader gains insight into the minds of the other characters only through Summer's direct interactions with them and the thoughts and opinions he expresses. No scene can take place in the novel unless Summer participates in it or observes it.

Often in a first-person narrative, the narrator is the principal character and main focus of interest for the reader, in which case he or she is sometimes referred to as a central narrator. But this is not always the case. The narrator's purpose may be to tell the story of another character, not himself, in which case he is sometimes called a peripheral narrator. Which kind of narrator is telling the story is often apparent at the beginning of the novel. In Hatter Fox, the first sentence makes it clear that the principal interest is not Summer but Hatter: "I had heard of Hatter Fox, but I had never seen her." In the following few paragraphs the reader learns more about Hatter but nothing of Summer. Although Summer does emerge as an important character in his own right (so that the term peripheral narrator may not be appropriate in this case), the focus of the story is clearly on Hatter Fox.


The novel is set in several different locations. The main setting is the State Reformatory for Girls, and Harris spends considerable time creating a picture of a very uninviting state-run institution. Summer's very first sight of the reformatory is a grim one: "a barren complex of red-brick buildings surrounded entirely by high barbed-wire fences; at the gate were two guardhouses, and chained outside, four dogs." It would be hard to imagine a more ominous or dispiriting sight. The interior of the administration building is described in similarly depressing terms: "All institutions have the same odor … they all smell the same, a curious blend of floor wax and old coffee, and strong detergents, a necessary odor when dealing with humanity en masse." When Summer accompanies Levering to the basement, he encounters the "all-too-familiar smells of jail cells: old urine and older sickness. The steps were very narrow, lit only by bare bulbs hung from single cords." By the time they reach the subbasement, the air has become clammy and chilly. Thus, by the time Summer first encounters Hatter in the reformatory, the bleak, intimidating atmosphere of the place has been fully established. By way of contrast, there are some scenes set in or around the cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and for the most part (Hatter's discomfort there notwithstanding) these come like a breath of fresh air after the oppressive nature of the institution.


Although the novel is not divided into chapters, its structure is fairly simple. Events unfold in linear sequence, covering a period of about five months. There are no flashbacks. Nor are there any subplots to complicate the action, and the cast of characters is not large. The effect of this is to keep the focus consistently on Hatter Fox and the slowly developing relationship between her and Summer.

Given the straightforward structure, Harris makes effective use of rhythm and pacing in the plot. Scenes involving much action or tension, such as when Hatter stabs or attacks Summer, or when she is involved in other, less violent confrontations with him, are alternated with quieter scenes of reflection, when Summer gives voice to his thoughts about his own situation and what he proposes to do about Hatter.

Historical Context

Native Americans in the 1960s and 1970s

When Hatter Fox is trying to convince Summer that she knows where she can go once she leaves the reformatory, she mentions one word: Alcatraz. She is referring to an incident that began in November, 1969. Seventy-eight members of the group Indians of All Tribes, many of whom were college students from San Francisco, took over Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. They demanded that the site of the former federal penitentiary be turned into an Indian cultural center. They offered to purchase the island for twenty-four dollars in beads and cloth. The group said they were following a precedent set by the white man's purchase of Manhattan Island several hundred years earlier.

The occupation lasted until June, 1971. It was a sign of the increasing militancy of Indian activist groups in the late 1960s as they sought to preserve their heritage and rights of self-determination. Encouraged by the gains made by African Americans during the civil rights movement and the militancy of the "black power" movement, Indian activists proclaimed the advent of "red power."

There were more radical incidents in the early 1970s. In November 1972, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building in Washington, D.C., demanding reform of relations between Indians and the federal government. They called the building the Native American Embassy. (The BIA is a government agency that comes under the jurisdiction of the department of the Interior. In the novel, Teague Summer is an employee of the BIA.) Then, for ten weeks in 1973, AIM occupied the hamlet of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, demanding reform of tribal government.

In Hatter Fox, Hatter has encountered some of these young Indian activists on college campuses in Albuquerque. Summer is aware of them, too, but has a negative impression of them, commenting on their "futile intensity … the suicidal zeal with which they approached their lost cause of salvaging a dead past."

Lost cause or not, Hatter Fox implies that many Indians were on the margins of society in New Mexico in the 1970s. They were the poor, the unemployed, the rootless and culturally marginalized, who migrated from Indian reservations to cities such as Santa Fe and Albuquerque in search of work.

This portrait has some basis in fact. Historically, the movement away from the reservations began for the Navajo in World War II, when the war economy created job opportunities in copper mines, on the railroads, in shipyards, and in agriculture. For many Navajos, it was the first time they had experienced life outside of the reservation. Many moved to cities such as Flagstaff, Arizona, and Albuquerque. Some succeeded in adjusting to city life; others became trapped in a cycle of poverty.

The same pattern occurred nationally. During a twenty-year period from approximately 1960 to 1980, more than two hundred thousand Indians left their reservations and moved to large cities. Many of them were reluctant to assimilate to the values of the dominant culture, and social problems resulted. Research in one large city, Denver, showed that the arrest record for Indians was twenty times the rate for whites and eight times the Hispanic rate. This conflict with the authorities is reflected in Hatter Fox: Hatter gets arrested twice, and on the second occasion she is clearly discriminated against, since a group of nearby whites who are committing the same offense of panhandling are not apprehended.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1960–1970s: Many sports teams, such as the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Redskins, have names that refer to Indians, and many sports teams have Indian mascots. Few people question whether this is appropriate.

    Today: Many sports teams throughout the nation have dropped names and nicknames that refer to Native Americans. The decade-long movement to abolish "Chief Illiniwek," the Indian mascot of the University of Illinois, continues to gather momentum.
  • 1968: The Navajo Community College is founded; it is the first tribally-controlled college in the United States. During the 1970s, eighteen Indian-controlled colleges are founded as part of the movement toward Indian self-determination.

    Today: With campuses at Tsaile, Arizona, and Shiprock, New Mexico, Diné College (formerly Navajo Community College) has an enrollment of more than 4,500 students. There are now thirty-two Indian colleges; a 2001 report by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the Institute for Higher Education Policy describes tribal colleges as a critical factor in improving the lives of impoverished Indians.
  • 1973: Members of the American Indian Movement seize control of the village of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota. The takeover lasts for seventy-two days; it is a highly visible sign of Indian militancy.

    1999: President Bill Clinton visits Pine Ridge reservation, becoming the first United States president for more than sixty years to visit an Indian reservation. The visit is intended to bring attention to the poverty suffered by Native Americans. At the same time, the Clinton Administration announces a $1.5 billion package to help those living on reservations.

Socio-economic statistics from the period show the difficult conditions endured by Indians nationally. In 1973, the unemployment rate on Indian reservations averaged 37 percent. If underemployment caused by seasonal work was taken into account, the figure rose to 55 percent. In 1970, the median income of Indians was only half that of whites. In the same year, one-third of all Indian families lived below the official poverty level. A Reader's Digest article in 1970 (quoted in Native Americans in the News) pointed out that life expectancy for Indians was only forty-four years, compared to an average of sixty-six years nation-wide; infant mortality was three times the national average; school dropout rates were twice the national average; and teen suicide was five times the national average. The last two statistics are relevant for Hatter Fox: Hatter has had little formal schooling, and more than once she expresses a wish to die.

Although the situation of Indians during the period was often bleak, some progress was made in the early 1970s. Under the administration of President Richard Nixon, the federal government was more responsive to Indian aspirations. In some cases Indian land illegally taken by the government was returned to Indians. One such case resulted in the return of Blue Lake in New Mexico, an Indian religious shrine, to the Pueblo Indians.

Critical Overview

As a "popular" rather than a literary novel, Hatter Fox did not attract many reviews. The reviews it did receive, however, were generally favorable, although with some sharp dissenting views. A reviewer for Newsweek declared it to be a "touching, skillful melodrama," adding that "Fate conveniently glues a 'Love Story' ending onto this romantic fantasy." (The allusion is to the tragic love story that was made into a movie in the 1960s, starring Ali MacGraw.) High praise came from Pamela Marsh in Christian Science Monitor, who described Hatter Fox as "a steel trap of a book. Advance a few pages and you'll be stuck fast until [Harris] sees fit to let you go." Marsh offered this interpretation of the novel's theme:

Perhaps … Hatter Fox stands for the whole Indian nation, puzzling whites by violent reaction to mistreatment, puzzled in their turn by violent suppression of that violence, and constantly suspicious of muddled men of good will who attempt to help.

James Brockway, in Books and Bookmen, wondered how much of the material in the novel was authentic and how much the product of the author's imagination: "how much … is an accurate picture of what really happens in such 'reformatories?'" He continued, "The novel raises issues, moral, psychological and social, which are really quite frightening." His overall evaluation of the novel was largely positive, although he argued that the first part of the novel, "engrossingly told," was superior to the second part, which "tends to become a report on [Summer's] efforts to save [Hatter], with various incidents inserted, sometimes a little artificially, to maintain the interest, while the dénouement is not free from sentimentality."

A negative review came from the Listener's Sara Maitland, who complained of the book's "sentimental idealism, sloppy writing and generally inadequate characterisation." J. K. Yenser, the Library Journal reviewer, expressed a similar highly critical view: "However well intentioned, the themes of social injustice and institutional mistreatment are handled in a heavy-handed fashion. Both plot and character fail to convince."


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, he considers Harris's novel in terms of the cultural climate in which it was written.

Harris's Hatter Fox, a popular novel that contains many different perspectives on Native Americans, reflects the cultural climate in which it was written. The early 1970s was a time when old perceptions, stereotypes, and prejudices about Native Americans were starting to give way to a new understanding. This was fueled by several factors. In the late 1960s the rise of the "red power" movement made the general public more aware of Native American grievances and aspirations. New attitudes in the reporting of Native American affairs emerged in newspapers and on television. A number of books, including Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1971), a sympathetic account of Indian history, helped to create for the general public a romantic ideal of the vanishing Native American culture. Finally, literature created by emerging Native American writers, such as N. Scott Momaday in his novel, House Made of Dawn (1968), presented the Native American experience from the inside, opening up new ways of understanding a culture that had long been seen only through the distorting lens of white culture. Even the term "Native American" was a part of this new awareness. Up until this time, the usual term, and the one used throughout Hatter Fox, was "Indian."

Much of the range of attitudes towards Native Americans, both positive and negative, the old as well as the new, can be found in Hatter Fox. The most obvious is the blatant racism with which whites view Indians. The novel is awash with negative stereotypes. An assembly of minor characters, present in the novel to demonstrate the general so-cietal attitude to Indians in New Mexico, make it clear that to whites the Indian is crazy, lazy, untrustworthy, ungrateful, stupid, primitive, and a troublemaker. The comment of a police officer about Hatter, "Her kind spells nothing but trouble," sums up this attitude. And the presentation of Hatter as wild, violent and uncontrollable—at least in the eyes of the white world—is another stereotype, a variant of the way Indians were often identified in the early American imagination as savage, hateful and debased. In this view, Hatter can only be "tamed" by being defeated, having her will broken and being forced to learn the rules of "civilized" society.

The racism depicted in the novel manifests itself in more subtle ways, too, as when Hatter is in a restaurant with Summer. She notices that the waiter is looking at her in a strange way, "Like he didn't like me, but he'd like me for a while as long as I was with you." In other words, the price of her acceptance in polite white society is her association with a white man. As long as that continues, she becomes almost like an honorary white person.

Such negative views and racial stereotyping have their roots deep in American history. They are the result of the persistent tendency to judge Indians in terms of white standards, rather than to try to understand them on their own terms. Because Indians differed from whites, they were seen as not measuring up to white standards. Little attempt was made to understand Indian values and the Indian worldview. This attitude is known as ethnocentrism.

One consequence of ethnocentrism is the belief that minorities should assimilate, or integrate, with the dominant community. Historically in the United States this idea has been known as the "melting pot." It has been applied generally to immigrants, who are encouraged to submerge their ethnicity and become part of mainstream America.

Assimilation as applied to Native Americans has had a long history. Assimilationists have been active since about 1880, and rapid assimilation of Native Americans was the goal of United States government policy in the 1920s. The idea was that Native Americans could only survive by becoming more like whites. They had to become "civilized." However, historians James S. Olson and Raymond Wilson argue that assimilationist policies had a "negative effect on Native American life…. In the name of assimilation, European Americans demanded conformity, but even then Native Ameri-cans knew that European American society would never accept them."

In the novel, Summer encounters assimilation when he meets a man named Chief Sitting Bull who owns a convenience store that sells Indian souvenirs just outside Albuquerque. Although he has no connection with the original Sitting Bull, the man is of Indian blood and often dons a feathered headdress to be photographed with gullible tourists. In addition to exploiting the Indian heritage (for which he is disliked by his own people), Chief Sitting Bull, who drives a Cadillac, embraces superficial American materialist values. To Summer, the man's face is "alive with profit" and shows no trace of his Indian heritage. He shuns native crafts and sells plastic tomahawks instead, as well as beads made in Japan. When a tourist asks him what tribe he belongs to, he replies, "No tribe. Just the American tribe." Then he points behind him to a large American flag and a faded photograph of President Richard Nixon.

Ironically, only a few minutes before he meets this unsavory product of assimilation, Summer has been musing on the plight of the Indian, observing smugly that it is not his fault, and that Indians should adjust: "Others had learned to adjust. 'Adapt or perish'—that applied to all of us." But his encounter with Chief Sitting Bull suddenly makes him see the wild and rebellious Hatter in a more favorable light. She has not sold out her heritage; she is the genuine article.

The truth, however, is that even Hatter, for all her pride and rebelliousness, has also felt the siren call of assimilation. Much later in the novel she confesses to Summer that she used to wear "real white powder," as a result of which she "didn't look Indian at all." She adds that when she acts like an Indian, she gets into trouble, but "When I act like a white person, I'm okay." It is clear that the pressure to assimilate is great.

Hatter puts her finger on the problem of what it means to be caught between two worlds when she inquires of Summer at the reformatory, "When it's all over, will I be white or Indian?" Her confusion over her self-identity is understandable, but she receives little support from Summer. He replies by lapsing back into the complacent views he expressed earlier, that Indians should just adapt: "Acculturation took place every day. Completely painless. Survival for anyone was a matter of adjustment, of flexibility…. White or Indian? What the hell difference did it make?" Considering that Summer has spent an entire month doing his best to get Hatter to assimilate and seeing firsthand the problems that raises, his attitude here seems astonishingly ignorant. He seems to have forgotten all about his earlier disturbing encounter with Chief Sitting Bull.

Summer is a well-meaning man, and the fact that he has chosen to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs suggests that he harbors no prejudice against Indians. But like many white people, he has to struggle with a subtle racism of his own, although he is sufficiently perceptive to be at least half-aware of it. This can be seen from a telling observation he makes about Hatter's appearance and his own reaction to it. As he watches her sleeping in the infirmary, he thinks, "She doesn't look Indian—as though it were wrong for an Indian to look Indian. The delicate oriental features pleased me more than ever, the non-Indian look." In other words, Summer is happiest when Hatter looks least like an Indian.

Another problematic aspect of Summer's reaction to Hatter is that when he first observes her he seems to fall victim to another stereotype, that of the "exotic" Indian who possesses mystical, other-worldly powers beyond those of the white man. This is a perception that developed largely in the 1960s. The movement known as the counter-culture saw in Indian beliefs about the connection between man and nature a way of countering the destructive materialism of Western culture.

At the same time, as Michael Dorris put it in his article "The Grass Still Grows, the Rivers Still Flow: Contemporary Native Americans," "the quasi-mystical writings of Carlos Castaneda convinced sundry hippies, romantics, and Californians-of-all-regions that Indians were somehow genetically endowed with extrasensory powers." (Castaneda wrote a series of books alledgedly based on the teachings of an ancient Mexican Indian shaman named don Juan.)

Something of this romanticizing of the Indian finds its way into Summer's perceptions of Hatter. When he first sees her, she seems to have a unique, inexplicable power that enables her to control the other young people in the cell with her. Her flowing movements and ritualistic gestures mark her out as special. On Summer's next visit, he hears her chanting in her cell and is captivated not only by the beauty of the melody but also by its power: "Only an American Indian can take a minor key and make it sound victorious." Hatter also, in Summer's observation, possesses unusual mental powers of concentration that enable her to resist the harsh conditions of her incarceration. She can stare at a spot on the ceiling and completely shut out everything else around her. She can lie completely still for long periods. Even when she is half-starved, lying in the punishment cell, he sees about her a "strange, almost primal mystical beauty … she dominated that grim cell, just as she had dominated the cell back in Santa Fe, occupied it and conquered the ugliness somehow."

Just as Summer gives expression to the countercultural stereotype of the Indian whose beliefs, knowledge and unusual abilities make her some-how "special," he also voices some of the attitudes that characterized the militant aspect of Indian activism in the 1960s and 1970s. During this period the goal of assimilation was replaced by the goal of self-determination for Native Americans. Olson and Wilson observe that "Assimilation, by definition a celebration of non-Native American values, became a bad word in the 1970s, a reminder of three centuries of cultural imperialism."

Summer's complacent attitudes expressed elsewhere notwithstanding, this is the sentiment that lies behind his comments about "Christian genocide," "the plague of Christianity," and "old injustices [to the Indian] … carefully omitted from the history books." Here he sounds rather like a left-wing radical of the 1970s (although this is hardly consistent with his character elsewhere in the novel).

Finally, it is Summer who discovers through Hatter the lure of the Native American worldview as the antidote to the excesses of Western materialism—another belief of the counterculture of the sixties. This occurs when Hatter takes him up the mountains outside of Albuquerque. He notices how she immediately seems to enter into deep communion with nature, with rocks and wind and sky. It is as if she has become a part of eternity, part of the things that never change, in contrast to the ugliness of the smoky city below, the home only of things that have a beginning and an end. As Hertha D. Wong puts it in "Nature in Native American Literatures":

European Americans have seen Nature as a potent force to be subdued and as a valuable resource to be used, whereas Native Americans have viewed nature as a powerful force to be respected and as a nurturing Mother to be honored.

Hatter Fox, then, gives voice to a whole range of attitudes toward Native Americans and their culture that were part of the cultural atmosphere of the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It should be pointed out, however, that since Harris, the author, is not herself Native American, the novel is not classified as Native American literature. It is essentially a view of Native Americans from the outside. This marks the book as different from another cultural phenomenon of the period, the increased interest in and publication of Native American writers such as Momaday and later writers such as Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko, who wrote from within their own traditions.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Hatter Fox, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Doris Seale

In the following review-essay, Seale questions whether Hatter Fox is acceptable reading material for the classroom, asserting that the novel's message is one of hopelessness for Native Americans.

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What Do I Read Next?

  • This Other Eden (1977) is the first of Harris's seven-novel family saga. It is set in eighteenth-century England against a background of the French Revolution and follows the fortunes of the noble Eden family.
  • N. Scott Momaday's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn (1968) tells the story of Abel, a Native American who grew up on a reservation in New Mexico, fought in World War II, and then returned to the United States and moved to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, Abel slips away from the Native American culture of his upbringing as he tries to deal with the harshness of modern industrial America.
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), by Dee Alexander Brown, made a huge impact on the American public when it was first published. For the first time it told the story of the Indian wars of 1860–1890 from the Native American point of view—a chronicle of ruthless white settlers, stolen land, and a people destroyed.
  • Unsung Heroes of World War II: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers (1998), by Deanne Durrett, tells the fascinating story of how the complex Navajo language was used to create the Navajo Code in World War II. The code baffled the Japanese and provided secure communication for American forces in the Pacific.

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Source: Doris Seale, "Indians without Hope, Indians with-out Options—The Problematic Theme of Hatter Fox," in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1984, pp. 7, 10, 22.


Brockway, James, Review, in Books and Bookmen, August 1975, p. 58.

Dorris, Michael A., "The Grass Still Grows, the Rivers Still Flow: Contemporary Native Americans," in Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 110, Spring 1981.

"Mad Hatter," in Newsweek, September 17, 1973, pp. 98-99.

Maitland, Sara, Review, in Listener, February 13, 1975.

Marsh, Pamela, Review, in Christian Science Monitor, August 22, 1973, p. 22.

Olson, James S., and Raymond Wilson, Native Americans in the Twentieth Century, Brigham Young University Press, 1984, pp. 157-77.

Weston, Mary Ann, Native Americans in the News: Images of Indians in the Twentieth Century Press, Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 1-18, 127-66.

Wong, Hertha D., "Nature in Native American Literatures," in American Nature Writers, Vol. 2, Scribner, 1996, pp. 1141-56.

Yenser, J. K., Review, in Library Journal, August, 1973.

For Further Reading

Griffin-Pierce, Trudy, Native Peoples of the Southwest, University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

This book approaches the southwestern Indian cultures in terms of their cultural vitality and evolution. There are detailed sections on each culture's language, territory, history, material culture, social organization, political organization, religion, and worldview.

Locke, Raymond Friday, Book of the Navajo, 5th ed., Holloway House, 1992.

This is a comprehensive and readable account of Navajo history and culture.

Young, Robert W., A Political History of the Navajo Tribe, Navajo Community College Press, 1978, pp. 15-52.

The first chapter contains a concise summary of Navajo history and culture.