Places: Rabbit Boss

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1973

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: 1846-1950’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Lake Tahoe

*Lake Rabbit BossTahoe. Large lake straddling the California-Nevada border in the Sierra Nevada. A deep lake with cold, clear water and surrounded by snow-capped peaks, Tahoe is a place of great natural beauty and abundant wildlife. The lake is also the center of the ancestral homeland of the Washo Indians, to whom land is sacred. The Washo see their land as populated by the power and spirits of animals who guide the people and provide them with food, especially antelope, fish, and deer. Before the coming of white people, the Washo live in harmony with nature at Tahoe, taking only what they need to survive. Their homeland encompasses an oval-shaped region approximately fifty miles east and south of the lake, twenty miles to the west, and one hundred to the north. However, after white hunters, prospectors, railroad builders, and settlers begin arriving in the late 1840’s, the Washo are gradually driven from their lands. In contrast, the new masters of the land strip areas of trees for towns and mines, fish out the lake, nearly exterminate the wildlife, and regard the area primarily as a means to wealth and recreation.

*Donner Pass

*Donner Pass. Sierra Nevada mountain pass (now on Interstate 80) at which the novel opens when Gayabuc, a young Washo, witnesses murder and cannibalism among members of the stranded Donner Party in 1847. The cannibalism episode and the migrants’ desperate, incompetent misuse of forest resources profoundly shock Gayabuc and convince him that all whites are cannibals who defile the land. Much later, at nearby Donner Lake, the last Rabbit Boss of the novel’s four generations, Gayabuc’s great grandnephew Joe Birdsong, dies while trying to live in accordance with the traditional Washo hunter-gatherer methods. He is in hiding after being unjustly accused of murdering a rancher. His failure to survive symbolizes the fate of Washo culture.


*Sattley. Small ranching community in California’s Sierra Valley, north of Donner Pass where Joe Birdsong lives and works as a part-time ranch hand and hunting guide. He is especially adept at hunting rabbits, a nuisance to farmers. But even this modest accommodation to modern American culture ends when developers start buying up land to build a tourist trailer park near a hot springs in the early 1960’s. Birdsong refuses to sell his acreage, even though most of his white neighbors sell out eagerly to make quick profits. Eventually, the greedy developers use a legal ploy to deny Birdsong title to his land, which they confiscate.


*Truckee. California town on the western approach to Donner Pass that is the mountain headquarters of a railroad building crew. Captain Rex, the second generation of Rabbit Bosses, sells the services of his band of Washo men as laborers. He then squanders their earnings on gambling and whiskey in the town, losing much of the money to dishonest card sharps. Meanwhile, his people sicken with tuberculosis and die. Standing in the center of traditional Washo lands, Truckee stands as the epitome of white greed, moral corruption, and exploitation.


*Reno. Nevada desert city thirty miles northeast of Lake Tahoe that is also the site of a Washo reservation. Renown for its casino gambling and wild nightlife, Reno introduces Hallelujah Bob and his son Joe Birdsong to modern American vices in their most concentrated, commercialized, and garish forms. Both Indians reject the city’s allures. On the reservation, however, their contemporaries live marginalized lives, dependent upon, but not fully part of, mainstream culture. Poverty, disease, alcoholism, and loss of traditions estrange members of the tribe from one another and their homeland.

BibliographyBonetti, Kay. “An Interview with Thomas Sanchez.” The Missouri Review 14, no. 2 (1991): 77-95. An informative interview with Sanchez, in which he discusses the biographical and historical background that informs the plot of the novel, particularly the influence of his family, his education, and the Vietnam War.Gueder, P. A. “Language and Ethnic Interaction in Rabbit Boss: A Novel by Thomas Sanchez.” In Language and Ethnic Relations, edited by Howard Giles and Bernard Saint-Jacques. Elmsford, N.Y.: Pergamon Press, 1979. Methodic discussion of the way language is used in the novel to reveal the disturbing interethnic relationship between the Washo and the whites.Marovitz, Sanford E. “The Entropic World of the Washo: Fatality and Self-Deception in Rabbit Boss.” Western American Literature 19 (November, 1984): 219-230. Detailed analysis of the structure, themes, and characters, focusing on the desire of the Washo to integrate their way of life into the dominant culture and how that desire precipitates their decline.Sanchez, Thomas. “The Visionary Imagination.” Melus 3, no. 2 (1976): 2-5. Sanchez reveals his reasons for writing the novel, the influence of American Indian thought on the structure of the novel, character motivation, and the contemporaneous political events that influenced the plot.
Categories: Places