Places: The Surrounded

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1936

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSt. Xavier

St. Surrounded, TheXavier. Mission town in western Montana’s Sniél-emen Valley. It is also the name of the church and boarding school where Indian children are trained by Roman Catholic nuns and priests. Like the real Montana mission town of St. Ignatius, in which D’Arcy McNickle was born, St. Xavier is on the Flathead Indian Reservation and was created to convert the Indians to Christianity. Its church has an air of grandeur given to it by the hovels that are set against it. Both the church and the school play important roles in the novel as places in which Indians are educated in Western values, with various levels of success. Mike and Narcisse, nephews of Archilde Leon, run away from the school to hide out in the mountains.

Max Leon’s ranch

Max Leon’s ranch. Ranch built up by Archilde’s father, a prosperous Spanish immigrant to Montana. Archilde develops a fondness for the ranch, even as he thinks of leaving it. He would like to be able to take with him its evening sounds and smells. Max’s house is as well furnished as any white man’s house, but Catherine, his Indian wife, lives apart from him in a nearby dirt-roofed cabin. Contrasts between these two houses reflect the divide between the white world and the Indian world. Although they are still married, Max and Catherine live differently and have different experiences. Max’s life revolves around cultivation of his land and the profit he derives from it. Catherine, meanwhile, is undergoing a gradual, inexorable return to the beliefs and rituals of her Salish people.


Mountains. The Sniél-emen Valley is enclosed by the Bitter Root Mountains to the west and the Rocky Mountains to the east. These mountains have unspoiled natural areas that are still not tamed by the white man. Wanted by the law, Archilde’s brother Louis escapes to the mountains with his stolen horses. The mountains are deemed outside the law, but the law encroaches even there, thus reinforcing the novel’s theme that there is no escape.

Even the beauty of the mountains is described as a “magnificent barricade against the eastern sky.” Max, a proud, stubborn man, feels humbled by them. Catherine longs to go hunting in the mountains, regarding them as a great release from the strictures of her life with Max. Archilde has a dimmer view, regarding the mountains as empty of life, meaning game. He is wrong about this, and the shooting of a deer in the mountains leads directly to the tragic killing of Louis by a game warden, who is in turn killed by Louis’s mother, Catherine.

The freedom of the mountains is an illusion. Although Mike and Narcisse escape into the most remote reaches of the mountains at the novel’s end, there is little hope that they can maintain any sort of long-term residence there.

Buffalo Creek

Buffalo Creek. Indian dancing ground located a mile below St. Xavier, in a grove of willows and cottonwoods. There, Mike is healed of his boarding school-induced fears by leading the blind chief Modeste to the ceremony. Catherine’s tepee, although a temporary shelter erected for the Indian dances, provides a sanctuary for Archilde after an encounter with his nemesis, Sheriff Quigley. In his mother’s tepee, he finds security. This security, however meaningful, is temporary.

Modeste’s ranch

Modeste’s ranch. Ranch of the blind Salish chief Modeste. In contrast to Max’s ranch, it is a typical Indian homestead, where Archilde finds Modeste living in a ramshackle house. There, he meets Elise, Modeste’s granddaughter, who brings joy and chaos into his life.


Badlands. Treeless, grassless, desolate area near the reservation to which Archilde goes to be alone and finds an aged mare and her colt. He tries to feed the mare and trim her mud-caked tail but ends up shooting her instead because she is incurably lame. The futility of good-hearted effort to help is underlined by the desolation of the badlands.


*Portland. Oregon city in which Archilde is attempting to make his living as a fiddle player before he returns to his father’s ranch. Archilde regards Portland and other cities as attractive places where he can escape the doomed life of his tribe. When he is in the mountains, he longs for the “gleaming lights” of a city, any city.

BibliographyBevis, William. “Native American Novels: Homing In.” In Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. A very helpful introduction to Native American narrative structures. Discusses The Surrounded in the context of other recent Native American novels.Oaks, Priscilla. “The First Generation of Native American Novelists.” MELUS (Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States) 5 (1978): 57-65. Surveys several Native American novels of the 1930’s, and discusses McNickle in that context.Parker, Dorothy R. Singing an Indian Song: A Biography of D’Arcy McNickle. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992. A very thorough biography, including photographs as well as some literary discussion. Useful in light of the highly autobiographical nature of The Surrounded.Purdy, John Lloyd. Word Ways: The Novels of D’Arcy McNickle. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990. Takes an especially anthropological point of view and includes, in an appendix, several Salish oral stories which are a useful supplement to The Surrounded.Ruppert, James. D’Arcy McNickle. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1962. Provides biographical information and discusses McNickle’s novels as well as his ethnographic writings.Wiget, Andrew. Native American Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1985. One of the most readily available general histories of Native American writing by a reputable scholar. Includes some discussion of McNickle.
Categories: Places