As in many myths and sagas, the backbone of The Last Shade Tree is the hero’s quest or journey—both external within the world, and internal within the self. Sequoyah most resembles two mythological heroes, Moses and Ulysses. The first hero leads his people to a new place, and the second hero spends many years seeking a way home as he cares for his band of similarly stranded adventurers. The story begins when Sequoyah is four years old and an unwilling captive in a Cherokee boarding school. When he is eight, he composes a poem: “Old Man Moses ate the roses, /Meanie Matron broke his noses.” It seems like a nonsense rhyme, but it is not. The child Sequoyah is already a poet who tries to assimilate the beauty he sees around him. He is prevented from doing so by the Establishment that breaks him in every way possible. Did Sequoyah know what his poem meant? Probably not, but it is his first creation, and it mentions one of the heroes that he will emulate eventually when he and his small band of fellow travelers journey to the future world. Later he has a vision about himself as Baby Moses, and shortly thereafter he begins preparations for the journey.
Ulysses, on his way home from Troy, had to choose between the wrath of one or the other of two sea monsters, Charybdis or Scylla. In fact, one of the novel’s final chapters bears their names. Sequoyah’s “Charybdis and Scylla moment” happens in the previous chapter, “Babloons,” when he faces two options: to either accept or reject help from the future world’s dominant species, creatures highly evolved from their original kind. The choice is rigged, of course: each option is equally awful. He decides to accept their help, which protects the clan members from the coming winter, but at the expense of their freedom. For better and worse, it is the logical choice for a person with his caring nature.
The heroine’s name, Aleta, means “traveler” in Greek, and she, too, participates in multiple journeys, both real and symbolic. Aleta and Sequoyah, husband and wife, must mimic Ulysses’ journey home, but not to a real place. Their journey is internal—to the symbolic centers of their joined hearts.
Real myths that are interwoven throughout the book include two Cherokee stories: The Haunted Whirlpool” and “Cherokee Rose.” Both occur at significant turning points. In “The Haunted Whirlpool,” Sequoyah sees his future in a vision, and in ”Cherokee Rose,” his teenage daughter, Svnoyi, who is both as fragile and as tough as the flower in the myth, understands how her future will tie to his. Many myths appear as passing references, some serious, and others, as cynical jests: The myth of Sisyphus, Hercules and the Augean Stables, Leda and the Swan, Niobe and the death of her children, and many, many others.
Perhaps the strangest achievement in the novel is the evolution of new myths that spring from the horrors of true historical events: the magic wolf pack during the WW II persecution of the Roma or the tale of the golden eagle pair on the Cherokee Trail of Tears. A most powerful mythological figure is Aleta’s almost animate Italian violin, made in 1838, the year that coincides with the Trail of Tears. It tends to scream when the people in its life are suffering. There on the Trail, Sequoyah’s great-great-great grandmother had tied a rope around the neck of the violin case, and she “drug it, that thing howlin’ up a storm inside, all the way to Oklahoma like a pup on a leash.”