All people go through change over the course of their lives, some fast, some slow, for better or for worse. Often events in one’s youth can be traced to be the origin of such change in direction. In many cases teenage years are the catalyst for the beliefs brought into adulthood. Such appears to certainly be the case in Jemmy. In Jon Hassler’s novel, the protagonist, seventeen year old Gemstone Opal Stott or ‘Jemmy,’ goes through a major transition between two personalities. The central question in this narrative is why does she change, and how should we interpret that change? What does this transformation signify?
In the beginning of the novel, Jemmy is providentially rescued by a couple, Otis and Ann Chapman during a massive snowstorm and is chosen by Otis, an artist, to be painted as the basis for The Maiden, a public mural in downtown Minneapolis. According to local legend The Maiden was a young Indian girl who killed herself by jumping off a cliff known as Eagle Rock because she fell in love with someone from a rival tribe, and could not face the burden of living a life without her lover or suffering the shame of her family.
At first, Jemmy happily appears to embrace the persona of The Maiden. This can be attributed to her heritage. Jemmy is half-Chippewa— though she muses about being “two half persons,”(Hassler 23). she definitely feels more Indian than white. Jemmy is the Chippewa-Irish daughter of a deceased mother and an alcoholic father who neglects her and the other two children. Having been pictured as a quintessential representative for this legendary Native American heroine makes Jemmy feel infinitely more in touch with her ‘Indian half’, and she is clearly proud of it. On Jemmy’s visit to Otis’ house for her first modeling siting, Otis begins painting Jemmy on a canvas. Jemmy rapidly becomes flustered and amazed, “she was fascinated by the replica”(56). as if “Otis skill with shadow and color had given form to her soul.”(56). “It looks so real it gives me shivers to look at.”(56). she said. “Never in a photo, not even in a mirror, had Jemmy seen herself so clearly.”(57). Jemmy is stunned, wide eyed, and in awe at the painting and at this new view of herself. Jemmy appears to fully accept and become The Maiden. She has adapted The Maiden as herself, and feels it has given her a new identity. The Maiden persona also entices Jemmy because of her quality of life. She can relate to the hopelessness that ruled The Maiden. coming from extreme poverty, Jemmy is told by her alcoholic Irish father to quit school to care for her motherless younger brother and sister. Since most Indians leave school much younger, Jemmy has few misgivings, although this was expected, it still signifies the end of any advancement beyond her current status, even at a school whose white principal equates ill-fitting clothes and poverty with a lack of response to the precepts taught in health class.
After a number of painting sessions, Jemmy and her siblings attend a party hosted by Otis and Ann, so they can show Jemmy to friends and other artists, to see and admire the girl he chose for the mural. Here, Jemmy eagerly takes on the role of an important display piece acting as the beautiful artist’s model, the main attraction of the event. Jemmy shows signs of vanity in a way she had never done before. As many people make remarks about Jemmy appearing fancy, like a true model, “Jemmy held out her glass for more champagne.”(82). She gladly shows her and her little sister off to everyone there, posing with her as she “put her arm around Candy’s waist.”(83). During these two scenes, Hassler has Jemmy come into The Maiden, showing one personality and one perspective on life, right before Jemmy’s understanding of both The Maiden, herself, and her view of life begins to change.
With the mural nearly complete, while in the car with Otis Jemmy argumentatively remarks “I’ve never found it easy to believe in the Maiden of Eagle Rock.”(147). She seems now to disagree with Otis’ view of her and the mural altogether. She no longer believes suicide is an answer. “I’d rather be saying don’t give up”(147). Through contact with the wider world, with Otis and Anne, socializing with other artists, and brand new discussions with her father Jemmy comes to an understanding of her own artistic talents and the extent to which she can influence her own life. Jemmy meets people who support her. One is a reformed alcoholic who levels with Jemmy’s father about his drinking. Jemmy suggests AA to her father and refers directly to resistance to alcoholism. Jemmy’s father decides to begin work again and stop drinking, but needs one drink every evening to ease the effects of withdrawal, still seen as highly promising. Jemmy’s inner composure and the overseeing encouragement of three adults are the sources of help. After coming to the realization that Jemmy can improve her life and the lives of the people she cares about, Jemmy sets out to do so. Jemmy doesn’t believe in the mural’s story anymore and she doesn’t approve of it’s theme and moral of tragedy and hopelessness romanticized now that she doesn’t think that is all there is to life in some cases, as with her own life. Jemmy is not inspired by who she understands The Maiden to represent anymore. Jemmy wants to portray something else. Jemmy has now been given tangible hope, and a way to work with what she previously deemed as hopeless, and refuses to be a martyr.
Finally, in the last scene of the novel, Jemmy stands on the edge of Eagle Rock looking down. She watches an eagle fly up and away from its nest below. An eagle soars by, a symbol of freedom achieved by flying up and away from the cliff, not leaping from the top of it. Jemmy then simply “turned and went down the hill to her car.”(159). A clear signal she is walking down off her high horse, down from The Maiden. Then, “she drove home to make breakfast for her family.”(159). to Jemmy, family is more important than anything. In the end she turns away from the cliff and the Maiden persona, and away from a possible suicide. She doesn’t want to be the girl in the mural on the canvas anymore. Jemmy has switched to an almost opposite persona, no longer paying little mind to art or heritage, but rather to making an uncompromising effort to work hard to care for her family. Through such a metamorphosis Jemmy found her way both in the small town she lives and within herself. Jemmy has gone from a believer in a tragic suicide as end to a failed romance as something to aspire to, all the way to choosing to make the pragmatic, selfless effort only to care for her family as a result of maturing and experiencing the understanding she has the power to change her own life for the better if only she has the courage to do so.