LOST SISTER, MY FAVE SHORT STORY–by Cheryl Pierson

I know we’ve mentioned Dorothy M. Johnson before, the iconic western short story writer who penned such classics as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Hanging Tree, and A Man Called Horse; but today, I wanted to tell you about another short story of hers that I read and absolutely loved. It’s quite possibly the best short story–in any genre—that I’ve ever read.

You may never have heard of it. It wasn’t made into a movie, because it too closely mirrored the true life of a real person, Cynthia Ann Parker, mother of Quanah Parker.  The story is called Lost Sister.

I’d heard this story mentioned before by a couple of friends, and thought, “I need to read that—I’ve never read much of Mrs. Johnson’s work but the movies have all been good.” I know. I hate it when people say that, too.  Anyhow, I bought a collection from Amazon that contained the three stories I mentioned in the first paragraph and Lost Sister as the fourth. Of course, I had to read The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, since that’s tied for my all-time favorite western movie, along with Shane. I was so disappointed. The characters in the short story were not the same as my beloved Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne! Hmmm. Well, even though I was disappointed, I decided to give Lost Sister a shot.

It more than made up for my lukewarm feelings for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Lost Sister is the story of a woman who has been kidnapped as a young child by “the hostiles”. She has an older sister, who remembers her well from childhood, and loves her with the devotion that most older sisters have for a younger sister. Through the forty years she has been gone, the oldest sister, Mary, has cherished memories of her younger sibling.

There are three younger sisters, as well, who have no recollection of the Lost Sister, Bessie. The older sister doesn’t live with them, but in a different town thousand miles away. The three sisters are notified that their sister, Bessie, has been “rescued” and is being brought back to them. The story is told from the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, whose mother lives with the sisters. She is the widow of their brother, who was killed by the Indians. The boy has dreams of growing up and avenging his father’s death, but something changes once his Aunt Bessie comes back to live with them.

Up until Bessie is returned to them, they have gotten much attention from the neighbors, and have been pitied as being the family who had a sister stolen by the savages so many years ago. Once Bessie is returned, their standing in the community takes a subtle twist. The other sisters don’t know how to handle Bessie’s homecoming. They make plans to go into her room and “visit” with her every day. One of them decides to read to Bessie from the Bible for thirty minutes each day. The others come up with similar plans, none of which include trying to understand Bessie’s feelings at being ripped away from her Indian family.

The oldest sister, Mary, comes to visit. What’s different? Mary loves Bessie, and accepts her; and Bessie loves her—they both remember their childhood time together. The language of love overcomes the barriers of the spoken language that neither of them can understand, for Bessie has forgotten English, and Mary doesn’t know Bessie’s Indian dialect.  But Bessie has a picture of her son, and Mary admires it, and by the time Mary is to go home, she has made arrangements for Bessie to come live with her—a huge relief to the other pious sisters who had made such sympathetic noises about her being reunited with them in the beginning.

In a fateful twist, Bessie makes her own decision about what she will do, taking her own life back, and helping her son avoid capture. This is one story you will not forget. Once you read it, it will stay with you and you’ll find yourself thinking about it again and again. It doesn’t fit the mold of a romance story, except for the fact that I think of Bessie being in love with her husband, having children with him, and then being “rescued” and forced to live in a society she had no ties with any longer…except one—the love and understanding of her older sister, Mary.

No specific Indian tribe is mentioned in the story, probably for a purpose. I think, one of the main reasons is to show us the cultural differences and how, in this case, the “civilized” world that Bessie had come from and been returned to was not as civilized as the “savages” who had kidnapped her.

Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanah Parker’s mother

 

Also, as I say, Cynthia Ann Parker’s story, at the time this story was published, was not that old. There were still raw feelings and rough relations between whites and Indians. But by leaving the particular tribe out of the story, it provides a broader base for humanity to examine the motives for “rescue” and the outcome for all concerned, of a situation such as this in which it would have been better to have let Bessie (Cynthia Ann) remain “lost.”

I’ve posted the link below for the story as it was printed in Collier’s Weekly on March 30, 1956. It’s also available on Amazon in several collections.

http://www.unz.org/Pub/Colliers-1956mar30-00066

Cheryl Pierson
A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: https://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
I live in Oklahoma City with my husband of 37 years. I love to hear from readers and other authors--you can contact me here: fabkat_edit@yahoo.com
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30 Comments

  1. Great Blog Cheryl. Thanks for sharing this wonderful info.

  2. Tonya, there is so much in this story–for a short story, especially, it is so powerful and one you will never forget. I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s been a while, and it’s just one of those stories that will truly stay with you. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  3. Sounds like a very interesting story.

    1. Denise, it really does make you think, and I love the empathy Johnson is able to create for her characters, and the way she makes the reader think “outside the box” in this story. Thanks so much for coming by!

  4. Hi Cheryl, What a great blog. I love history, so truly enjoyed expanding my horizons. Fantastic information. I’d love to read some of the books you mentioned. Good job, my friend. Hugs, P

    1. Hi Phyliss! Thank you, my filly sis. I love history too, and this story is one that “has it all” — it’s entertaining, makes you think, and won’t let you go until you read the last page. I really was disappointed when I read The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but this more than made up for it. Thanks for stopping by today!

  5. What an amazing story. It reminds me a little bit of “The Searchers” another great movie with John Wayne.. About finding his niece who was captured by Indians. This story intrigues me. Thanks for sharing this book.

    1. Kathleen, if I’m not mistaken, The Searchers was loosely based on Cynthia Ann Parker’s story. I love the way Dorothy Johnson shows the prejudice of the entire community, including the “lost sister’s” own family, except for the one sister that just loves her no matter what. It’s an excellent story, with a twist ending.

  6. Cheryl, Thank you for this interesting post!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Caryl! Thanks for coming by!

  7. Hi Cheryl…love your blog. Cynthia Ann Parker’s story always makes me want to cry. The soldiers took her from a life she loved and forced her with white people who despised her for being with the Indians. She faced the death of her baby and then had nothing else to live for. I’ve never heard of “Lost Sister” but I may need to read it.

    Hugs, dear friend.

    1. Oh, Linda, I hope you will. It’s really an excellent story. I visit Cynthia Ann Parker’s grave about 2-3 times a year when we go to Ft. Sill–visit Geronimo’s grave there, and Cynthia Ann’s is there in a different cemetery with her daughter and Quanah’s graves nearby. Like you, I feel so sorry for what happened to her. Such a sad ending. Thanks so much for coming over! XOXO

  8. This post really says something profound about the need to listen and to empathize rather than judge and make inappropriate decisions. Not only does this story show how people these judgements across cultural lines, but even in the same family. So many feel and act as if their way was the only good way and are insensitive to the lives and values of others.
    I couldn’t help but think how demoralizing and life-shattering it must have been for Bessie after all those years of living a certain way and enjoying her life to be thrust into such a judgmental and unsympathetic society.
    There is a huge moral lesson for us all in this post and the story of Mary and Bessie. Thank you so much for reposting it, Cheryl.

    1. Sarah, I agree! Makes you really understand more and more how families could be torn apart by issues such as the Civil War–and of course, in this case, the Indian issue. I really love the fact that her one sister’s love for her transcended everything else, and though the ending was very “twisty” it was just SO good! Thanks so much for stopping by today!

  9. This is why I love writers…they open new worlds for us and let us look and listen and educate. Years ago when I saw the movie, Dances With Wolves, on the big, I was so gratified to see the way the Plains Indians way of life was portrayed, that no matter the race or color, beneath the skin, human beings are all the same–they love, fight, laugh, hurt, cry, celebrate. I will have to read this short story by an author I’ve never read. Thanks for your post, Cheryl.

    1. Elizabeth, Dorothy Johnson was such a master storyteller. As I mentioned, I was very disappointed in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–but maybe that’s because I was so used to the way the characters were portrayed on the screen and my own prejudices in how I thought they should be rather than how she intended them to be. At any rate, she has a slew of excellent short stories under her belt–A Man Called Horse was another that was made into a movie starring Richard Harris. And of course, The Hanging Tree–(with a song by Marty Robbins!) So glad you stopped by today and I do hope you will read Lost Sister.

  10. I couldn’t resist reading the synopsis of this story after reading your post, Cheryl. I can see that the plot would leave a last imprint on your heart. What a dilemma Bessie faced. And the language barrier that developed made it even harder for this poor woman to make her “first family” understand her feelings and confusion. Thank you for posting this introduction to Lost Sister.

    1. Linda, it’s so good to see you here–thanks so much for stopping by today! Yes, the language barrier was huge, but love transcended it, and the shared memories the two sisters had. It’s really such an excellent story–can’t say that enough. So glad to see you!

  11. Wow, Cheryl, what a great post! I love history like this and this was really cool. This is definitely something I want to read. Thank you so much for sharing.

    1. Hi Kit! That’s what I love about short stories–the “good” ones can make such an impact on readers even though they are very short compared to a novel. This one does make a huge impact. I hope you read and enjoy, and thanks so much for stopping by!

  12. There are so many reports of people being “rescued” from the savage natives and what follows. In most cases, the people didn’t want to be rescued. They are missing the families they know and in most cases grown to love. What is really sad is they are taken from a culture where they are accepted and are part of a family. So often, white society never fully accepts them fully. They are tarnished goods, dirtied, to be pitied, crazy.

    1. That’s so true, Patricia. Once they were taken and then “rescued” back they were never thought of the same again and suffered rejection and as you say were thought of as dirtied. Such an awful situation–as a parent you would do anything to get your child back, but at some point you have to just do what’s best for them rather than thinking of how it makes you feel. :(((

  13. Excellent post, Cheryl. You’ve encouraged me to look up ‘Lost Sister.’ I have an anthology of Johnson short stories called ‘A MAN CALLED HORSE’ which came out in 1976. That includes a story called ‘FLAME ON THE FRONTIER’ about a white woman captured by the Sioux in Minnesota in 1862. Other stories I really liked in it all dealt with native Americans – ‘THE UNBELIEVER’ ‘JOURNEY TO THE FORT’ and ‘WAR SHIRT.’ BTW the film DANCES WITH WOLVES features a white woman taken as a child by the Sioux, but in the original novel apparently it’s Comanches, and her story seems to have been modeled on Cynthia Ann Parker.

    1. I have not read FLAME ON THE FRONTIER–so now you’ve given me another one of her stories to look up and read, Andrew. That is a bit of trivia I did not know about Dances With Wolves–makes sense, though, when you think of how well known that case was. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  14. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Connie! Thanks so much for coming by!

  15. Cheryl, thank you for this post. How heartbreaking for both sides. I’m definitely going to read this. I had never heard of The Lost Sister before. So thank you for posting this.

    1. Someone else recommended it to me a long time ago, and it took me a while to get around to reading it, but I was so glad when I did. I hope you enjoy it.

  16. It sounds like a big enough story to fill a whole book. It takes talent to fit all that into a short story.

    1. I agree, Christine. Probably why so many of her short stories became movies. This is just a wonderful story.

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