“Johanna” — Plot Summary
By: Shane Lambert
Jane Yolen’s short story “Johanna” tells a short ‘tail’ of a young sixteen-year-old North American aboriginal woman. Set in the past, possibly in the 19th century, Johanna and her dying mother live in a village in a forest known as Hartwood. Although the aboriginal village can support many more residents than its current population, Johanna and her mother are the last of their family. The others, it is said in the story, have all disappeared into the night or died.
Near the start of the story, we learn that it may soon be Johanna’s mother’s turn to pass away. To prevent this, Johanna makes a decision that is a catalyst for the story’s plot. Believing that her mother’s death is imminent, Johanna decides to fetch a nearby doctor. While this may seem to be a straight-forward decision, the drama involved is that Johanna’s motive is so strong that she feels compelled to fetch the doctor immediately, in the quiet of night. As a result, she decides to face the terrors of running through Hartwood forest at night — despite the fact that her other family members have previously disappeared for doing just that.
There is a surreal aspect to this story. As Johanna runs through the forest, she turns into a deer. We learn this, with clarity, at the end of the story when she enters the doctor’s yard.
The doctor looks at her, claims that he wants deer meat for the winter, and then shoots her — not really knowing that he is killing Johanna. We may assume, that in killing her, the mother’s death will follow back at the aboriginal village. As they were the last two members of their family, themes of genocide and/or cultural destruction can be looked at in this short story.
There is a suggestion that the aboriginal ‘village’ is not officially considered to be one. Perhaps the best of view of them is “unincorporated.” However, the white-people’s village is considered a village, despite identical size. There is a theme of ostracism that can be expanded on from that. Understanding this story involves looking at what is being ostracized.
But first, on a simpler level, this story is one with a lot of so-called Easter Eggs for readers to pick up on. Before we learn that Johanna has changed form, there are many clues that she is about to do so.
If you read the story twice, then the second time around you can spot these clues easily. Firstly, there is a reference to Johanna gaining “new senses” and she can see clearly in the darkness of night. Also, she doesn’t feel cold despite the winter-time setting and nor does running burden her from a cardiovascular perspective. Gaining new senses, seeing clearly in the darkness of the forest night, not getting cold in frigid temperatures, and having the wherewithal to run great distances without facing fatigue could all be viewed as inhuman.
At one point, she and her family are described as “strong as beasts.” At another point, when Johanna gets close to her goal, it is said that she “ranged,” a verb to describe movement that’s more common to animal movements than human ones.
There are other clues as to Johanna’s impending change still. For instance, Johanna is apprehensive to enter a meadow — perhaps an instinct common to deer more than humans. This aspect of the story reminded me of a scene in the Disney movie Bambi where Bambi’s mother won’t enter the meadow quickly for fear of hunters.
Picking the story over for these Easter Eggs is perhaps a challenge for the high-school student. A more challenging look at the story requires looking at “Johanna” as an allegory for the historical relationships between aboriginal people and Europeans. From this point of view, the topics of stereotyping, cultural extinction, genocide, and environmental destruction can be explored.
Themes in “johanna”
Yolen, the author of the story, makes it clear that Johanna is to be understood as aboriginal. Yolen doesn’t wait to do this as the opening line strongly implies it when Johanna is described as having “moccasined feet.” Moccasins are the footwear that aboriginal people in North America were first known for. As a modern fashion, anyone of any culture can wear them. However, in the historical context of this story, it’s clear that Johanna is aboriginal. This is something that should be considered important for understanding this short story.
Johanna starts the story as an alive human and ends up as a dead deer. Her death is one matter to be looked at. But, firstly, let’s look at what her change of species means.
A literary character that starts as a human and ends up as an animal could be viewed as a literary character that is at one with nature. There could be other views to take. For instance, an aboriginal person that starts human and ends up an animal might be taken to be an argument that aboriginals are less than human. However, the former position is the one that I think is better for understanding this story. There is plenty of precedent when it comes to stereotyping aboriginal people as stewards of the environment.
For some, this will provoke retorts of the “noble savage” myth. However, such comments are not too relevant when it comes to short-story analysis. Fictional representations of aboriginal people have been used as a symbol of being at peace with the environment before.
Perhaps a strong example is Iron Eyes Cody. He was actually an Italian-American but he portrayed Native Americans in acting roles. In this fictional capacity, he was featured in a famous, or infamous, 1971 advertisement that advocated fighting pollution.
Seen crying in the advertisement, one can ask if his portrayed identity as a North American aboriginal juxtaposed with an environmental cause somehow lent credibility to the environmental stance. If you answer “no” to this then an additional question remains relevant. Did the environmental agency think it would? In my mind, the only answer to that question is “yes.”
What appears to be clear is that the organization that ran the advertisement, Keep America Beautiful Inc., thought that Iron Eyes Cody’s in-character endorsement would add credibility to their institution somehow. This must be because they had an instinct that a percentage of the public would see an aboriginal person as a metaphor for environmental protection or stability. We don’t have to have a serious discussion about which cultures were better for environmental stability but, instead, we can just talk about public perception.
The advertisement below, depicting Iron Eyes Cody, is an example of a fictional aboriginal character being used metaphorically as a symbol of the environment. His crying eyes and sad face are the embodiment of environmental destruction, specifically, the spread of pollution.
Another fictional character that is both at one with the environment and aboriginal to North America is Pocahontas as represented in the Disney animated film of that name. In that film, she sings “Colors of the Wind,” a song that implores the profit-oriented European invaders of her homeland not to be so greedy when it comes to exploiting natural resources.
Johanna has something in common with both Iron Eyes Cody and Disney’s Pocahontas. “Johanna,” the short story, could be viewed in the context of positive evaluations that have been made of aboriginal cultures in North America. They are, in fact, regarded as being more harmonious with nature in the world of fiction. Johanna, the literary character, is effectively a metaphor for a culture that can co-exist with nature. That’s what it could be held to mean when she turns into a deer.
Along those lines, that a prominent member of the nearby European community, a doctor, kills Johanna in her deer form shouldn’t be taken as a reference to genocide. That’s definitely a related topic but the story should be taken more as an opinion that European cultures aren’t grounded in an environmentally sound philosophy.
That Johanna and her kin are dying out makes genocide a related topic. However, in the short story the doctor’s killing of Johanna, as an aboriginal person, is actually completely inadvertent. Also, that her mother will die is inadvertent too. The doctor is not depicted as genocidal, rather he is merely killing a deer from his point of view.
There could be an implication here of two cultures colliding — and one largely losing. Perhaps this kind of inadvertent destruction could be viewed as having taken place in North America alongside other forms of deliberate destruction.
But, in conclusion, I think a fair interpretation of “Johanna” mainly has to do with a positive evaluation of aboriginal cultures in terms of environmental sustainability. As shown, the story is not unique in this regard when a broader look at fiction is undertaken. Iron Eyes Cody was actually a fictional character and Pocahontas was, at least as far as Disney’s representation of her goes.
On a related matter, one could debate which cultures are better or worse for the environment. My opinion would be that the current environmental crisis facing humanity has a lot more to do with both industrialization and deforestation than anything the pre-contact aboriginal cultures did.