Memories of Childhood Summary and Analysis

Memories of Childhood Short Summary

The chapter ‘Memories of Childhood’ begins with a short introduction to the writers. Two women of different culture, origin and time are interlinked with their autobiographical accounts of childhood experiences. Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons) and Bama pen down details of certain events in their younger days which affected them and set a course for their future life. They are separated by time and circumstances, but they share a connection through pain and suffering meted living in a prejudiced society. Social divisions have created evil stigmas through which a certain section of society preys upon the weak and poor by making them feel inferior. It is highly unfair and uncivilised to treat people with indignity just because they were born into a different sect or colour. The two girls, one Native American and the other a Tamilian Dalit, represent the marginalised fraction of people who must constantly struggle for opportunities in a bigoted world.

In the first chapter, we are acquainted with the story of Zitkala-Sa, a frightened Native American child who deeply feels the loss of her mother’s arms in the unfamiliar cold land. She has been brought to the new hostel on the pretext of education, where she fights hard for her culture and beliefs.

The second half has a contrasting setting, but there are similar tones of oppression and abuse of power. In this story written by Bama, a Tamilian Dalit, the problem of caste hierarchy in the Indian social structure comes to light. For ages, the higher caste people (Brahmins, Kshatriyas) have ruled over the other lower castes, and people belonging to the Dalit community have had to accept jobs and means of livelihood as dictated by the higher castes. Such is the roots of the problem that most Dalit people had to remain in the shadows of society and avoid contact with people from other communities lest they pollute the others. They were supposed to be born on earth as a Dalit to only do menial and degrading jobs like cleaning and running errands. For a very long time, these people had no rights to opinion or a means of escape from this caste entrapment. Only through education and wider thinking could they uplift themselves and fight against the evil caste system. One day while Bama was returning from school, her eyes took in all the delights of the village fair and she was amazed by the beauty of diverse colours. Then she saw an old man from her community walking strangely holding a packet of food in front of him like he had to keep it as far away from himself as possible. He was barely holding the packet with the tips of his fingers. The author laughed because the stance was impractical and comical to her and she had no idea why he was moving like that. The old man went ahead and placed the packet at the feet of his master and bowed deep. When she narrated the whole incident to her older brother, he explained the concept of ‘untouchables’ and how people of her community are always treated with disgust and suspicion. She started to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and wished to evade such a fate. Her ‘Annan’ advised that education was an important step towards freedom and that she should work hard in school to achieve good results.

Memories of Childhood Analysis:

Although the constant theme in the two stories is based on an archaic social structure built to oppress the innocent and the weak, one talks about cultural oppression and the other about casteism. The ways of life which the Native Americans were accustomed to was ridiculed and the people were indoctrinated in the manners of the Europeans. The Native American children like Zitkala-Sa were forced to attend industrial schools which attempted to make them more ‘civilised’ in the ways of the modern life. The Dalits too were literally bullied by the higher caste people and were expected to remain subjugated under their tyranny. The theme of rebellion is apparent in both the stories as the writers voice their anger by declaring that they are humans and should not be treated like animals. The first story ends on the line; ‘for now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder’ and the second story has the title heading ‘We Too are Human Beings’. The constant reference to animal-like treatment is present in both the stories as the two women writers fight for justice on humanitarian grounds.

Memories of Childhood Explanation: Literary Devices

Zitkala-Sa was a feisty writer and her stories had resounding effects upon the psychology of the reader. She painted emotions through her aptly used imageries and used the elements of the Euro-American culture to describe the victimisation of her community. The tone of her writing is fierce and attacking and she uses the power of her heritage to create her own unique literary voice. In the story ‘The cutting of my Long Hair’, symbolism plays an important role. Phrases like ‘land of apples was a bitter-cold one’, ‘my spirit tore itself in struggling for its lost freedom, all was useless’, create an atmosphere of alienation, suffering and abandonment of hope. It perfectly relates to the plight of the Native Americans as European culture threatened to eradicate all semblance of their history and tradition. The writer, Bama also continues in the footsteps of her powerful predecessors and follows the literary style of powerful female writers who made their stories their weapon against oppression. Her writings are more self-reflective and, in the story, ‘We too are Human Beings’ she writes from the perspective of an innocent girl who is yet unaware of the complications of her life. Through the description of folk culture and tradition she draws the attention to the liveliness of her community and their talents and credibility. She wants the world to know the rich heritage of Dalit people and questions the ill-treatment meted out to them.

Memories of Childhood Character Sketch

At the Carlisle Indian School, the white wardens and supervisors look down upon the non-white children. Zitkala-Sa and her new friend Judewin find their harsh sneers difficult to adjust with as everything around them seems alien and distrustful. The close-fitted shoes and dress make the girls feel uneasy and the ‘formula’ food served to them is distasteful. The little children are even ridiculed for their lack of table manners as they are not used to the customs of Whites. When Judewin tells Zitkala-Sa that a pale-faced woman was forcibly going to cut their long hair, Zitkala-Sa decided to protest and evade the problem as hard as she could. Her mother had told her that only fallen warriors and cowards had to wear shingled hair as a sign of shame and defeat. As per the Native American traditions, long hair was associated with pride and respect and she could not allow her hair to be chopped off.

The little brave girl tried to rebel by escaping into an empty room. She remained hidden under a bed in darkness, but she was soon found out and dragged to a chair. Once tied, the sharp cold blades of a scissor were pressed against her neck and her long thick hair was chopped off with brute force and cruelty. The event was shocking and dreadful as it left a scar in her memory. She kept crying and screaming for her mother, but no one came to console her. The young child felt drained and she gave up her fighting to accept her fate in that moment. However, the readers are well aware that Zitkala-Sa (Simmons) grows up to become one of the most prominent writers from the Native American community at a time when women were still discriminated based on their gender. She raised her voice against the injustices of Carlisle Indian School and represented the strengths of her culture through her published articles.

Bama remembers a time when she was only a schoolgirl and did not even understand the word ‘untouchables’. She was treated like one, by the other communities, but she did not know what it meant. It dawned upon her when she discussed the activities of a village elder in front of his master. She realised that only a sound education could bring them closer to opportunities in the progressive world outside their village which believed inequality. Bama takes this knowledge seriously and comes first in her class. This ensured her the attention of others in school and she was soon surrounded by friends. She overcame the first hurdle of life through hard work and gained the confidence to fight for her rights in the future.     


The autobiographical accounts relayed in ‘Memories of Childhood’ are a lesson in persistence and rightful rebellion. In conclusion, we can assume that time and distance become irrelevant when communities all over the world seek inspiration to overcome their oppressors. Such stories of perseverance and victory gives hope to people everywhere, to fight back against discrimination and biased outlook. To breakthrough from the shackles of prejudice and enter the era of tolerance and equality. Since we are all human beings, we must treat each other with the same respect and dignity that we believe we deserve. ‘Memories of Childhood’ successfully delivers this message to the readers by focusing on the unassuming and pure perspective of children who view the world with simplicity.