In The Surrounded, Archilde, a young man of dual cultural identity—Salish/Spanish—returns to the Flathead Reservation to say his last good bye after attending an Indian boarding school and working in Portland. There he finds himself caught in conflicts between family members, the church, the law, and other non-Indian outsiders, as well as his own conflicts with his past and present experience. By the novel’s end, Archilde has redefined his identity. After reading this novel, an eleventh-grade student wrote: "I believe the closeness Archilde feels toward his fellow people is something that he could not experience in the white world. Despite the internal closeness to his people, Archilde is disrespectful of many views and actions. He wants the best of both worlds...and is hopelessly caught...At the end, these conflicts remain unresolved" [excerpted from Susag, Dorothea M. Roots and Branches: A Resource of Native American Literature Themes, Lessons, and Bibliographies. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1998. (169-170)].
According to Dr. Jim Rains essay “'He Never Wanted to Forget It': Contesting the Idea of History in D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded," “It is a Native-authored text that attempts to address what the author perceives to be a fundamental misunderstanding of Native American people. It is a book about history: how Native American cultures have been constrained and limited by conventional histories and how they as distinct cultures perceive and practice history differently from Euro-Americans.” (143)
Rains also suggests that the audience for The Surrounded was non-Indians, the people McNickle intended to reach with the truths, as he knew them, of the Indian culture and experience in 20th Century America. According to Rains, several themes appear in The Surrounded. Each and al will serve as sources for discussion and further investigation: assimilation, culture, history, religion, language, genre (Western), place (West), Identity, cosmology, community, destiny, tragedy, American Indian Experience, American novel. With issues of bicultural Americans, the novel demonstrates the profound difficulty in living with forced assimilation, and McNickle’s work must be contextualized within the genre of the American novel. McNickle was a man of his time. “The tragic end is inevitable because the genre demands it.” (From a lecture at the Helena Book Fest, September 24, 2009)