Almanac of the Dead is a sprawling, nontraditional novel set amid geopolitical changes and apocalyptic visions of the future. While Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko was writing it, she told an interviewer that it was a “long and complex novel” with “five or six distinct narrative lines” that was “hard to even tell about [it].” The completed novel is still hard to “tell about.”
Silko did not set out to write a traditional western novel, which is inadequate for telling the stories that her ancestors have handed down through oral tradition. Silko instead chose the structure of ancient Mayan almanacs because they would free her to employ multiple narratives. The almanacs were compiled long ago by Mayans watching their culture slowly disappear through Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the Americas. They were trying to preserve the stories they had in their heads and the glyphs that they had carved into stone. Silko’s novel, like the ancient Mayan almanacs, is a fragmentary collection of stories, dreams, characters, maps, lists, and prophecies.
Almanac of the Dead is ultimately a metanarrative, an attempt to comprehensively explain historical experience and knowledge through stories. Silko claims that the stories came to her through Native American spirits when she began thinking about writing the work. Because Native Americans believe that history is experienced through storytelling and that time is circular (defined by experiences that do not occur linearly), dates and chronology are not important in the novel. The Mayans did not think of days in terms of 24-hour periods. Rather, a day was a being with a personality and that being eventually would return, even if it took centuries. Although the structure of Silko’s work is nontraditional, a novel is nevertheless a Euro-American art form. Using such a vehicle to tell Native American stories presents some challenges to Euro-American readers accustomed to structure, chronological timelines, well-developed characters, and storyline resolutions. Almanac of the Dead has none of these. The novel covers five hundred years of history and incorporates dozens of themes, motifs, ideas, cultures, ideologies, and discourses into a vast mural of revisionist history, told from the viewpoint of the world’s marginalized groups—from the indigenous peoples to the handicapped. To a Euro-American reader, the novel’s multiple settings might seem disorganized and haphazard, yet in the Native American circular time frame it makes sense.
Almanac of the Dead chronicles an incredibly corrupt and depraved legacy handed down by the United States in the twentieth century, a legacy that in Silko’s view sums up the white man’s treatment of the Native American people. It is the era of what Native Americans call “Death-Eye Dog.” Violence, greed, and bloodlust have permeated every strata of society. Traditionally loving and nurturing relationships such as the family have been either destroyed or reincarnated as crime families or human networks for weapons smuggling, pornography, and drugs. Children are abandoned and murdered. Sexuality is no longer an intimate expression of love but a manipulative tool and an instrument of torture. Women are objectified and left out of the reproductive process. Governments are corrupt. Scientific advances meant to alleviate human suffering have been perverted into black market enterprises selling human organs. The world is in chaos.
The Native Americans are not entirely innocent in this story. Silko blames the Aztecs for bringing the European “destroyers” to the Americas because the Aztecs were destroyers themselves, lovers of blood who perverted the true religion by instituting human sacrifice. They beckoned to their fellow destroyers in Europe who followed the lure of bloodlust, sailed to the Americas, and stole the land from the indigenous peoples. Those groups of indigenous people that did not agree with the Aztecs, that did not have the same bloodlust, fled North. These tribes became the Native Americans of the United States, tribes that over the years became, as Silko says, lazy and complacent and too occupied “with the white man’s toys”—television, gambling, alcohol, and drugs. All of this has been predicted in prophecy and chronicled in The Almanac of the Dead.
Silko calls her novel “my 763-page indictment for five hundred years of theft, murder, pillage, and rape.” As one character says, there never has been a legal government established by Europeans anywhere in the Americas “because no legal government could be established on stolen land.” As the novel ends, various groups of indigenous people are simultaneously planning to overthrow the U.S. government. Twin Yaqui Indian brothers guided by revelations from the “spirit macaws” are leading Mexican revolutionaries as they march North. Radical eco-terrorists are preparing to blow themselves up to destroy Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam. An army of homeless veterans is camped out in the hijacked summer homes of Tucson’s elite, poised to take over U.S. military bases. A genius Asian computer hacker has created a mega-virus that will shut down power throughout the country. All of these “crazies” have assembled in a Tucson hotel room during the International Holistic Healers conference. They form an alliance. They know they must work together to achieve justice for indigenous people.
Silko believes the American Indian Movement has failed to achieve justice for Native Americans. In Almanac of the Dead, she hopes to show that only international indigenous alliances are capable of taking back the land. Rather than “rant and rave” about injustice, Silko explains that she would rather tell a story because “it is more effective in reaching people.”
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Almanac of the Dead remains Silko’s longest and most ambitious novel, with hundreds of characters populating multiple plot narratives with overlaying cultures. Structuring the book as nineteen books within six parts, Silko truly provides a “Five-Hundred Year Map,” not only literally within the outside covers of the published book but also in the multiple narratives that describe a moral history of North America as individual characters reveal the ideas, the passions, and their own understandings of history. Tucson provides the geographic center of an intersection of cultures that brings together Mafia capo Sonny Blue from Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Pueblo gardener Sterling down from Laguna Pueblo; Wilson Weasel Tail the Barefoot Hopi down from Winslow, Arizona; and Seese from California, seeking her missing child and connecting with Lecha, the television psychic who may or may not be able to aid (or be interested in aiding) her, among sundry others.
Bartolomeo’s Freedom School, a Cuban-influenced and-financed school of revolution in Mexico City, provides the setting for the beautiful, intellectual architecture student Alegria, who sells out by marrying wealthy Menardo and building an incongruous and doomed luxury retreat in the jungle outside Tuxtla Gutierrez. Silko shows how cocaine is smuggled northward across the border to Tucson by revolutionaries, who then use the money to finance the purchase of arms for their continuing insurrection...
(The entire section is 459 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The narrative of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead centers on Tucson, Arizona, and the intertwining lives and events of its numerous people, among whom are “speculators, confidence men, embezzlers, lawyers, judges, police and other criminals, as well as addicts and pushers.” Hauntingly, Silko’s novel depicts a society of almost utter depravity, identifies as the source of this state the atrocities committed against Native Americans, and finally predicts the coming end of this cruel reign with the rise of indigenous peoples and the endurance of the sacred Earth.
Almanac of the Dead begins with a prophecy contained in the ancient tribal texts of the Americas: “Ancient prophecies foretold the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. The ancient prophecies also foretell the disappearance of all things European.” Silko’s story echoes that of the prophecy, depicting the downfall of the “criminals” in her novel and the commencement of indigenous people’s struggle to regain stolen land. The novel consists of six sections, each divided into books and further divided into short vignettes that adopt more than thirty characters’ points of view. Silko uses this structure to approximate oral tradition, thus making Almanac of the Dead a calendar of movement through the motion of people, events, and spirits that make up the book’s present, past, and future society.
Tucson, the location to which all the characters have some tie as well as the place where the majority of the action takes place, is established as a city of witchery, presently and historically. It is peopled with whites and “breeds” whose ancestors profited from the U.S.-Apache wars and with Indians who deny their heritage. The majority of the characters, of European, Mexican, and Native American descent, participate in illegal activities: smuggling of guns, alcohol, and drugs; murdering for hire or for...
(The entire section is 793 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Tucson, Arizona, is “home to an assortment of speculators, confidence men, embezzlers, lawyers, judges, police and other criminals.” It is also the home of “addicts and pushers,” and they all have been coming here since “the 1880’s and the Apache Wars.” It is now the 1980’s, one hundred years later, and unrest is increasing in South and Central America. The U.S. government is sending drugs and arms south across the U.S.-Mexico border to support right-wing regimes.
Meanwhile, refugees are fleeing north, crossing into the United States legally if they can, but by whatever means if they cannot. Transients, too, are drawn to Tucson because of its proximity to the border, and huge encampments of people with...
(The entire section is 1036 words.)
Part 1: The United States
A great change is coming. It has been predicted by the “old ones” in The Almanac of the Dead. Grandmother Yoeme has chosen twin sisters, Zeta and Lecha, as the new caretakers of the ancient almanac. The sisters must work together to transcribe it. The almanac contains ancient secrets that are the answers to many of life’s mysteries. Estranged from her family for many years, Yoeme has been secretly returning undetected to observe her grandchildren. None of the others has been worthy until the twin girls come along. Lecha and Zeta seem to have inherited Yoeme’s psychic abilities. Yoeme takes the girls under her wing and when she is finally convinced she can...
(The entire section is 8568 words.)