Critical Overview

In general, Silko’s novels, poems, and stories have been embraced by critics and scholars alike. Many of her works are studied in colleges and universities worldwide, earning Silko a reputation as one of the foremost Native American women writers in the world. There is a great deal of scholarship for all of her works, including Almanac of the Dead, which was not well received by critics after its publication in 1991. Many reviewers claimed it was too long, too violent, too graphic, and had too many characters. Critic Paul West in The Los Angeles Times called the novel “an excellent work of myth and a second-rate novel” (February 2, 1992). West further states:

The problem with the book is that [Leslie Marmon Silko] deals more graphically with myth than with folks. Her myth remains unforgettable, whereas her characters—too many, introduced too soon and then abandoned for long stretches—remain invisible and forgettable.

Other critics joined Charles R. Larsen of The Washington Post in accusing Silko of “overkill” for being too serious about her cause (November 26, 1991). Still others criticized her dark and perverted characters, her lack of character development, her confusing circular timeline, and her bitter depiction of the European influence in the Americas. Some critics also claimed that the history presented is revisionist and therefore suspect, though a few others pointed out that revising history was one of the novel’s purposes and therefore not a negative.

Silko acknowledges that her characters are flat and not developed and admits that she was more interested in story than character. She uses her characters as vehicles for advancing her themes and ideologies rather than representing humanity. As to the criticism that many story lines are unresolved, Silko explains that such ambiguities were necessary for her purposes.

Some of the sharpest criticism of Almanac of the Dead, however, comes from Native American scholars who criticize the novel’s implied call for all indigenous people to form alliances in order to take back the land. These Native Americans point out that such a call is not the Indian way and that pan-Indian alliances would not be well received among the Native American tribes in North America.

Reading and studying Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead requires an open mind and both an understanding of and a sensitivity to Native American culture. It is a long novel replete with violent characters, symbols, motifs, images, and language. Nevertheless, Almanac of the Dead is also an ambitious novel with an epic vision that combines history, folklore, philosophy, and stories into a creative work that is unlike any other.