Almanac of the Dead Analysis

Almanac of the Dead (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Almanac of the Dead is a novel that is larger than life, larger almost than history. Spanning the five hundred years of European rule in Mexico and America’s Southwest, this epic charts the exploitation of the land and its peoples by Europeans and their descendants until the book’s final, apocalyptic scenes, when, in some near and violent future, the forces of the dispossessed, guided by the spirits of the dead, gather together to take back their lands.

Part Native American history, part mythic prophecy, part contemporary cultural analysis, Almanac of the Dead is more and less than all of these. Its focus is on the recent present and on what has happened to people—European American, Mexican, and Native American—who have been corrupted by the greed and violence of the contemporary world. The book, however, hops back and forth between the present and the past to trace the history of this world and the roots of the characters’ failures.

If the novel seems a disparate mix of elements, it is. The map on the inside and back covers of the book lists dozens of major characters in stories that take place in Tucson, San Diego, and points south. Yet this “Five Hundred Year Map,” as Silko writes, also “foretells the future of all the Americas” and the violent prophecy that is yet to be: “the disappearance of all things European.”

The novel is divided into six parts, each part consisting of from one to eight books and each book containing from four to twenty chapters. There are at least half a dozen sets of characters who dominate the different parts of the novel, often for hundreds of pages at a time, and readers may lose touch with certain characters in some sections. By the end, however, most of the major characters have touched the others’ lives (often sexually, usually violently), and many gather in the apocalyptic ending. It is a gripping and frightening fictional vision.

The center of the novel is Tucson. In the present, Lecha and Zeta Cazador are living on a remote ranch left to them years before by their father after his suicide. They are Yaqui (Pima) Indians born in Mexico who years before emigrated north from their Sonoran childhood home. Now they are surrounded by security systems and vicious dogs and are involved—as nearly everyone is here—in drugs and gun-running.

Lecha has returned to the ranch after a stint as a television psychic, but she is also suffering from cancer. Before she dies, she wants to decipher the “almanac of the dead,” the ancient notebooks that she and her sister have inherited from their maternal grandmother, Yoeme, notebooks that give the history of their people and foretell the future. (The story of how the books were smuggled north by children years before is one of the fascinating fictional nuggets in this rich lode.)

Seese has moved from San Diego and sought Lecha out after seeing her on television; she hopes that Lecha, as a psychic, can help to find her kidnapped baby. By the end, however, Seese realizes the child is dead, and she has instead become Lecha’s assistant, administering drugs to slow her illness and deciphering the notebooks. Seese has herself withdrawn from a cocaine habit, but her attempts to sell the drugs she has saved help to propel the dramatic and violent events at the end of the novel.

Seese’s story of her escape from San Diego is one of two that opens the novel; the other is Sterling’s, whose story frames the novel. A Laguna Pueblo who has been banished from his reservation because he let outsiders violate their sacred stone idols, at the end of the novel he will return to see the reservation’s giant stone snake again. These are just a few of the major characters in Tuscon; others include Ferro (Lecha’s son), Paulie (his former lover), Jamey (his current lover), Root (Lecha’s old lover), Mosca, Calabazas, and many more.

The second center of the novel is some hundreds of miles south on another stop in the drug trade, in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico, and in the person of Menardo, a mestizo who has become rich and powerful and has built a lavish house. Menardo spends his days and nights in fear of assassination; ironically, he dies when Tacho, his chauffeur, fires a gun at him to test a bullet-proof vest.

If the novel has a thematic focus, it is the corruption of the present. Few characters are free of the criminal drug use and trafficking that goes on. Whole sets of major characters are actively involved in smuggling and selling drugs and using the money to sell arms to various shadowy groups. The fringe art world in San Diego from which Seese fled is defined by its drug use but involves a number of perverse sexual businesses (torture, the sexual abuse of children, and pornography). It is not a pretty picture that Silko paints, but it is a highly believable one.

On the flip side of this world of drugs and corruption is the world of Native American life and spirits, people and forces that are helping to change this world. The best parts of Almanac of the Dead concern Native American history, both in Mexico and in the southwestern United States. Out of this history, a number of symbols and prophecies have emerged: The almanac is one; so, too, is the giant stone snake that has made a mysterious appearance in the Laguna Pueblo reservation near Albuquerque. In the south, the forces are the twin brothers, El Feo and Tacho, who are guided by twin macaw spirit beings. Underlying the divided political geography are related myths: The ancient Mexican serpent god Quetzalcoatl emerges as the giant stone snake of the Native American...

(The entire section is 2307 words.)

Almanac of the Dead (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

One of two novels here is a sensational story of sex, drugs, and arms in the American Southwest; the other is a timeless story of spiritual strength for a sick world, to be found in American Indian life and myth. Part Native American history, part mythic prophecy, part contemporary cultural analysis, ALMANAC OF THE DEAD is more and less than all of these. Its focus is on the recent present, and on what has happened to people—white, Mexican, and Native American—who have been corrupted by the greed and violence of the contemporary world, but it hops back and forth between the present and the past, to trace the history of this world and to describe the myths that reside below it.

If the novel seems a disparate mix of elements, it is. Silko’s map on the inside and back covers of the book lists dozens of major characters in stories that take place in Tucson, San Diego, and points south. But this “Five Hundred Year Map” also “foretells the future of all the Americas” and the violent prophecy that is yet to be: “the disappearance of all things European.”

The novel is divided into six parts, each part comprising one to eight books, and each book containing from four to twenty chapters. There are at least half a dozen major sets of characters who dominate the different parts of the novel, often for hundreds of pages at a time, and readers may lose touch with other characters in some sections. But, by the end, most of the major characters have touched each other’s lives (often sexually, usually violently), and many will gather in the final apocalyptic ending. It is a gripping and frightening fictional vision.

Bibliography

Allen, Paula Gunn. “Leslie Marmon Silko and Gerald Vizenor: Healing and Ritual.” In The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. Allen discusses the central themes of environmental integrity and pacifism in Silko’s novel Ceremony. Comparison of Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead is interesting, especially in light of Allen’s points. The book contains invaluable information on Native American culture and literature.

Birkerts, Sven. “Apocalypse Now: Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Silko.” The New Republic 205...

(The entire section is 947 words.)

Almanac of the Dead Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In every sense of the word, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead is a big book. Its size is not only a question of length, though this frequently superficial manner of gauging a work’s significance is not entirely irrelevant here, as this novel’s length provides a preliminary measure of its ambition and scope. Its cast of characters ranges from the unassuming Pueblo gardener Sterling to the shamanistic Wilson Weazel Tail; from Lecha, the militant keeper of the almanac, to Menardo, the Mexican plutocrat; and from the mafioso Sonny Blue to Angelita the revolutionary. Its range in genre is equally broad and includes a number of fascinating interconnections and transitions between various narrative forms,...

(The entire section is 700 words.)

Almanac of the Dead Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Long associated with the short story and the novel of manners, the psychological depths of which have been usually considered as compensation for lack of narrative breadth, women’s writing contains comparatively little of an epic character. The range of Almanac of the Dead occasions a challenge to such conventional views. From a strictly formal standpoint, this novel not only proposes a different conception of women’s writing but also indicates a means of putting that conception into practice. Part of the work’s imaginative vision is transgressive, as its constant crossing of various different historical, geographical, and personal borders indicates. And this impetus becomes valuably revisionist when located within a...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Almanac of the Dead Setting

The setting of Almanac of the Dead is as nontraditional as the novel itself. Because the setting is foundational to the novel’s central theme of culture clash, Silko rejects the traditional Euro-American concepts of time and place, and structures the setting as a type of circular circumference called Mother Earth. The places and time frames lie within this circumference with no chronological or geographical order, and the novel is divided into six parts which cover 500 years of history and several continents.

Silko explains that she has set Almanac of the Dead mostly in the present but with “glimpses” of other time frames. Tucson, Arizona, is both the temporal and geographical focal point for the...

(The entire section is 1236 words.)

Almanac of the Dead Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Allen, Paula Gunn. “Leslie Marmon Silko and Gerald Vizenor: Healing and Ritual.” In The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. Allen discusses the central themes of environmental integrity and pacifism in Silko’s novel Ceremony. Comparison of Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead is interesting, especially in light of Allen’s points. The book contains invaluable information on Native American culture and literature.

Birkerts, Sven. “Apocalypse Now: Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Silko.” The New Republic 205 (November 4, 1991): 39-41....

(The entire section is 657 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear