Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Laughing Boy is both a love story and a narrative of cultural and individual conflict. Set in 1915 on the Navajo Reservation of the Southwest before the first automobile arrived, the novel depicts an unspoiled way of life. An omniscient narrator recounts the action in a straightforward, linear manner, though considerable foreshadowing of events occurs.
Attending a ceremonial dance at Tsé Lani, a Navajo village on the southern edge of the reservation, Laughing Boy meets and falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful young Navajo who has been reared in Anglo society near the reservation. From Red Man, one of her admirers, he wins a wrestling match but acquires an enemy at the same time. Against the advice of his uncle and others who have heard of her past, he marries Slim Girl, and they move into her adobe hut outside Los Palos, a town near the reservation. While Slim Girl learns weaving and Navajo customs, Laughing Boy continues his life much as it had been on the reservation, tending his horses and sheep and crafting fine jewelry.
Slim Girl goes into town periodically, explaining to Laughing Boy that she is working for a missionary’s wife. In reality, she is meeting an American rancher whose mistress she has been for some time. She does this in order to save the money he gives her for eventual resettlement on the reservation, her major objective in life. When she and Laughing Boy travel far into the reservation to attend a...
(The entire section is 423 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy is a moving novel about Navajo culture in the early twentieth century. An anthropologist, La Farge gathered much of his Navajo material during an expedition to the Southwest. Consequently, Laughing Boy is more factually accurate than many works on Indians that preceded it. Its plot resembles a traditional romantic tragedy, but the novel evidences the concern of a white writer for embattled native cultures that American society tended to overlook and to overwhelm.
The novel tells of the love affair between Laughing Boy (a Navajo raised on the reservation with little influence from the outside world) and Slim Girl (a beautiful Navajo woman reared in white society near the reservation). Despite familial objections Laughing Boy marries Slim Girl, and the couple moves into her hut near Los Palos, a town. There Laughing Boy continues his traditional way of life, tending animals and making jewelry, while Slim Girl devotes herself to learning Navajo culture so that she and her husband can eventually move back onto the reservation.
Their plans are disrupted when Laughing Boy learns of his wife’s affair with an American rancher. He shoots several arrows at the adulterous couple, wounding them. Later, Slim Girl explains that she stayed with the rancher only to make enough money to allow herself and her husband to move back onto the reservation. Laughing Boy accepts this explanation—especially after he sees how hard Slim Girl has worked toward adopting a traditional Navajo lifestyle—and the two of them set out for the reservation site where they plan to live. On the way, however, they are ambushed by Red Man, a Navajo who earlier vied for Slim Girl’s affections. In his jealousy, Red Man tries to kill Laughing Boy but shoots Slim Girl instead. Before his wife dies, Laughing Boy promises not to seek revenge. He gives Slim Girl a Navajo funeral, then returns forever to the reservation.
Certain dissatisfied critics have claimed that Laughing Boy only manages to fit native characters into a European story. La Farge’s well-researched observations of the Navajo, however, are far more genuine than the stereotypical depictions of Indians that abounded at the time. For its time, then, Laughing Boy offered an honest and sympathetic depiction of native life that although not perfect anticipates many similar stories by writers yet to come.