Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

An absorbing and entertaining mystery story suffused with Navajo culture, the novel becomes a telling social commentary on the consequences of crosscultural relationships. Leaphorn and Chee, members of a racial minority whose self-identities are perpetually at risk in their exposure to the dominant white culture, dramatize in their thoughts, actions, and quest for harmony the importance of sustaining cultural tradition with cohesive meaning. Of the two, Leaphorn more easily compromises with the hard, practical reality of modern life, regarding Chee as a romantic trying to live by the Old Way in a competitive world. The novel’s subtext is Leaphorn’s need to reaffirm traditional values. This is conveyed in the pervasive symbolism of the fertility god Kokopelli, the flute-playing, humpbacked bearer of seeds. When Leaphorn paddles down the San Juan River in search of Friedman-Bernal, he is identified with Kokopelli, and his quest becomes an affirmation of life and the continual renewal of the present by the past.

The crosscultural theme is mainly objectified in the tension between the organic, interrelated beauty and harmony of the Navajo way, with its emphasis on family relationships, balance, and sense of the spiritual infusing all of life, in contrast to the moral expediency of a materialistic white culture based on competition, professional rivalry, and greed for prestige and fortune. The beliefs, taboos, rituals, and intricacies of clan structure...

(The entire section is 464 words.)