Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

For many critics, the greatest difficulty with Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead is its sheer size, including its large number of characters. Silko has constructed an intricate network of connections between the different groups of characters to demonstrate the complexity of the issues that the indigenous populations of the Americas face, and to show that the different groups have much in common, regardless of how various their superficial problems.

Although the novel is set in the turbulent years of the 1980’s, when the United States had sought to destabilize left-wing governments and had given covert support to right-wing groups—and had supported mining and logging interests that wanted to seize land in the care of indigenous peoples—Silko is keen to make the point that these are simply recent manifestations of a situation that began hundreds of years ago, with the arrival of Europeans. The arrival of the Europeans was prophesied, but she notes that the disappearance of “all things European” also was prophesied. Many of the characters in Almanac of the Dead believe that this time has arrived.

The almanac carried by Lecha and Zeta, and received by them from Zoeme, is a fictional version of the Popol Vuh (c. sixteenth century), a collection of mythological narratives and genealogies from Guatemala that, among other things, includes tales of the Hero Twins, embodied in the present day in brothers Tacho and El Feo. Silko’s use of the Popol Vuh has been criticized, in part for the clumsiness of her representation of the collection. Her focus on the U.S.-Mexico border represents a widespread belief that the cultures of southern United States tribes draw on the cultural practices of Mesoamerican tribes as much as they do on northern tribes. With this focus, it might appear that she does indeed marginalize the experience of the northern Native American and First Nations peoples. Lecha’s visit to an Alaskan Nation village, for example, seems more like a sop than a considered engagement with the very real border issues between the United States and Canada. In Canada, the free movement of tribal peoples, although sanctioned, is very often hindered.

Similarly, the portrayal of the International Holistic Healers’ Convention, a front for campaigning groups to meet, inadvertently privileges southern customs over northern, and while it is clearly also meant to satirize Euro-American attitudes to indigenous customs, it is perhaps too successful in that it often seems to demean that which it intends to support. Similarly, Silko’s attempts to link the black American experience with those of other Native American groups points to a presumably unintentional attempt at universalizing that takes little account of how different those experiences have been for individual groups. The reader is frequently left with a sense of Silko’s having reduced extremely complex issues to their bare bones, stripping them of nuance to squeeze everything into the novel. The novel also has been criticized for its portrayal of gay and lesbian characters, who are, with one exception, uniformly unpleasant and villainous.

Nevertheless, Silko’s novel is bold in its intention and adventurous in its scope. That it stumbles in its execution says as much about the complexity of the issues with which it attempts to deal as it does about Silko’s ability to address them.

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