Almanac of the Dead

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2307

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.

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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 north. There is a great deal of mystery and mysticism in this novel, most of it based in actual American history and myth. At the center is a prophecy:

The dispossessed people of the earth would rise up and take back lands that had been their birthright, and these lands would never again be held as private property, but as lands belonging to the people forever to protect.

Almanac of the Dead, in short, is three or four novels in one, and not all of them come together by the end. There are some individual stories of real power—of Geronimo in the nineteenth century, for example, or of Lecha in Alaska, or of the corrupt Judge Arne and his basset hounds in Tucson—but there are also eddies in which these and other characters get lost for long periods of time. The novel heats up in its last 150 pages and builds to an apocalyptic conclusion by drawing many of the characters to a holistic healers’ convention in Tucson, where several mystics give their prophecies of the future. There is real power in this ending, but Silko cannot maintain that pace throughout this large novel, and many of the stories and not a few of the characters in the center of the novel get lost along the way.

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As just one example, a great deal of part 3 involves “the army of the homeless,” a force of the dispossessed being raised on Tucson’s fringes by several driven, crazed characters. At the end of the novel, the army is destroyed by the police in a paragraph or two. The ending cannot pull together all the stories; Silko may have attempted too large a canvas here.

It is not easy to find the literary equivalents for what Silko is attempting; it is easier, perhaps, to speak of the world of painting, of Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch, for example, with their numerous detailed characters, or—perhaps more pointedly—of the paintings of Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo (particularly for his sweep and her mysticism). There are, of course, literary parallels as well. Like Marge Piercy or Howard Fast, Silko is attempting a radical American epic, a portrait of American life that gives insights into American history at the same time that it allows one to see the full panorama. Similarly, she may remind readers of such Latin American writers as Gabriel García Márquez who work in the contemporary magical realism mode Silko is clearly tapping. Her work may also remind readers of John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War (1974), Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972), and the works of other writers of the Southwest who have attempted to tell the same story of the mix of white, Mexican, and Indian roots and lives. Finally, Silko resembles Russell Hoban, the British Peter Ackroyd, and other chroniclers of the dystopian vision. Here is the future, and it is sick and frightening.

Silko has also given a painting of contemporary America that perhaps resembles Pablo Picasso’s Guernica as much as anything: It is violent and twisted and fragmented, but it carries an important message. Silko knows what drugs and injustice are doing to the world. She also knows her Native American history and the stories and prophecies that are just beneath its surface. She has written a mammoth chronicle of what happens when one world takes over another and of when the myths will live again. This is hardly a political tract; the energy for the violent changes that are about to take place in the novel come out of the mythic past and out of the corrupt present, not out of some political handbook. (As one of the characters notes, Karl Marx got his ideas from native communes in North America; like their members, he understood that “the earth belongs to no one.”) If this is a radical novel, it is a native, indigenous radicalism that demands that readers listen to the voices of prophecy and rebellion that have been ringing loudly in America for hundreds of years.

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 (November 4, 1991): 39-41. Birkerts describes Silko’s process of stage development in the first two-thirds of the novel and sketches outlines of the events and characters. Birkerts finds fault with the last third of the novel, reasoning that Silko unwinds too quickly what she has spent such effort in originally spinning.

Booklist. LXXXVIII, December 15, 1991, p. 751.

Chicago Tribune. December 1, 1991, XIV, p. 3.

Dasenbrock, Reed Way. “Forms of Biculturalism in Southwestern Literature: The Work of Rudolfo Anaya and Leslie Marmon Silko.” Genre 21, no. 3 (Fall, 1988): 307-319. Although it predates the publication of Almanac of the Dead and is not devoted entirely to Silko’s works, this article provides a sense of the various ethnic and political conflicts and tensions upon which Almanac of the Dead draws. Of particular interest is the author’s approach to the specific and distinctive character of the Southwest in the imagination.

Evans, Charlene Taylor. “Mother-Daughter Relationships as Epistemological Structures: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead and Storyteller.’” In Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Twentieth Century Literature. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. Evans explores the effect of broken relationships between mothers and daughters on the transmission of cultural and spiritual knowledge.

Interview. XXI, December, 1991, p. 58.

Jaimes, M. Annette. “The Disharmonic Convergence.” The Bloomsbury Review 12, no. 3 (April/May, 1992): 5. A review of Almanac of the Dead that focuses on its apocalyptic dimension and its representation of non-Eurocentric thought processes. The relevance of these elements is considered in the light of the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in America.

Jones, Malcolm, Jr. “Almanac of the Dead.” Newsweek 118 (November 18, 1991): 84. Jones finds Almanac of the Dead powerful but also maddening. He claims that the novel is Silko’s unfair vision of payback, peopled with “good characters and white characters.” Brief and entertaining, though not very informative.

Library Journal. CXVI, October 15, 1991, p. 124.

The New Republic. CCV, November 4, 1991, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, December 22, 1991, p. 6.

Newsweek. CXVIII, November 18, 1991, p. 84.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, September 6, 1991, p. 94.

St. Clair, Janet. “Death of Love/Love of Death: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead.MELUS 21 (Summer, 1996): 141-146. St. Clair focuses on the interaction between the sexes in Silko’s novel, revealing the detrimental effect that “misogynistic, arrogantly hierarchical, and egocentric traditions of Western liberal individualism” has had on Indian culture, as well as American society as a whole.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. “A Leslie Marmon Silko Interview.” Interview by Kim Barnes. Journal of Ethnic Studies 13, no. 4 (Winter, 1986): 83-105. A substantial interview covering the nature and significance of Silko’s cultural affiliation, her heritage, and her sense of its history and future. The basic interest of this material is the manner in which it can be seen to inform and enlarge the reader’s grasp of Silko’s fiction.

Silko, Leslie Marmon, and James Wright. The Delicacy and Strength of Lace. Edited by Anne Wright. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1986. A collection of letters between Silko and an important postwar American poet. In addition to biographical information, the letters speak of Silko’s artistic interests and imaginative strategies.

Tallent, Elizabeth. “Storytelling with a Vengeance.” The New York Times 141 (December 22, 1991): 6. Tallent praises Silko’s skill as a storyteller and offers an excellent overview of the themes of Almanac of the Dead, including the cruelty inherent in contemporary American culture, the unavoidable ecological catastrophe that is a result of European domination, and the dangers that the “formidable id” pose to the common good.

Time. CXXXVIII, December 9, 1991, p. 86.

The Washington Post. November 26, 1991, p. B3.

Almanac of the Dead

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 947

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 (November 4, 1991): 39-41. Birkerts describes Silko’s process of stage development in the first two-thirds of the novel and sketches outlines of the events and characters. Birkerts finds fault with the last third of the novel, reasoning that Silko unwinds too quickly what she has spent such effort in originally spinning.

Booklist. LXXXVIII, December 15, 1991, p. 751.

Chicago Tribune. December 1, 1991, XIV, p. 3.

Dasenbrock, Reed Way. “Forms of Biculturalism in Southwestern Literature: The Work of Rudolfo Anaya and Leslie Marmon Silko.” Genre 21, no. 3 (Fall, 1988): 307-319. Although it predates the publication of Almanac of the Dead and is not devoted entirely to Silko’s works, this article provides a sense of the various ethnic and political conflicts and tensions upon which Almanac of the Dead draws. Of particular interest is the author’s approach to the specific and distinctive character of the Southwest in the imagination.

Evans, Charlene Taylor. “Mother-Daughter Relationships as Epistemological Structures: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead and Storyteller.’” In Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Twentieth Century Literature. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. Evans explores the effect of broken relationships between mothers and daughters on the transmission of cultural and spiritual knowledge.

Interview. XXI, December, 1991, p. 58.

Jaimes, M. Annette. “The Disharmonic Convergence.” The Bloomsbury Review 12, no. 3 (April/May, 1992): 5. A review of Almanac of the Dead that focuses on its apocalyptic dimension and its representation of non-Eurocentric thought processes. The relevance of these elements is considered in the light of the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in America.

Jones, Malcolm, Jr. “Almanac of the Dead.” Newsweek 118 (November 18, 1991): 84. Jones finds Almanac of the Dead powerful but also maddening. He claims that the novel is Silko’s unfair vision of payback, peopled with “good characters and white characters.” Brief and entertaining, though not very informative.

Library Journal. CXVI, October 15, 1991, p. 124.

The New Republic. CCV, November 4, 1991, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, December 22, 1991, p. 6.

Newsweek. CXVIII, November 18, 1991, p. 84.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, September 6, 1991, p. 94.

St. Clair, Janet. “Death of Love/Love of Death: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead.MELUS 21 (Summer, 1996): 141-146. St. Clair focuses on the interaction between the sexes in Silko’s novel, revealing the detrimental effect that “misogynistic, arrogantly hierarchical, and egocentric traditions of Western liberal individualism” has had on Indian culture, as well as American society as a whole.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. “A Leslie Marmon Silko Interview.” Interview by Kim Barnes. Journal of Ethnic Studies 13, no. 4 (Winter, 1986): 83-105. A substantial interview covering the nature and significance of Silko’s cultural affiliation, her heritage, and her sense of its history and future. The basic interest of this material is the manner in which it can be seen to inform and enlarge the reader’s grasp of Silko’s fiction.

Silko, Leslie Marmon, and James Wright. The Delicacy and Strength of Lace. Edited by Anne Wright. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1986. A collection of letters between Silko and an important postwar American poet. In addition to biographical information, the letters speak of Silko’s artistic interests and imaginative strategies.

Tallent, Elizabeth. “Storytelling with a Vengeance.” The New York Times 141 (December 22, 1991): 6. Tallent praises Silko’s skill as a storyteller and offers an excellent overview of the themes of Almanac of the Dead, including the cruelty inherent in contemporary American culture, the unavoidable ecological catastrophe that is a result of European domination, and the dangers that the “formidable id” pose to the common good.

Time. CXXXVIII, December 9, 1991, p. 86.

The Washington Post. November 26, 1991, p. B3.

Form and Content

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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, among them American Indian mythology, Magical Realism, and futuristic ecofiction.

In addition, its geographical, historical, and metaphysical scope makes The Almanac of the Dead both deep and broad, with all the difficulties of assimilation that such properties connote. Tucson, Arizona, may be the work’s epicenter, but its impact is conveyed throughout the Southwest, with shattering results. These results are borne largely by the novel’s characters, but they are also experienced by the land itself, or rather by the reader’s conventional sense of the land, since one of the more arresting features of Almanac of the Dead is that it declines to observe the familiar boundaries that demarcate the Southwest and reverts to an overview of that terrain which conforms to the American Indian experience of it.

The most clear-cut instance of this reversion is that the border between the United States and Mexico is represented as a juridical fiction, the nature of which sharpens the awareness of the novel’s American Indian characters of the manner in which their homeland has been appropriated. This honed awareness makes events and characters in Mexico a telling and necessary illustration of various social signs and portents in the cultural landscape of Arizona. It also has an ironic counterpart in the disregard with which the novel’s numerous successful drug traffickers overlook the border. An additional feature of this reworking of ideas of homeland, property, territory, and native place is the novel’s multiple stories and plot lines, all implicated with one another in what is both a lucid and an almost dauntingly complicated field of ideological, spiritual, and materialistic forces.

From its modest, deceptively domestic origins in Lecha’s compound, Almanac of the Dead proliferates into myriad narratives that intersect and overlap throughout the six major parts, and a large number of smaller ones, into which the novel is divided. Impressive as the work is as a feat of literary architecture, it does place unfamiliar demands on the reader. Because the novel begins with Lecha, it seems reasonable to assume that she is going to be its core. Ultimately, she is, and what she comes to represent is an implementation of the novel’s vision. Just as important for the novel’s development, however, Lecha’s significance is overshadowed for long stretches by what seem to be minor characters whose presence seems to be marginal to the principal action. These characters appear in such large numbers and in such a variety of settings that it is a challenge to bear them all in mind, to recognize their relevance, and to be aware of the subtle ways in which Silko coordinates them.

Such a reading of this novel’s form and content relies on conventional expectations of fiction, in which specific hierarchies of significance are created and priorities of action are prescribed. Silko subverts these procedures by the populist, tribal, democratic organization of Almanac of the Dead. This method of organization implicitly acknowledges that each of her characters not only possesses a certain type of power but also has the capacity to deploy that power in ways which will inevitably modify, influence, and redirect the course of the overall momentum of events. It is not merely its frequently unnerving and violent narrative material that sustains Almanac of the Dead as a comprehensive cultural critique. The manner in which the various intricate panels of its structure are interrelated is in itself a sophisticated realignment of some important ideological assumptions underlying civilization’s traditional narrative forms.

Context

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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 hitherto narrowed, proscribed view of women’s fiction.

In addition, the sense of authorial power suggested by the formal character of Almanac of the Dead is extended to its depiction of women. It is the novel’s female characters who suffer most gratuitously from the spiritual and economic depredations of Anglo civilization, just as they seem to be the ones who are insecurely attracted to them. On the other hand, it is female characters who are also the repositories of modes of preservation and vision. The relationship that the novel depicts between the potential of its women characters and the narratives’ unveiling of ecological responsibility offers a strongly imagined conception of motherhood and mothering. The manner in which the fate of the earth is reproduced in the destiny of individual psyches is one of the more far-reaching ideas in Almanac of the Dead.

The dialectic between authority and abuse is one that coordinates many of the novel’s sequences. Its most intimate enactments, however, are centered on the fate of women. The rupturing of that vicious circle of power and victimization in all of its manifestations is what Almanac of the Dead ultimately envisions. The fact that the possibility of doing so is vested in Lecha, a female character who is in effect a refugee from the contemporary world of fame and fortune, is central to Silko’s perspective. Silko is not merely rehabilitating Lecha, but enabling this character to be emblematic of a more general prospect of rehabilitation as well.

This novel emerged at a time when there had been a marked increase in the artistic and cultural visibility of American Indians. The consequences of this development have yet to be determined. One of them is a greater general availability and awareness of American Indian literature and of literature with American Indian backgrounds. Another is the commodification of native traditions. Both these consequences are central to the questions of American Indian survival, a question which is also at the heart of Almanac of the Dead. The novel argues for a different kind of stewardship of the earth, one that is respectful of difference and grounded in mothering and that conceives of the care of the people being entrusted to the visionary mother. Such a radicalized sense of feminine commitment and power are not the least arresting ideas of a work whose provocative perspectives, outspoken scenarios, and relentless inventiveness make it a crucial document.

Setting

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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 setting. From present-day Tucson, the time frame includes but does not begin with what Euro-Americans think of as past history, “the days when the Spaniards and the Portuguese were taking slaves from the Mayan area and dragging them up to northern Sonora to work in the silver mines.” It then jumps ahead to slavery and the Civil War, back to the Plains Indian wars, ahead to the Persian Gulf War, back to the Vietnam War, and ahead to a future where “alternate earth modules” are circling the earth. The characters and their stories continually erase and replace traditional borders with temporary and transitional concepts of time and space. Their multiple narratives begin, disappear, and then reappear in a continual circle, moving back and forth fluidly over both real and imaginary borders. Characters are introduced in the present, but their stories unfold through flashbacks and flash-forwards. Likewise, their locations include Mexico, Columbia, Argentina, Guatemala, New Jersey, New York, El Paso, Hollywood, San Diego, South Dakota, Houston, Denver, Albuquerque, South Africa, Haiti, Phoenix, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Paris, Cuba, Peru, Great Britain, Rome, outer space, and then back to Tucson.

To prepare the reader for the nontraditional way in which her story will unfold, Silko includes an unconventional map at the beginning of the novel that illustrates the Native American belief that borders and time are fluid. Mapping is a tool useful only to colonizers who do not understand that no one owns Mother Earth. One of the indigenous characters, Calabazas, says, “We don’t believe in boundaries. Borders. Nothing like that.” He explains that maps and deeds are meaningless and the concept of minutes and hours is imaginary: “We have always moved freely. North-south. East-west. We pay no attention to what isn’t real.” Grossly out of scale and covered with pictures, prophecies, and the names of characters, Silko’s “map” looks more like a page out of the ancient Mayan almanac.That is precisely the point. People cannot be divided by land or by time. Silko’s “map” is a chronicle of human stories and spiritual beliefs. The setting, therefore, transcends the traditional concepts of time, place, and history.

Injustice is an important concept in this novel, and Silko uses the historical settings to illustrate how injustices have occurred in the past and continue into the present. These assorted histories also move in circular time. For example, Silko refers to the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (which ended the Mexican-American War) as a supreme example of the U.S. government’s broken promises to Native Americans. Under this treaty, Mexicans living in the newly acquired territories were given citizenship long before Native Americans. In the next chapter, a reader might encounter one of the many Indian wars that are referred to throughout the novel. In the following chapter, slave uprisings in Africa and in the United States might be meticulously outlined. Yet another chapter will tell the story of homeless veterans accusing the U.S. government of using the Vietnam War to clean up the ghettos by sending African-Americans to the front. In another chapter, a character called “The Barefoot Hopi” gives the homeless veteran Clinton a list of historical injustices that began in 1526 and ended in 1862, right in the middle of the U.S. Civil War. While not related to each other by time and place, these events are related by theme—injustice. The “where” and the “when” of injustice is not important to Silko.

Because the fate of humans is linked to that of Mother Earth, the physical state of Mother Earth is important to both the novel’s setting and theme. Humans have poisoned Mother Earth. In Arizona, an open-pit uranium mine has been dug into sacred Laguna tribal lands. The tribal elders normally would oppose such an assault on Mother Earth but the mine gives the people badly needed jobs. Human needs keep conflicting with Mother Earth’s needs. To protest, Mother Earth spits out the great stone snake of Laguna prophecy to warn the people that they must stop destroying the land. Outside of Tucson, Realtors are developing a model community in the middle of the desert. In order to support human life in the desert, deep water wells must be dug on sacred Indian lands. In Mexico, human interests are destroying rain forests. Wealthy Mexicans are constructing million-dollar mansions in the middle of sacred jungles. The entire creation is groaning, and humans and nonhumans are in conflict everywhere on Mother Earth. As the novel unfolds, Mother Earth exacts vengeance for her desecration.

The ancient almanac prophesizes that Mother Earth will fight back until humans realize they must live in harmony with her. The “old ones” have repeatedly foretold that Mother Earth would outlast anything man could do to her, including nuclear war. The radiation “would fade out” eventually, says the prophecy, but humans might not survive. Man is “too insignificant” to desecrate Mother Earth. For the present, however, it is the era of “Death-Eye Dog” and the spirits are unhappy. The cottonwood trees cry out over the bodies of dying Yaqui Indians left hanging from their branches because bullets are too expensive to use to kill them. A wealthy Mexican woman dies by falling down the marble stairs of her mansion built in the middle of the rain forest. Wealthy aristocrats escaping the chaos in rebellious Mexico are abandoned in the middle of the desert where they die of thirst. The husband of the real estate developer who is stealing Native American water rights is struck down by lightening on the golf course. Petroleum exploration airplanes flying over Alaska mysteriously crash, brought down by the mind hex of an Alaskan Yupik woman. The weather is in chaos; there are droughts everywhere, and “terrible winds and freezing” have followed “burning, dry summers.” Man is suffering, but Mother Earth will survive.

The setting of Almanac of the Dead cannot be separated from the characters, the plot, and the main theme. As the prophecies have foretold, the unalterable movement of the people to take back the land will be from South to North. It may take 500 or 5,000 years, but the indigenous peoples and their allies, “the friends of the Indians,” will eventually reclaim the contaminated and corrupted land and hopefully restore it. In light of this prophecy, an international convention is called in Tucson to discuss the crisis on Mother Earth. Conference attendees are from all over the globe. Keynote speakers remind the people of injustices past, present, and future, and they call for a united effort to take back the land. The last part of the novel is titled “One World, Many Tribes.” This certainly seems to be the author’s hope for the future of mankind on Mother Earth.

Bibliography

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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. Birkerts describes Silko’s process of stage development in the first two-thirds of the novel and sketches outlines of the events and characters. Birkerts finds fault with the last third of the novel, reasoning that Silko unwinds too quickly what she has spent such effort in originally spinning.

Booklist. LXXXVIII, December 15, 1991, p. 751.

Chicago Tribune. December 1, 1991, XIV, p. 3.

Dasenbrock, Reed Way. “Forms of Biculturalism in Southwestern Literature: The Work of Rudolfo Anaya and Leslie Marmon Silko.” Genre 21, no. 3 (Fall, 1988): 307-319. Although it predates the publication of Almanac of the Dead and is not devoted entirely to Silko’s works, this article provides a sense of the various ethnic and political conflicts and tensions upon which Almanac of the Dead draws. Of particular interest is the author’s approach to the specific and distinctive character of the Southwest in the imagination.

Evans, Charlene Taylor. “Mother-Daughter Relationships as Epistemological Structures: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead and Storyteller.’ ” In Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Twentieth Century Literature. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. Evans explores the effect of broken relationships between mothers and daughters on the transmission of cultural and spiritual knowledge.

Interview. XXI, December, 1991, p. 58.

Jaimes, M. Annette. “The Disharmonic Convergence.” The Bloomsbury Review 12, no. 3 (April/May, 1992): 5. A review of Almanac of the Dead that focuses on its apocalyptic dimension and its representation of non-Eurocentric thought processes. The relevance of these elements is considered in the light of the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in America.

Jones, Malcolm, Jr. “Almanac of the Dead.” Newsweek 118 (November 18, 1991): 84. Jones finds Almanac of the Dead powerful but also maddening. He claims that the novel is Silko’s unfair vision of payback, peopled with “good characters and white characters.” Brief and entertaining, though not very informative.

Library Journal. CXVI, October 15, 1991, p. 124.

The New Republic. CCV, November 4, 1991, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, December 22, 1991, p. 6.

Newsweek. CXVIII, November 18, 1991, p. 84.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, September 6, 1991, p. 94.

St. Clair, Janet. “Death of Love/Love of Death: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead.MELUS 21 (Summer, 1996): 141-146. St. Clair focuses on the interaction between the sexes in Silko’s novel, revealing the detrimental effect that “misogynistic, arrogantly hierarchical, and egocentric traditions of Western liberal individualism” has had on Indian culture, as well as American society as a whole.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. “A Leslie Marmon Silko Interview.” Interview by Kim Barnes. Journal of Ethnic Studies 13, no. 4 (Winter, 1986): 83-105. A substantial interview covering the nature and significance of Silko’s cultural affiliation, her heritage, and her sense of its history and future. The basic interest of this material is the manner in which it can be seen to inform and enlarge the reader’s grasp of Silko’s fiction.

Silko, Leslie Marmon, and James Wright. The Delicacy and Strength of Lace. Edited by Anne Wright. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1986. A collection of letters between Silko and an important postwar American poet. In addition to biographical information, the letters speak of Silko’s artistic interests and imaginative strategies.

Tallent, Elizabeth. “Storytelling with a Vengeance.” The New York Times 141 (December 22, 1991): 6. Tallent praises Silko’s skill as a storyteller and offers an excellent overview of the themes of Almanac of the Dead, including the cruelty inherent in contemporary American culture, the unavoidable ecological catastrophe that is a result of European domination, and the dangers that the “formidable id” pose to the common good.

Time. CXXXVIII, December 9, 1991, p. 86.

The Washington Post. November 26, 1991, p. B3.

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