Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Vital to Almanac of the Dead is the acceptance of what Native American writer Paula Gunn Allen terms “ceremonial time,” a sense of reality that transcends linear time and embraces the fluidity of past, present, and future. Silko’s structural technique, which gracefully connects people and events while shifting from perspective to perspective, establishes the imperative of reading in this mindframe. The lack of an easily definable plot and protagonist is disconcerting until the accretion is recognized; then characters and occurrences become more fully understood as the multiple stories begin to unite, forming a whole instead of related parts. The reader, like Sterling, is guided toward understanding through accretion and a vision of synthesis. Only when viewed as interlocking and interrelated do the fragmented, jumbled accounts reveal a comprehensible message.

Silko insists that her narratives of the characters’ lives become united, and she similarly merges specific times and places into a boundless reality. Time becomes fluid as events of the past illuminate the future, present illuminates past, and so on. Her literal movement from place to place, character to character, and time to time elucidates the novel’s theme of reality as movement; she demands that characters not be conceptualized as isolated individuals and demands that time not be deciphered linearly. Only witchery enforces the notion of distinct beings in a particular place...

(The entire section is 421 words.)


Culture Clash

The culture clash between the Euro-American world and the Native American world is the central theme of Almanac of the Dead, but branching out from that thematic center like spokes on a wheel are many secondary themes that are related to or are a result of the culture clash: hypocrisy, resistance, organized religion, oppression, racism, prejudice, injustice, social/political systems, truth, and vengeance. To illustrate the main theme as well as the secondary ones, Leslie Marmon Silko employs a myriad of motifs: storytelling, folklore, dreams, lies, maps, codes, sexual identity, sex, gender, lists, borders and boundaries, blood, twins, balance, animals, snakes, children, movies, photography, history, old people, time, order, plants and rocks, natural forces, addictions, marriage, and many others. When two very different worldviews and ways of life are pitted against each other, the resulting conflicts manifest themselves in all areas of human existence.

Silko outlines the theme of culture clash on the map that she includes at the beginning of the novel. These four sections all contain threads that link them to the main theme:

1. The novel’s structure is an ancient almanac:

Five Hundred Year Map: Through the decipherment of ancient tribal texts of the Americas the Almanac of the Dead foretells the future of all the Americas. The future is encoded in arcane symbols and old narratives

2. The novel’s central setting is Tucson, Arizona. The map lists the other geographical settings and the migration routes of the main characters associated with those settings:

Tucson, Arizona: Home to an assortment of speculators, confidence men, embezzlers, lawyers, judges, police and other criminals, as well as addicts and pushers, since the 1800s and the Apache Wars.

3. The novel’s main characters and conflicts—indigenous people versus Euro-Americans—are outlined:

The Indian Connection: Sixty million Native Americans died between 1500 and 1600. The defiance and resistance to things European continue unabated. The Indian Wars have never ended in the Americas. Native Americans acknowledge no borders; they seek nothing less than the return of all tribal lands.

4. The novel’s main theme of culture clash is itself presented:

Prophecy: When Europeans arrived, the Maya, Azteca, Inca cultures had already built great cities and vast networks of roads. Ancient prophecies foretold the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. The ancient prophecies also foretell the disappearance of all things European.

Following Silko’s map, the novel’s structure illustrates the theme of culture clash because the author is using a European art form, the novel, to tell a Native American saga. The European concept...

(The entire section is 1230 words.)