Almanac of the Dead Themes
by Leslie Marmon Silko

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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 and time. Rather, the unifying elements of the novel—and, Silko suggests, of reality itself—are the connection to ritual and ceremony and the endurance of the Earth.

Almanac of the Dead shows the Feminine Power, a principal central to Silko’s own Keres Pueblo, rising from forgotten history to reassert its rightful role in Native American cosmology. The passing down of the almanac itself has been matrilineal; the ancient manuscript is passed to Yeome and from her to her granddaughters. Yeome and Old Mahawala, another matriarch in the novel, both ensure the education of their children to the old ways through their written and oral tales. Once Sterling returns to his reservation and begins to compile the knowledge he has gleaned from multiple sources, he finally begins to remember these old tales from his grandmother, tales he had long ago forgotten. He knows that, regardless, the Earth will continue, for “she” will always be sacred; people only “desecrated themselves,” for humanity is “too insignificant to desecrate her.” The taking back of the Native Lands is itself a reclaiming of the feminine; when indigenous peoples identify themselves with the Mother Earth, they become the land, endure, and continue.


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...

(The entire section is 1,651 words.)