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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

Silko's reputation was established immediately when critical reception of Ceremony in 1977 was not only positive but appeared in big magazines—no small accomplishment for the first female Native-American novelist in the late 1970s. Critical acclaim has been even more laudatory as the novel has become required reading across the nation. One facet of the novel particularly applauded was the success with which the novel challenges the reader to merge cultural frameworks.

However, the criticism also revealed cultural gaps. Critics tried to lump Silko's novel into pre-fabricated genres of American literature. There seemed to be great discomfort with viewing the novel as challenging and good on its own merits. Instead, the story is often patronizingly viewed as an effort to preserve Native-American legend. Surprisingly, not one reviewer commented on the fact that the novel was set in the period of World War II when the problem of 1977 was the phenomenon of the Native-American Vietnam Vets (there were more than 43,000 nationwide).

In his review for The Washington Post, Charles Larson makes an unqualified statement that "the war becomes an incredibly enlightening experience for Tayo—as it did for so many American Indians." He later comments that Tayo's story might fit in with fiction about World War II except that the novel is "strongly rooted within the author's own tribal background." That rootedness, for Larson, is the novel's value.

Hayden Carruth is not any more helpful in Harper's magazine. She attempts to link Tayo with Taoist philosophy because Tayo is seeking his "way." Unfortunately, Carruth continues her review to say that the narrative repeats the old tale of the man returning rain and bounty to the people. This is done, she says, with the novelty of "native [sic] American songs, legends, parables, a religiocultural mythology in the fullest sense...."

Carruth also has two negative criticisms of the novel. First, the story might bother some whites because they might feel blamed, and some Native Americans because it does "not soften either the disagreements in the Indian community." Second, the novel "is flawed," she says, "by narrative devices that seem too contrived and by occasional stylistic inconsistencies."

Writing a review called, "Ghost Stories," Ruth Mathewson was less forgiving and more confused—but she liked the story. She described Silko as a "saver" whose "determination to preserve so much ... makes great demands on the reader, who must exercise a selectivity the author has not provided." That is, Silko has not succeeded in blending the roles of curator and scribe.

Mathewson also brings her understanding of ceremony to bear on the novel when she says that the hero's effort to heal the people "calls for a slow, meditative response." However, Silko also "exploits popular fictional elements, raising expectations of speed and suspense that she does not satisfy." Mathewson admits many of the "interrupting" poems "fell flat for me." Finally, she says Silko's prose style is "reminiscent of long-forgotten novels of the '20s" and achieves a "gratuitous realism."

Frank MacShane, in The New York Times Book Review, asserts: "the literature of the American Indian is ritualistic." Furthermore, he views the purpose of this literary tradition as the establishment of "a sense of unity between the individual and his surroundings ... [and] ... Silko's first novel, aptly titled 'Ceremony ,' fits into this tradition." Although offering a favorable assessment of the novel, his comments often sound like he is talking about a work of nonfiction instead of the first novel by a Native-American woman who is trying to bind her oral...

(The entire section is 868 words.)