Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1296
Leslie Marmon Silko once stated that she tries to write a very different book every time. Indeed, her novels are as different from one another as they are from her books in other genres. Despite such diversity, however, Silko’s novels share certain common traits. All draw heavily on her personal...
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Leslie Marmon Silko once stated that she tries to write a very different book every time. Indeed, her novels are as different from one another as they are from her books in other genres. Despite such diversity, however, Silko’s novels share certain common traits. All draw heavily on her personal experiences, but they are not conventionally autobiographical. Although only Ceremony deals exclusively with Native American themes and characters, Native American themes and characters are central in the other novels as well.
Silko was so attuned to the political situation in northern Mexico that, in Almanac of the Dead, published two years before the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, her description of an uprising in northern Mexico seems prophetic. Silko’s work makes use of her eclectic reading on topics as diverse as the Gnostic gospels and orchid collecting.
Silko uses very little dialogue, yet her characters are richly drawn through the use of an omniscient narrator who reveals their inner thoughts and reactions. Her descriptions are vivid and detailed. Though predominantly serious, all of Silko’s novels display her wry, ironic sense of humor. An important recurring theme in all of Silko’s novels is the conflict between the “destroyers,” those whose disregard for the land leads them to exploit it and its people for profit, and those who are in touch with and respect the land. Although those in touch with the land are usually the indigenous people who have not separated themselves from nature, indigenous people can be destroyers, and whites can be in touch with the land.
In Ceremony, Tayo, a young veteran of mixed Laguna and white ancestry, returns from World War II with what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder. When the U.S. Veterans Administration (V.A.) hospital sends him home to the pueblo uncured, his family asks the tribal healer, old Ku’oosh, to perform the traditional ceremony for reincorporating warriors into the community. The ceremony is only partially successful; Tayo is still deeply disturbed, blaming himself for his cousin and friend Rocky’s death and turning to alcohol along with a group of friends who are also veterans. After a fight with his friend Emo, Tayo is sent back to the V.A. hospital, but his treatment is no more successful than it was the first time.
Betonie, a Navajo medicine man who uses unconventional methods, is more successful. He conducts a Navajo healing ceremony for Tayo that sets him on the road to recovery. When Tayo leaves, Betonie says that to complete the ceremony Tayo must recover the spotted cattle that Tayo and his Uncle Josiah had planned to raise but that had presumably wandered off in Tayo’s absence after Josiah died. Tayo discovers that the cattle were stolen by white ranchers and realizes that he had believed the lie that only Indians and Mexicans stole because whites did not need to steal. With the help of Ts’eh, a mysterious woman who turns out to be the spirit of the sacred mountain, Tayo takes the cattle home.
Meanwhile, Emo has become one of the destroyers, a participant in witchery, and he convinces the rest of the group to cooperate in his plan to kill Tayo. Warned by Ts’eh, Tayo is able to resist the witchery. He returns home and tells his story to the elders in the kiva, who recognize Ts’eh as the spirit who brings rain and healing to their drought-stricken land. Tayo’s separation from his community, in part caused by the war but also caused by his rejection as an illegitimate “half-breed,” was symptomatic of a larger rift in the community. His healing demonstrates that things must change, that the new must be incorporated into the old, and that the “half-breed” can act as a mediator between the old traditions and the new world. Much of Ceremony is told in flashbacks. Traditional Laguna stories are woven throughout, set off from the text. The language is lyrical, and the message is of healing and conciliation.
Almanac of the Dead
When Silko read from this novel at the time of its publication, she announced, “This book attempts to crush linear time.” It succeeds by repeatedly shifting time frames. Silko interweaves an enormous cast of characters involved in multiple subplots. They tell the story, in an indeterminate time in the not-too-distant future, of a spontaneous uprising across the Americas of dispossessed indigenous peoples who move throughout the novel toward an apocalyptic convergence on Tucson.
Lecha and Zeta are twins, mixed-blood Yaquis, who have been given pieces of an old Mayan book (the almanac of the title). Unlike the Mayan codices, this book has stayed in the hands of the people. As they work to transcribe the pieces, they discover that the Mayans foretold the coming of the white European invaders—and foretold their demise as well. Seese, a young white woman whose baby has been kidnapped, consults Lecha, who is a psychic, and stays to work for her. Sterling, an old man who is exiled for revealing tribal secrets, also comes to work at the twins’ ranch.
Other characters include Allegria, a mercenary architect, and her husband, Menardo, who live near Mexico City; the Tucson branch of the Blue family, mafiosi who dominate the Tucson real estate market; the Indian twin brothers Tacho and Wacah, who embody the mysterious power of twins and lead the people north toward Tucson; and Marxist Mexican revolutionaries Angelita (La Escapia) and El Feo. Their stories intertwine as they converge on Tucson, where the Barefoot Hopi warns that the familiar way of life on earth will end unless the destroyers change their ways and respect the earth. “Eco-warriors” to the north threaten a suicide bombing of a dam. The novel ends as all are poised on the brink of revolution.
Gardens in the Dunes
In an unpublished interview, Silko described her third novel as “full of flowers and light.” Set in the time immediately following the stock market crash of 1893, Gardens in the Dunes tells the story of Indigo and Sister Salt. The young sisters are the last of the Sand Lizards, a fictional tribe based loosely on the Colorado River tribes that were wiped out around the beginning of the twentieth century. After a Ghost Dance they are attending is raided by the police, the girls are separated from their mother as they flee. Later, their grandmother dies and Indigo is captured by the police. She is sent to boarding school in Riverside.
There Indigo is befriended by Hattie and Edward, a wealthy couple who live near the school. Before marrying Edward, Hattie attended Harvard University until her unconventional thesis proposal on the Gnostic gospels was rejected. Edward is a professional plant collector who sells rare specimens to wealthy buyers. They take Indigo along on their European trip during the school’s summer break. Indigo sees the Jesus of the European churches as another manifestation of Wovoka, the prophet of the Ghost Dance. Edward’s scheme to steal citron cuttings fails; Hattie, disgusted by his greed, divorces him and vows to help Indigo find her family.
Meanwhile, Sister Salt is befriended by Big Candy, who fathers her baby, the “little black grandfather.” When Big Candy’s preoccupation with wealth causes him to neglect Sister Salt and the baby, she and the Chemehuevi twins leave to farm land that the twins acquired from an aunt. The sisters are reunited, returning to the old gardens. Indigo plants the seeds and bulbs she collected on her journey, mixing the impractical but beautiful flowers with the traditional food crops. As in earlier works, Silko emphasizes the need to live in harmony with the land, the dangers of capitalism, and the need to use the new along with the old.