Leslie Marmon Silko Long Fiction Analysis
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
(The entire section is 1,296 words.)