The unifying theme of the short stories and poems of Storyteller might be considered Silko’s life itself. Punctuated with photographs of the Laguna reservation and surrounding landscape, often taken by her father, Storyteller seeks to assert the importance and vitality of an oral culture. Many of the tales included were told to Silko by her relatives; although not always understanding their import at the time, Silko came to realize that such stories include practical or moral instruction. Other tales and poems are imaginative reconstructions of ancient myths or are Silko’s responses to her immediate environment. Throughout, the connective thread is Silko’s experience of life as an American Indian woman.
Silko assumes many guises as a storyteller and becomes many narrators, each with an individual voice. With equal versatility, she is the Inuk girl who tricks her parents’ killer to his death, the mythic Yellow Woman riding into the mountains with her lover, or herself as a child, tormenting her uncle’s goat. As she demonstrates so forcefully in Ceremony, she capably creates male characters, catching the rougher resonances of their voices as well. Two striking stories narrated by male characters are “Tony’s Story” and “Coyote Holds a Full House in His Hand.”
In the first, Silko focuses on the killing of a New Mexico state patrol officer, seen from the point of view of one of the participants. Brutalized by the patrol officer, who seeks out Indians in order to beat them, Antonio Sousea kills the officer in front of his friend Leon and then sets fire to the body in the squad car. Leon, who has responded to an indiscriminate beating from the officer by talking about his civil rights and appealing to the Pueblo meeting, is appalled. Tony, however, has perceived the officer to be something worse than a violent racist; he believes the man to be a force of evil, the focal point of a bad spell that perpetuates the drought conditions on the reservation.
Tony believes that to exorcise the evil, the killing and burning are necessary and justified from the perspective of ancient beliefs. His view is in sharp contrast to Leon’s, which has been affected by his service in the military and his desire to assimilate into the cultural mainstream.
“Coyote Holds a Full House in His Hand” is much more lighthearted. The final story in the collection is the tale of an old Laguna man who poses as a medicine man in order to take advantage of a gathering of Hopi women. Coyote is a traditional trickster of Laguna legend who is foiled by his own cleverness as often as he succeeds in getting what he wants. In this tale, however, he is victorious, securing for himself a photograph of the women, who have believed his lie and submitted to his cure, which involves caressing their thighs with juniper ashes. The humor of this tale, especially contrasted with the seriousness of “Tony’s Story,” demonstrates the versatility of Silko’s art, not only in her creation of multiple voices but also in her treatment of diverse subject matters. Storyteller is a brilliant exhibition of her range and imaginative powers.
A collection of autobiographical sketches, poems, family photographs, and short stories, Storyteller fuses literary and extraliterary material into a mosaic portrait of cultural heritage and of conflict between the two ethnic groups composing her heritage, the European American and the Native American.
The title story, “Storyteller,” presents that conflict from the point of view of a young Inuit woman who is fascinated with and repulsed by white civilization. Set in Alaska—the only major work of the author not in a Southwestern setting—the story follows her thoughts and observations as she spends her days amid these contrasting cultures. The old man with whom she lives and who has used her sexually—“she knew what he wanted”—is the storyteller. Now bedridden with age and the cold, subsisting on dried fish, which he keeps under his...
(The entire section is 1,840 words.)