Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Storyteller Analysis

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For Leslie Silko, the story is basic to existence, for the Lagunas have always had a tremendous concern for language. She says thatstorytelling for Indians is like a natural resource. Some places have oil, some have a lot of water or timber or gold, but around here, it’s the ear that has developed.

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The story is not only about life, it is life, giving to as well as drawing meaning from it. In Storyteller, Silko uses different forms to tell her story, which is also her people’s story, so thematically she begins with the intimate childhood relationships, such as those with Aunt Susie and Grandma A’mooh, from whom she heard her first tales. Throughout the book she uses photographs to reaffirm the poetry in the early sections, for both show the loving context in which the mythic episodes were first told to her and which she would later pass on to others as a writer. Stories depicting the girl jumping into the lake, whereupon her “clothes turned into butterflies,” as well as the girl’s choice of death in “Cottonwood,” show the closeness of death and life, sadness and joy, love and hate as part of the ironic texture of the old stories.

These stories come from and belong to the community. In contrast to the white world, where individual success is so important (as in the myth of Horatio Alger), the Laguna Indian finds identity through the group. In “Geronimo,” a group of Laguna soldiers act as guides for the whites in search of this great warrior, but the Indians treat the hunt as just that—a hunt, realizing that the white soldiers are going the wrong way. Ironically, observes Per Seyersted, it is the Lagunas who feel superior, not inferior, to their white companions, as the group, not the individual, prevails.

Fundamentally, these stories are spiritual, but not in the traditional Christian sense. Historically the Lagunas were conquered and Christianized by the Spaniards, but they have maintained their identity through stories. In “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” the Indians invite the priest to sprinkle holy water on the body of a dead member of the community, but not for the reason the priest thinks. The water for the Indians is a way of ritually calling for rain, of maintaining the cycle of death and life, not simply ensuring the eternal condition of an individual soul. The coming of rain and growth of the crops are central themes in Storyteller, especially in the middle, poetic section, where in a typical clan story Sun Man outsmarts the Gambler—the trickster who has tied up the storm clouds in his bag—to free the rain and thereby the people.

The Lagunas’ equivalent of the Christian idea of original sin is “witchery.” It is that force which causes suffering and torment, sterility and death, and against which characters such as Spiderwoman continually battle. This power isolates and paralyzes Tayo in Ceremony, and Silko includes the poetic statement on witchery from that novel in Storyteller. It is related to “Tony’s Story,” which also exemplifies the Lagunas’ keen awareness of the invisible evil forces that interfere with fertility and community happiness. Here Leon has returned from the war and is continually harassed by “the cops,” whereupon Tony, poignantly aware of an evil spirit-world, kills the policeman and burns his body in the car, concluding, “. . . everything is O.K. now, Leon. It’s killed. They sometimes take on strange forms.”

Silko says that her stories are really about “relationships”—love relationships, as in “Yellow Woman,” where a woman follows the “ka’tsina spirit” to the mountains, though she has a husband and children at home, or “Lullaby,” in which a mother is deceived into signing away her children, a type of death which is matched only by her singing a lullaby to her deceiver dying in the snow at the...

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