Storyteller Leslie Marmon Silko
American novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of Silko's short story collection Storyteller (1981) through 2001. See also Leslie Marmon Silko Short Story Criticism (Volume 37).
Silko's reputation as a short fiction writer rests primarily on Storyteller (1981), a compilation of short stories, poems, autobiographical passages, and photographs. The main thematic concerns of Storyteller include the alienation of Native Americans in society and the importance of Native American traditions and community in modern times. Her stories are influenced by traditional oral tales that she heard growing up on a Laguna Pueblo Indian reservation in northern New Mexico.
Plot and Major Characters
Storyteller features some of Silko's short stories that were previously published in magazines and includes poetry from her earlier collection Laguna Woman: Poems (1974). One of her best-known stories in the collection, “Yellow Woman,” derives from traditional abduction tales in which a kachina, or mountain spirit, kidnaps and seduces a young woman on her way to draw water. In Silko's tale, a contemporary Pueblo woman suspects that her liaison with a cattle rustler is a reenactment of the “yellow woman” legend. The boundary between her experience and the myth slowly dissolves as she becomes aware of her active role in the traditions of her community. “Lullaby” presents an old woman recalling the time when her children were taken away for educational opportunities but later returned to a culture that no longer seemed familiar or comfortable to them. “Tony's Story” concerns an Indian who kills a vicious policeman. Considered her signature story, “Storyteller” chronicles the tragic story of an orphaned, exploited young Inuit girl as she lures the man responsible for the death of her parents to his death. Arrested for the man's murder, the young woman contemplates the landscape from her small jail window. “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” explores the conflict of native and Catholic traditions after the death of a Native American man. In the final story of the volume, “Coyote Holds a Full Hand,” Silko utilizes the figure of Coyote, a traditional trickster figure in Laguna and other Native American myths. The smooth-talking protagonist of the story convinces several women that he can cure dizziness by rubbing their thighs with juniper ashes.
Critics assert that in Storyteller Silko attempts to merge the oral tradition of storytelling with the literary form. They contend that she creates an unusual type of autobiography through which she describes her personal experiences and her family history by locating them within the larger Laguna society. Thus, she reflects the Pueblo belief that the individual is only significant in relation to their position within the whole. Memory, familial and community ties, power, and identity are viewed as dominant thematic concerns of the stories in Storyteller. Reviewers maintain that her stories blend Western literary genres with the oral traditions of her Laguna Pueblo heritage to communicate Native American concepts concerning time, nature, and spirituality and their relevance in the contemporary world. Her protagonists, often of mixed Laguna and European heritage, draw upon the moral strength of their native community and its traditions in order to overcome the repressive, alienating effects of the dominant society.
Commentators have often discussed the autobiographical nature and interrelated themes of the stories, photographs, and poems in Storyteller. The appearance of the books itself—its elongated page-width, shorter pages, and photographs—has led several reviewers to assert that the book is similar to a family album and a challenge to aesthetic and literary conventions. In addition, they note the fluidity of Silko's writing and praise her use of subtle humor. Many reviewers discuss the importance of myth, oral tradition, and ritual in Silko's fiction, and they commend her ability to draw those outside of the Native American community into her narratives. Storyteller is regarded as a unique and powerful work written by one of the foremost authors to emerge from the Native American literary renaissance of the 1970s.