Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Leslie Marmon Silko

Ceremony, roughly, is the story of Tayo, a former WWII soldier of mixed white and Laguna ancestry, trying to readjust to civilian life. Like many of the other former soldiers, he turns to alcohol to drown his troubles. Compounding the stresses of returning from war is the fact that he's never fully fit in at home to begin with. His mother is the black sheep of the family, having produced living evidence of sleeping with a white man.

His grandmother feels a native healer may be able to save Tayo, but some in the family think Tayo is unworthy to receive such help because of his mixed bloodlines. Eventually, Tayo does meet up with Betonie, a healer, also of mixed ancestry. Betonie leads Tayo through a series of ceremonies intended to cure his depression and lift the effects of the war.

This is not the easiest book to read. Past and present blend, reality and imaginings blend together in ways that reflect Tayo's fractured thinking. As he pushes forward, attempting to find relief, you begin to see life itself as a ceremony, to be improvised and adapted as needed. Ceremony rewards you with remarkably beautiful, vivid passages such as this:
He found flowers that had no bees, and gathered yellow pollen gently with a small blue feather from Josiah's pouch; he imitated the gentleness of the bees as they brushed their sticky-haired feet and bellies softly against the flowers.
I am so glad that I finally read this book. I've heard about it as one of the classics of Native American writing, and it certainly deserves that recognition.

Want more like this? Try:
  • Toni Morrison, Sula. A black soldier returns from World War I to his small hometown in Ohio. His method of coping is alternatively spooky, humorous, and tragic.
  • Heinrich Böll, Billiards at Half-Past Nine. A German family deals with their role in World War II.
  • Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and into the Trees. Most Hemingway books deal with war or its aftermath in some way, but this one is memorable for Colonel Cantwell's intense struggle to reclaim life and happiness even as he knows he is facing imminent death.


thecuecard said...

Although I read this in the early 1990s, I remember the beauty and vividness of it. The author was amazing. I'd like to revisit it sometime, or more of her work.

MJ said...

@thecuecard: I can certainly see how the vividness would stick with you, even many years later. I definitely want to read more from Silko.