"This story, set on an Indian reservation just after World War II, concerns the return home of a war-weary Navaho young man. Tayo, a young Native American, has been a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, and the horrors of captivity have almost eroded his will to survive. His return to the Laguna Pueblo reservation only increases his feeling of estrangement and alienation. While other returning soldiers find easy refuge in alcohol and senseless violence, Tayo searches for another kind of comfort and resolution. Tayo's quest leads him back to the Indian past and its traditions, to beliefs about witchcraft and evil, and to the ancient stories of his people. The search itself becomes a ritual, a curative ceremny that defeats the most virulent of afflictions-despair. "Demanding but confident and beautifully written" (Boston Globe), this is the story of a young Native American returning to his reservation after surviving the horrors of captivity as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II. Drawn to his Indian past and its traditions, his search for comfort and resolution becomes a ritual--a curative ceremony that defeats his despair."--From source other than the Library of Congress
Her monomyth is tied up with enough Native American spirituality to make it feel new and mystical (at least to outsiders); it was even criticized for giving away 'cultural secrets'. It is somewhat telling that many of these secrets have been so subjugated by colonialism that what she shares never really feels new. Though this doesn't mean that what she shared didn't still feel private to her and her tribe.
The spiritual philosophy of 'New Agism' aims to recapture a non-christian view. Unfortunately, the cultures so held up as examples of this are usually too colonized to provide an unbiased view. Often, the only references to their practices have been recorded by Christian authors, and any currently living members have had to practice their traditions under strong Western influence.
The Native Americans do have this unbroken lineage, though they are not free from the influence of the slavery, exile, and attempted conversions of the west. This sets them apart from all of the European Pagans, especially the Druids, for whom we have no good source of knowledge. Most of these New Age beliefs are simply a rejection of Christianity and an embracement of something--often anything--else.
It does not help that such movements were started by egotistical self-promoters like Crowley who cobbled together whatever seemed risque or interesting without much history or philosophy to connect them. It is no less common for Native American beliefs to be overtaken in such a way and represented as more 'pure' and 'balanced' than our own Western traditions.
Like most of New Agism, this is bunk made up to sell people things. Native Americans were as expansive and destructive as any other peoples, and drove their share of animals to rarity and likely, extinction. Indeed, archaeological evidence indicates that the current 'native' Americans came only as recently as several thousand years ago, and wiped out the older aborigine population that had called the Americas home for millennia.
Another archaeological excavation of some Southern Californian tribes showed that they were driving certain species of bird to extinction until the point when smallpox reached them and they themselves were wiped out.
This isn't to say the Europeans saved the animals or any such thing, merely that there is likely no people that is 'in touch with nature'. To imagine such a thing is to try to remove one of the great difficulties of philosophy and replace it with a silly romantic notion. Of course, this is the sort of thing people tend to be quite comfortable with, as philosophy is hard and pleasant ideas are easy.
I would not fall so hard upon Silko as to suggest that she is such a blind idealist; indeed, she often gives us moral ambiguity and difficulty. This pessimism should be no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the current position of Natives, making poverty and hardship common in Native books.
Silko's is an early work in the movement, and like many such, it struggles with finding a voice. It is the mark of a strong author when they can conscientiously utilize and reject portions of a dominating culture in order to present a satire or redefinition of the relationship. However, Silko may still be too steeped not only in the dominant culture but in its own ideas of the 'Native American' to escape into something more profound.
It may be that this American culture is too insidious and pervasive to provide the underprivileged with enough opportunity to escape it, which may be why some of the 'Magical Realism' coming out South America may work as a better cultural refutation. That is, if you can find the small indications of differing belief stashed in amongst the endless Catholic fetishism.
There are still important cultural differences to be found between the West and the Natives, but Silko is no anthropologist. Perhaps she has fallen to the fallacy that being something makes you an expert in it. Unfortunately, our position in life often blinds us as much as it informs us. A man can drive a car without knowing how to build one.
Like Achebe, Silko's work arrives colonized and westernized, immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with Western tradition. And like Achebe, its concessions to culture are mainly the savagery and unexplained mysticism that the West already projects onto it. Here, then, is another book to make suburban housewives feel worldly and 'tolerant' without really shaking up their assumptions.
Leslie Marmon Silko is brilliant with words and not only gives draws a sobering picture of the Native experience (mid-20th-century), but also an involving psychological portrait of a man once again coming to claim himself.
Interesting style of writing where there is no chapters. It is one continuous story that switches back and forth from the far past, the war, and the present with Native wisdom, stories, and songs. I like that it is written from the Native American point-of-view and that we get into Tayo's mind and dreams. I had no problems switching between the time periods and was able to keep track of when and what was happening. A fascinating book that I am glad I read.
The cover, normally, would not have appealed to me.
It was short, so I dove right into its pages earlier this year. I'd been through a reading slump of sorts and a smallish book seemed to be what I was looking for. Needless to say I was NOT expecting a journey.
And Ceremony is DEFINITELY a journey.
This book reads like a dream. Even though Tayo is our young narrator, I swear there are moments when I began to believe I was a part of the Ceremony. (So yes, think of an academia Nightmare on Elm Street sorta experience or possibly The NeverEnding Story?).
So, what's Ceremony about? In a nutshell, Tayo and his best friend join the military and leave their indian village. The idea of fighting in World War II was not Tayo's idea. He would have been content working within the village. There is definitely an element of "Being an Outsider" that plays into Ceremony time and time again. In this case, Tayo was an outsider because he didn't really want more than what his village offered. His friend, however, knew that the military was his way out.
Unfortunately, Tayo is the only one to return, and much like the other Native Americans in his village back from the Great War, he is considered crazy and a drunkard. Which is only partly true. There are times when he acts crazy. And gets drunk. But only partly.
There's not a lot of time spent on the war (which pleased me because I'm not one to usually read war novels). The war scenes are all done in flashbacks and sometimes flashforwards which makes you feel sometimes lost and other times as though you are on a fast roller coaster without know which side is up. So yeah, kind of like real like, huh?
And then there's the prose....I remember reading somewhere that a whole bunch of Native Americans got their underwear in a wad because they thought Silko was exposing too many sensitive details about their spiritual world and stories. The prose is magical. And the Native American stories within Ceremony are utterly gorgeous.
I know the catch phrase with this book is: it's not only entitled Ceremony, reading it *is* a ceremony. Sounds pretty hokey, yes? I KNOW! But.... but... it's kinda true.
I mentioned earlier that there is definitely an ongoing theme of "Otherness" in Ceremony and it's true. It's everywhere. Tayo, upon his return, is the "Other" who made it back alive. He fights his own demons and then is separate from his own people. Larger than Tayo's singular experience, the idea of "Other" as Native American also presents itself.
Ceremony speaks more about the integration of a culture that was forced out of its land and then made to feel second rate because of it. It's about Tayo coming to terms with his HERITAGE as well as the KILLING of war.
Ultimately, it's a pissed off at the world kinda book that leaves the soul at peace.
Ceremony is about Tayo, a Native American World War II soldier who has recently returned to the reservation. He is traumatized by the war and the death of his beloved cousin Rocky, and while the rest of his Native veteran buddies jocky it up for booze and girls, Tayo has trouble relating to the real world. The only cure for this is ceremony. The idea of ceremony and its power to heal not only war trauma but also social and ethnic boundaries is extremely ambiguous, but the novel itself is ambiguous.
Regardless, Silko writes a good book. Poetic, bordering maybe on too poetic at times, but not seeming to cross the line. Mystical, but plausible. Depressing, but redeeming. Overall, a worthy read.
Our book group will be discussing it in April, 2008.
It is a story that stays with you, years after.
“Every day they had to look at the land, from horizon to horizon, and every day the loss was with them; it was the dead unburied, and the mourning of the lost going on forever. So they tried to sink the loss in booze, and silence their grief with war stories about their courage, defending the land they had already lost.”
In the years, immediately after WWII, we are introduced to Tayo, a young Native American, who fought as a Marine in the Pacific and was taken prisoner by the Japanese. He returns to his Pueblo reservation, as a shattered man and the novel is about Tayo's long, slow climb out of his own wreckage, using witchcraft and other traditional means to reach this difficult goal.
This is not an easy read. Watching these characters wallow in their suffering and alcohol abuse, can be painful but the narrative brightens as Tayo pulls out of his tailspin and begins to live again and appreciate the loved ones, who have supported him, through his trials. The writing grows stronger as the novel progresses, rewarding the reader, for hanging in there. This will not be for all tastes, but I can appreciate it's lofty position in Native American literature.
This was a slow read, mostly because the language is very poetic and demands a lot of attention to be paid. In fact, poetry is woven into the narrative at several points, which were probably my favorite sections. The poems relate traditional stories and comment on the events of the main narrative. (I would like to go back and reread the poems by themselves at some point.) Silko pays a lot of attention to the natural environment of the story, and these descriptive passages are among the most beautiful.
The first part of the story shows Tayo's suffering from his memories of the war, from his lifelong feeling of not belonging (he is half Native American and half white), and from the loss of the two people who meant the most to him, his cousin and his uncle. He is afraid that if he doesn't get better, he will be confined to a mental hospital. So he goes to a native healer who "prescribes" a ceremony for him.
At this point, I had trouble following events and discerning what was real and what was magical realism. This is also the point in the story when a fierce anger toward white people, who lie to Native Americans and to themselves, begins to bubble to the surface. This anger is justified but surprising, given the peaceful, nature-oriented tone of the writing. Tayo eventually finds a way to explain the actions of the whites, but I'm not sure that I entirely believe the anger has been soothed, nor am I convinced that it should be. The final scenes include some shocking violence, which again I wasn't sure was adequately explained by Tayo's reasoning.
I think this book demands to be reread. Close attention needs to be paid to the symbolic aspects of the ceremony and to the parallels between Tayo's story and the traditional stories of the ancestors, which can probably only be done after the initial reading has been absorbed. Only then can this story be fully understood, I suspect.