Ceremony (Contemporary American Fiction Series)

by Leslie Marmon Silko

Paperback, 1986



Call number

PS3569 .I44



Penguin Books (1986), Edition: Reprint, 260 pages


"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… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Terpsichoreus
Like the other Native pop novelists of the 60's and 70's, Silko's voice is competent when not distracted by over-reaching, and like the others, she spins a story which is vague enough to please. She also never really escapes the fact that her depiction of Native culture is thoroughly westernized.

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.
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LibraryThing member JosephJ
Wonderful book. Once you realize it is not out to fit into the typical structure of the novel and is based more on traditional Native American storytelling, then the book becomes this cool anti-novel that actually tells a pretty sad, yet beautiful story about a Native American soldier dealing with PTSD after WWII. He also deals with reconciling his Pueblo culture with the Western culture of the white man.… (more)
LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
This is a powerful and poetic work, exploring ideas of legacy and PTSD through a Native American war veteran who struggles between cultures and between generations. Silko's language and artful style combine here into a collage of legend and narrative, creating a unique journey that lends itself to a quiet and disarming read. While the book comes across in the beginning as a quiet exploration of cultures and history, it quickly becomes more---this book is worth reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member framberg
This amazing novel contains many themes I'm familiar with from Alexie, Erdrich and Dorris: ruminations about loss and healing; struggles with an Indian identity, particularly for "half-bloods"; conflicts with alcohol, family, and the white world. Silko weaves the story of Tayo, a WWII veteran who has returned home to his Laguna pueblo deeply damaged by his wartime experiences and without his cousin and childhood friend, Rocky, with a poem that narrates the healing of the earth after some dangerous magic distracts the people. The poem feels ancient and timeless, and Tayo's difficult journey towards healing and acceptance is epic.… (more)
LibraryThing member jeterat
I read this book for high school, and at the time, did not like it. As an adult and a feminist (both things that I was not back then), I return to this book over and over as an example of a woman speaking about her experience and the experience of the people around her. I remember the story very clearly, something that speaks to a well written novel, and compare other fiction to this as an example of excellent creative storytelling.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sheila1957
Told from Tayo's point-of-view. He is a Native American who, along with his cousin, goes off to fight in Southeast Asia during WWII. When he returns home, he is suffering from PTSD. The story switches time periods from before the war growing up, during the war, after the war. Some of his friends relive their time in the army when they were heroes. Tayo is just trying to cope with his life and his war experiences.

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.
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LibraryThing member YvonneK7
This book is a difficult read in part because, if read carefully, it forces you to take the journey with Tayo toward integration. The book itself is a healing ceremony, a ceremony that asserts the Oneness of life--the relatedness of everything.
LibraryThing member readingthruthenight
First, I must admit, I knew nothing about Ceremony when I picked it up (via Bookmooch, me'thinks). I was perusing through some forums seeking recommendations for the broad generalization of "magical realism" when this title continued to pop up. See how easily I am sold when on a mission motivated by curiosity.

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.
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LibraryThing member kvrfan
Tayo is a Laguna Pueblo Indian who returns from World War II suffering from "battle fatigue." As a result (complicated by deeper things in his background), he feels alienated from tribe, family, and his own self. Threatened with being returned to the mental ward, he seeks out the ministrations of an unconventional medicine man who puts him on the path to healing.

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.
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LibraryThing member comtoc
I was required to read this book as part of a college lit class. It was not originally part of the curriculum, but it was the professor's favorite book and she recommended it so highly, the class opted to read this instead of the planned book. I was truly disappointed. I wish I could have back the hours I spent reading this book. It could be that I was just put off by the narrative style, but I felt that I had to make a huge effort to get through the story, and when I did, it wasn't worth the effort. Ultimately, the characters were not engaging and the story was not interesting. In fact, the whole experience was so irksome, this has become one of the very few books I actually hate and regret wasting the time reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member teharhynn
This is another one that I read it for class. I didn’t think it was terrible, but I don’t know that I would have made it through the whole thing if I didn’t have to. It had some interesting parts. If you’re looking for a harder read, this is it, because there isn’t much chronological ordering to it…
LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
Tayo is a half-white Laguna Indian emotionally stricken by white warfare and almost destroyed by his experiences as a World War II prisoner of the Japanese. Unable to find a place among Native American veterans who are losing themselves in rage and drunkenness, Tayo discovers his connection to the land and to ancient rituals with the help of a medicine man, and comes to understand the need to create ceremonies, to grow and change, in order to survive. I liked the interspersed myths/poems (which are mixed into the narrative), but the landscape descriptions became tedious for me.… (more)
LibraryThing member mojomomma
Silko explores the place of Native Americans in the post-World War II American society.
LibraryThing member veevoxvoom
I did not expect to like this book. Mostly because everyone in my Contemporary Lit class who read it (and finished it before me) moaned about the non-linear, steam-of-consciousness style. But hey, I must have a gift for that style because I found Ceremony easy to read, and I enjoyed the unusual way it was put together, combining both Native American poetry and the more western form of the novel.

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.
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LibraryThing member Sean191
I thought I read this years ago, but if I did, only a couple of small parts seemed familiar this time around and they may have been pieces I read elsewhere.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member bataviabirders
Powerful, thought provoking. A book you'll read and reread.
LibraryThing member socalnovelist
Many may feel this book is disturbing, I know my son did. But I cannot help but love the way Silko creates such intense psychological consciousness in her characters. The book was a great one for me. I felt I understood like never before the real plight and sense of loss of the Native American who tries desperately to "fit" into the contemporary and dominant culture, but can never really feel they belong. I can identify with those feelings, and understand the sense of loss in spirit. This was where I first heard the idea of the "hollow" man, then later read T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Hollow Men," and the image of a "hollow man" was impressed upon me, from these two encounters with it: in Silko's book, "Ceremony" and in T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Hollow Men." But reading "Ceremondy" gives such a deeper rendition of what it means to be hollow, as Tayo, the main character learns in Silko's book.

It is a story that stays with you, years after.
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LibraryThing member idyll
Beautiful language and obviously an important book. I'm sorry it took me so long to get around to it. The spiritual deus ex machina taking up the last 1/3 of the book is a letdown, but I realize that this is a personal preference. Well worth reading.
LibraryThing member Crowyhead
Elements of magic and hard reality collide in this harsh, yet beautiful, tale of a young man displaced from society, his Laguna culture, and his own selfhood.
LibraryThing member socalnovelist
Many may feel this book is disturbing, I know my son did. But I cannot help but love the way Silko creates such intense psychological consciousness in her characters. The book was a great one for me. I felt I understood like never before the real plight and sense of loss of the Native American who tries desperately to "fit" into the contemporary and dominant culture, but can never really feel they belong. I can identify with those feelings, and understand the sense of loss in spirit. This was where I first heard the idea of the "hollow" man, then later read T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Hollow Men," and the image of a "hollow man" was impressed upon me, from these two encounters with it: in Silko's book, "Ceremony" and in T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Hollow Men." But reading "Ceremondy" gives such a deeper rendition of what it means to be hollow, as Tayo, the main character learns in Silko's book.

It is a story that stays with you, years after.
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LibraryThing member nancynova
rabck from eponine38; Fiction, but reads as a true story. Tayo, a young Indian, was a Japanese POW during WWII. Now returning back to the reservation after the war, after being treated as a first class soldier during the war, he's trying to fit back into the second class citizen mould that the Whites who were his peers during the was, force the Indians into. In addition, his cousin Rocky, who the family pinned all there hopes on, was killed in the war, and he feels that he let the family down by him living and Rocky dying. Add battle fatigue (now called PTSD), his friends unable to cope except by getting drunk and rabble rousing, and he's losing himself. With the help of a medicine man, and by steeping himself in the old ways, he finally finds healing. A lovely read with lots of prayers and insights into the Indian spiritual way. This will continue on as a "C" book ring book.… (more)
LibraryThing member msf59
“Everywhere he looked, he saw a world made of stories, the long ago, time immemorial stories...It was a world alive, always changing and moving; and if you knew where to look, you could see it, sometimes imperceptible, like the motion of the stars across the sky.”

“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.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
This is a challenging, disturbing read. The main character, Tayo, is an American Indian from the Laguna Pueblo reservation. Convinced by his cousin and best friend, Rocky, he enlists in the Army during WWII. Ultimately both young men are taken prisoner together by the Japanese. The horrors of that experience leave Tayo adrift in a limbo-like state, in an Army mental hospital. When he is discharged, still far from well, he finds himself wavering between a desire to return to the hospital's sterile cold white environment, where he felt invisible yet safe; and a tendency to slip into the false happiness of near-constant drunkenness which some of his old friends and fellow veterans have embraced. Wise women in his family have another plan, and hold hope for his redemption, however. They encourage Tayo to seek out a medicine man who can put him in touch with the old ways, and help him complete a journey...a journey which is also a ceremony of deliverance from the evil they know as "witchery"...a journey which may end with a promising sunrise and a form of peace.

I found it difficult to engage with this story at first; I would pick it up, read several pages and find myself totally lost---who is speaking, whose point of view is this, did this happen before or after Tayo went to war? I persisted, not wanting to give up on what I was sure was a significant piece of literature. There were beautiful descriptive passages, and the women intrigued me. A story poem interjected into the text a bit at a time tempted me just to find its parts and read it all at once. (I resisted doing so.) At some point, I found I was invested in Tayo's struggle, and was rooting for him to prevail. I am quite pleased to have stuck with it to the end, although I cannot say I totally grasp all there is in it. There are beautiful moments, even some small measure of hope on an individual scale. I think it is impossible to appreciate Ceremony fully without knowing something of the creation myths and other beliefs of the Pueblo people. Part of Tayo's difficulty is that he himself (in part because he has mixed heritage and has suffered the epithet "half-breed" all his life) neither understands nor accepts the cultural norms so important to his grandmother until he has undertaken his journey and acknowledged the witchery at work in the world. This story can not make sense in the context of European morality; it has to be taken on the characters' terms or left alone. I can admire it without completely understanding it, especially as I assume it was not written for me, a white woman of Anglo-Saxon and Eastern European descent. It is one of those novels that, like much of Faulkner, cannot simply be read, but must be re-read.
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LibraryThing member sturlington
Tayo returns home to the Laguna Pueblo reservation from World War II suffering from PTSD and attempts to cure himself by reconnecting with the traditional ceremonies of his people.

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.
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LibraryThing member aratiel
I don't remember this very well, but as required reading in high school, I hated this book.


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

272 p.; 5.07 inches


0140086838 / 9780140086836



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