In addition to being a brilliant writer, Leslie Marmon Silko is an unusually, almost miraculously patient writer. I finished my first reading (it will not be my last) of her novel Ceremony and have to say that Sherman Alexie did not exaggerate a bit when he called Ceremony “one of the greatest novels of any time and place.”
By calling her patient, I refer to the way she never rushes through a scene but takes time to note each shifting detail of the natural surroundings, along with details of the main character’s thoughts and memories and feelings and imaginings. She backtracks at least as often as she takes her story patiently forward -- backtracks and circles around and circles back again and again, in wider and wider narrative orbits. Thus the story expands and grows deeper it proceeds, and we acquire background as we gradually get to know the main character.
The main character is Tayo. That his mother “went with white men” and that his own unknown father was white is the earliest burden of his life, compounded when she leaves him with relatives and disappears from his life. Even before she dies, he knows he will never see her again.
Tayo’s Uncle Josiah and cousin Rocky accept him from the beginning, but his Auntie never lets him forget that he is not really Rocky’s brother, not her own child, and that his mother brought shame on the family, shame made visible to their village in his very existence.
Then – I am telling this chronologically, not in the order of the novel’s recounting of events – Tayo and Rocky enlist to fight in World War II. In the Pacific, they are captured by the Japanese, and the horrors of that time haunt Tayo on his return, disturbing not only his sleep but also his waking life. Nightmares, flashbacks, and disturbing visions cripple his spirit. Civil and military authorities, as well as his own people, doubt Tayo’s sanity, and he doubts it himself.
To return from the horrors of war to a previous life of normality – can it ever be easily accomplished? Tayo’s fellow veterans seek relief from their wartime memories in alcohol. Periodically Tayo does also, but he wants more of life than a haze of oblivion. He has inherited, in the time before the war, a dream from his Uncle Josiah. Materially, the dream consists of a herd of cattle -- not helpless Herefords, waiting to be brought food and water in time of scarcity and drought, but rangy Mexican cattle that can fend for themselves, like antelope, in an arid land. As Josiah explained the matter to Tayo:
“Cattle are like any living thing. If you separate them from the land for too long, keep them in barns and corrals, they lose something. Their stomachs get to where they can only eat rolled oats and dry alfalfa. When you turn them loose again, they go running all over. They are scared because the land is unfamiliar, and they are lost. They don’t stop being scared either, even when they look quiet and they quit running. Scared animals die off easily.”
Josiah reads books on the raising and breeding of cattle but is dubious about the practices recommended in the books. He asks Tayo and Rocky to read them and see what they think.
The problem was the books were written by white people who did not think about drought or winter blizzards or dry thistles, which the cattle had to live with.
The books treated cattle as an abstraction, something apart from the land on which they were to live.
To deal with the effects of postwar trauma, Tayo’s family and Tayo himself turn to traditional medicine men. These ceremonies, both specific and metaphorical, form much of the book’s bedrock. I have emphasized the role of the cattle because that dream and that reality dovetail with the ceremonies. It is the land itself – and the cattle, that belong to the land – grounding those who would not fall victim to the destroyers’ sickness.
Spiritual connections, history, and ideas all have their place in the story, and while many of the themes are universal (“one of the greatest novels of any time and place,” to quote Sherman Alexie once again), the physical features of place are present in loving detail, so clear that someone who has never been to the Southwest might almost see and feel and smell it when reading certain passages. I open the book at random and easily fall on a paragraph of place:
He tied the mare in a clearing surrounded by a thicket of scrub oak. He sat under a scrub oak and picked up acorns from the ground around him. The oak leaves were already fading from dark green to light yellow, and within the week they would turn gold and bright red. The acorns were losing their green color too, and the hulls were beginning to dry out. By the time the leaves fell and the acorns dropped, he would be home with the cattle.
And there is so much more. For instance, almost offhandedly, in a single sentence, Silko gives one of the most original and beautiful analogies of lovemaking I have ever encountered in literature.
He eased himself deeper within her and felt the warmth close around him like river sand, softly giving way under foot, then closing firmly around the ankle in cloudy warm water.
I finished my first reading of Ceremony on Saturday morning, and later that day in my bookstore a customer saw it on the counter and said that he was reading it but was afraid of how it might end. I felt the same way as I saw the remaining pages grow fewer in my hand. And as Sherman Alexie said later in his words of praise for the novel, violence is part of the story, from beginning to end. But “You will be surprised” was all I told the apprehensive reader, and it’s all I’m going to tell you.
Neither, here, am I going to get into the issues of race and racism and brown vs. white and how blame is allocated (if you think it is) by the author. I’ll only tell all readers not to be afraid but to keep reading to the end.
Book clubs and discussion groups interested in exploring American history and issues of race in our country’s literature should not neglect this beautiful novel. Lovers of fiction, give yourself a gift. Read this book.