I kind of went into this book blindly. Because a friend was doing a challenge to read books by Native American authors. With very little knowledge of what this book is about, I read it. I could write a whole dissertation on the different themes of this novel. It was surprisingly short and compact for what it was conveying and I loved it.
First, let’s talk about what this book is about
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 ceremony that defeats the most virulent of afflictions—despair.
I really regret not looking into this one some more because while it was really interesting to read, it was pretty dense writing. It was also stylized in a way that made it quite confusing in the beginning. Once I finally got a grasp of what was going on, I approached the book more cautiously.
The story is told in flashbacks, in present day events, and in the ceremony to help Tayo heal from the atrocities of his life and the war. There weren’t chapters in the book, but each section was determined by the crazy indentation the paragraph starts with. The one thing I loved from this method were the poems. Every few pages, Leslie Silko included some stories written in a poetic-style about a hummingbird and a fly trying to bring water to their draught-filled land. The lengths these animals were going was a direct reflection of Tayo and his struggle.
Despite some strange stylistic choices the author made, there were tons of themes going on in this book. I think the easiest way to explain them all would be to list them and cite how the book tackled it.
Being a war veteran
Of course there are the themes of being Native American and how that’s affected Tayo and the Laguna people, but something else I thought might be interesting to explore is being unaccepted by America, but fighting a foreign war for them. Don’t you find it a little hypocritical to fight a war for a country that doesn’t even acknowledge you as a citizen? Force you to live on land in the middle of the desert with nothing to grow or harvest. I digress.
For Tayo, the horrors of his time in the Marines were not only met with having to kill a soldier, but also watching your cousin die, being a captive of Japanese army, and facing a point of insanity. When he returned from WWII, he struggled with finding himself. Who was he when his cousin and his uncle were both dead? Who was he before the war took him? He would vomit and sleep and imagine his uncle and his cousin, Rocky, were somehow present after they had died. He was hallucinating and struggling to stay sane when the tribe’s medicine man suggested he visit another medicine man that lived high in the hills. There he performed the ceremony to help him rid the “witchery” holding him hostage.
The best part of this novel that I found intriguing was the “taste” of being American. Emo, another Laguna native who went to the war, found the experience to be enlightening. While he spent his days in the bar, he would talk about how great the war was, how people treated him for wearing his uniform, and how all of that disappeared the moment he returned to the reservation. For Emo, the American life was something to be desired, but difficult to grasp because of the color of his skin. He built resentment for being Native American and resented anyone who didn’t appreciate the American life. I think this also contributed to Tayo’s frustration with figuring out who he was.
There was a lot of discussion about Tayo’s background. His mother was Native American from the Laguna tribe he was born into, but he didn’t know who his father was. I think there was mention of him being part white and part Mexican as well as part Laguna. They do go into his mother’s background a little more in the book, but because of the choices his mother made, the family he lives with doesn’t accept him. He’s not accepted by the other Laguna people, and he’s considered a half-breed who’s mother sold herself out to please white men.
I don’t know what it’s like to be bi-racial, but I do know what it’s like to be both American and Asian. Being flung between two cultures and trying to be accepted by both is not an easy task. You want to be loyal to both sides, but when one tribe doesn’t like you and the other doesn’t accept you, where do you go? Not white enough to be white. Not Native American enough to be Laguna.
I think Tayo never talked about this with himself. He never explored what made up his background and this contributed to the feelings he had when he returned from the war. He fought a war for Americans, but then returned to that same reservation he grew up in. No one applauded him for being a veteran and everyone outside of the reservation just saw another “Indian.” I think this ultimately contributed to him going slightly insane.
Returning to your roots
There’s probably other themes that I’m missing here, but I don’t want this post to get too long. The final theme I wanted to chat about was returning to your roots. While be chastised for being born a numerous number of races, I always felt like there was one that will always call to you. You’ll gravitate towards it and you’ll find peace there amongst the people who love you for who you are.
For Tayo, this journey began when he returned from the war. He enlisted to fight in a war for a country that doesn’t even accept Laguna as citizens of the country. However, he and many other Native Americans enlisted for the opportunities. What they found was a place of respect. People loved him because he was a soldier, not a Native American. They received the best because of their uniform.
But what I think he lost was his own sense of self. He struggled with it his entire life by the ridicule of his family and his friends. He was never accepted and now he was about to fight in a war for a country that didn’t accept him. When he returned, it only took the power of the ceremony to help find who he is and dispel him of the frustration of being a fringe human being. He found love in a woman who also was half and she helped him find peace and growth through her love.
This book was an interesting story about a man who had no idea who he was, what he stood for, and what really made him the person he is. By returning to his roots, he was able to find pieces of himself again. He was able to contribute and help grow the land and the people around him. Of course he didn’t get rid of the people who didn’t accept him, but what he did find was a way to keep those thoughts away from who he truly is.