'Ceremony' by Leslie Marmon Silko
'They blame us, the ones who look different. That way they don't have to think about what has happened inside themselves.'—Review #195
Do you believe the universe sends you signs about the books you’re meant to read? I do. Here’s irrefutable evidence. Donna and I spent last weekend in Chicago. We visited Myopic Bookstore, and as we browsed, Donna said, ‘look at this.’ She had the 1986 Penguin edition of ‘Ceremony’ by Leslie Marmon Silko. I wished I could have exchanged my ‘Deluxe Edition’ for that more-interestingly designed version. Alas. Then, on our way to the gate at O’Hare, we passed a woman wearing a shirt from ‘Ketchikan, Alaska,’ where Silko wrote the novel in the 1970s. The universe was clear.
Here’s the cover:
Nearly two years ago, I reviewed Silko’s ‘Almanac of the Dead,’ and some of you may remember that the universe led me to that book, too. You may also remember that Silko is a poet and novelist who grew up on the Pueblo Laguna reservation near Albuquerque. ‘Ceremony’ is set on reservation land in New Mexico and follows Tayo, a World War II veteran suffering from PTSD. Tayo struggles with nightmares and physical illness after what he endured fighting the Japanese. He also has unbearable guilt and grief over the death of his cousin Rocky, a fellow soldier whom he vowed to protect during the war. Further, his uncle Josiah died while Tayo was away. Rocky and Josiah were key to restoring the family’s respectability and cleansing the shame brought by Tayo’s mother who lived hard and had relations with white men. Rocky was intelligent, affable and a gifted high school athlete. Josiah had a plan for raising cattle. With both of them gone, and the family’s hopes apparently dashed, Tayo is barely able to get out of bed (which is next to Rocky’s empty one), and when he does, he drinks and gets into fights. In one scrap, he nearly kills someone. Eventually, his grandmother and aunt are like:
Tayo is sent to an old medicine man named Betonie, who conducts a healing ceremony. During the ceremony, Tayo and Betonie talk about history, legends and the wickedness of conquest, violence, land theft and environmental exploitation that led to native peoples being fenced in on reservations. We are reminded that:
Tayo gets a quest, and faces a journey with dangers from white cowboys, wild animals and the Earth itself. Would he survive? Would he be healed? I’m not going to give it away. But I will be thinking about this book for a while. Reading ‘Ceremony’ felt like entering a dream; it’s hard to describe. The word that keeps popping into my mind is ‘floating.’ The narrative seems to float among Tayo’s struggles, the poems and songs that Silko weaves in, and the old man’s stories. While it can be disorienting at times, the book coheres and is engaging. There is beauty and rage, and also hope. I was often uncomfortable, but happy the universe put this story in my path in time for Indigenous People’s Day (tomorrow). If you’re up for a challenging and rewarding novel, you should read this book.
How it begins:
is sitting in her room
and whatever she thinks about
She thought of her sisters,
Nau’ts’ity’i and I’tcts’ity’i,
and together they created the Universe
and the four worlds below.
Thought-Woman, the spider,
named things and
as she named them
She is sitting in her room
thinking of a story now
I’m telling you the story
she is thinking.
‘Ceremony’ by Leslie Marmon Silko was published by Viking Press in 1977 and by Penguin Books in 2006. 244 pages. $16.74 at Bookshop.org.
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Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #194
Read this: Sacheen Littlefeather, the actress and activist who refused the Best Actor award on Marlon Brando’s behalf at the 1973 Academy Awards recently died of cancer. In her New York Times obituary, I learned that not only did the Oscars audience boo and jeer Littlefeather as she read a speech decrying how Native Americans were depicted in Hollywood movies, but also that John Wayne had to be physically restrained from rushing the stage. Also, I did not know that the Academy recently apologized to Littlefeather for how she was treated.
Read this, too: William Shatner reflects about going into space in Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket in his new book, excerpted in Variety: ‘It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered.’
Watch this: Lizzo playing James Madison’s crystal flute is an important moment in American history:
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,
Ah, Ceremony is so good! (So is Dracula, fwiw.)
I have carried "Ceremony" from house to house for years. It's one of my favorite books. It *is* like entering a dream, you're right. 📖