The difficulties of a war veteran returning to normal life is a theme that has proved rich, fertile, fecund. So many people, over the last hundred years, have had family members who returned from war - or didn't - or have themselves come back from the horrors of the battlefields. There is something within us that seeks to understand the full magnitude of what
is lost when life and limb become so many strategic points on a general's battle plan. Humanity, perhaps.
Leslie Marmon Silko's novel, Ceremony, takes the fairly ordinary story of a young man returning from fighting in Japan during World War II - and I mean ordinary in a very broad sense, as there is nothing really ordinary about fighting and dying for one's country - and spins it in a different direction. What happens when your uniform confers upon you the respect of others, admiration, hospitality, grateful thanks, but when it is removed and the war starts to fade, you become, once again, a 'filthy Indian', a mixed blood who feels uncomfortable in both the 'white' and the 'native American Indian' worlds? Ceremony seeks to provide not the answer, but an answer. And here it succeeds.
'First time you walked down the street in Gallup or Albuquerque, you knew. Don't lie. You knew right away. The war was over, the uniform was gone. All of a sudden that man at the store waits on you last, makes you wait until all the white people bought what they wanted.' Tayo has returned from Japan and is suffering what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. During the war, he saw his relatives in the dead bodies of the Japanese. Afterward, he sees death all around him. Coupled with this is the hostility of his native American Indian family members, who distrust him because he is not fully theirs, and the whites, who only like Tayo when he is wearing a uniform. One of the novelís large themes is dealing with the sadness of the native American Indians who, after serving their country in World War II, assumed that their equality and the respect they were receiving would last beyond the last shot fired. It didn't, and what was left? Can a man - woman, too - who tastes what it is like to be free ever return the bit to their mouth, the harness to their back? Not easily, and not without sadness. 'They had been treated first class once, with their uniforms. As long as there had been a war and the white people were afraid of the Japs and Hitler. But these Indians got fooled when they thought it would last.'
Another aspect is the land where Tayo lives. To begin with, he has only a small level of appreciation for the stories and mysteries embedded within the mountains, trees, streams and rivers. The writing is focused internally, through memories and thoughts. But later, as Tayo comes to learn more about his heritage - which is done wonderfully through many different song-poems that capture and reveal ancient native American Indian myths and stories - the land itself becomes not a character but almost the entire force of the novel. Silko's writing luxuriates in the earthy reality of the land, lingering lovingly over descriptions of what, in other novels, is often overlooked. 'The mountain had been named for the swirling veils of clouds, the membranes of foggy mist clinging to the peaks, then leaving them covered with snow. This morning the mountain was dusted with snow, and the blue-gray clouds were unwinding from the peaks.' It is impossible not to shiver with cold upon reading these words. One of the major goals of the novel - and the most successfully accomplished - is bringing out the beauty of the land.
Perhaps less successful is Tayo's descent into alcoholism. While it is believable, and competently written, there is a jagged, fragmented sense of the writing that pulls the reader away from the text rather than keeping them inside. This technique was no doubt used to mirror Tayo's disordered, confused mind, but there are occasions when we are simply willing to pause a moment to truly understand what is happening. Happily, the missteps are brief, and the most important parts of the novel shine the brightest.
Silko is a physical writer, not just in her descriptions of the land but also in the sheer physical delight she takes in describing ordinary, mundane situations. Consider this brief snapshot: 'Tiny black ants were scurrying over the shattered melons; the flies were rubbing their feet on fragments of pulp and rind. He trampled the ants with his boots, and he kicked dirt over the seeds and pulp.' Again, we can almost taste the melon, can clearly and distinctly picture the poor ants.
Ceremony occupies an important place in the canon of native American Indian writing. The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, the latest in this noble series, accurately captures the impact of the text through Larry McMurtry's introduction and Leslie Marmon Silko's own foreword. Silko's novel rises above what could be referred to as 'minority fiction', in that it is important because it is written by a minority group, because its achievement as a text does not require the shackles of race or class or gender or nation. Silko's novel is perhaps the most famous native American Indian novel, but it is also a fine, sturdy, worthwhile achievement within the broader genre of the novel itself, and that is what is important here. Read Ceremony because it has something important to say about difficult, weighty matters. It is more than merely a minority piece.