Ceremony

Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko, begins:

Ts’its’tsi’nako, Thought-Woman,
is sitting in her room
and whatever she thinks about
appears.

She thought of her sisters,
Nau’ts’ity’i and I’tcts’ity’i,
and together they created the Universe
this world
and the four worlds below.

Thought-Woman, the spider,
named things and
as she named them
they appeared.

She is sitting in her room
thinking of a story now

I’m telling you the story
she is thinking.

And it continues, on the next page:

I will tell you something about stories,
[he said]
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.

You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.

When the narrative begins, then, we already know that this is a story about the power of story, to harm, to heal, to create and to destroy. What’s not yet clear is how great Silko really believes that power to be.

Tayo, a Laguna Pueblo Indian, has just returned from World War II and from the Bataan Death March. He is terribly ill, tormented by memories of his half-brother’s death as well as by shell-shock, exhaustion, and bewildered resentment that he has been made to fight for a country that has no respect for him. The VA’s medications and therapies aren’t working for him, and neither are the ancient Indian rituals, in which he no longer truly believes. Tayo is lingering close to death.

Then, a medicine man named Betonie comes to see him. He explains that the old rituals have to change and shift; that we all have to tell new stories to adapt to the changing times. This has always been the way. Only people who are afraid cling to the same old stories. With new rituals, new stories, we see and love the world as it is, and we can reject the witchery that desires our death.

This idea that stories change, that new elements become necessary as circumstances shift in order to create new life, resonates throughout the book. Tayo and his uncle reject the standard Hereford cattle that cannot thrive on barren, drought-stricken Pueblo land, in favor of wild, antelope-like Mexican cattle that can seek water for themselves. Tayo, always shunned for his mixed-race heritage, is the only one of his friends to return from the war and to find a way to survive the memories. The underlying theme of reconciliation and the creation of new life through new story is potent.

Yet this is not a soft book. It was written in 1977,  just after the end of the Vietnam War, and I often found myself forgetting that Tayo was returning from the second World War and not from a more recent conflict. It is a book that’s not primarily directed at a white audience. There’s anger in it at the stories white people have wanted Native Americans to hear. But the overarching new story, of healing and change, is deeply powerful, and it’s so beautifully and sparely written that it almost comes as a surprise to find out how tense it is, and how much we care about Tayo’s work.

I read about this book over at Eva’s. She describes how moved she was by it, and how it captures both the experiences of one human being and some of the larger essence of what it means to be human. I echo her thoughts. This book was a true and surprising pleasure.

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10 Responses to Ceremony

  1. nymeth says:

    I heard a lot of wonderful things about this book on a First Nations literature class I took some years ago. It was often mentioned along with Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach (which I absolutely loved). All these years later I’ve yet to pick it up, but you and Eva have reminded me that I really should

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, thanks for the Robinson recommendation! I’ve been looking for more First Nations fiction to read. And yes, this one was wonderful!

  2. Ellen Rhudy says:

    This is such a fantastic book. Great review. I remember seeing this book all the time when I worked in a used bookstore in high school; I think I even bought one of the copies, but I didn’t read it until it was assigned reading for a college course I took a few years later. I’ve read it two or three times now (and am about due for a reread), and am amazed every time by how LMS addresses these questions of how we tell stories, how stories shift over time, the different stories told by different groups of people, in addition to the stories surrounding Tayo’s war experiences. This is one of those rare books that I find myself recommending to people even though I haven’t read it for years. I need to look into some of the author’s other works, though, because this is also one of those books that I will reread rather than venturing into her other publications.

    • Jenny says:

      You know, when I looked into her other work, it really looked like it was a case of this one being sensational and her other work not measuring up quite as much. I’d be interested in seeing if anyone who’s read her other work has anything to say about that.

  3. Susan E says:

    I’m convinced! I want to read this one. I very much liked the book of her and James Wright’s letters which I read several years ago and I meant to read Ceremony, but my reading took another direction. Time to steer it back to the Southwest…Thanks for the review!

  4. Eva says:

    Oh yay! I’m so glad that this one touched you too. She’s such an incredible writer; I really need to read more of her books already!

    • Jenny says:

      Well, as I said, I’m not sure about her other work. Ceremony seems to get all the raves. But I’ll keep an eye on your blog and see what you think of her other books, and you can be my canary in the coal mine. :)

  5. Emily says:

    This is a fantastic book. I haven’t read it in years, but it may be time to pick it up again. Great review – thanks!

  6. Pingback: Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland

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