I have to admit that I approached Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony with a little trepidation, since I found N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn so difficult. I’m also not exactly in the right frame of mind at the moment to read bleak stories in general. However, Ceremony was Caroline’s pick for this month’s Literature and War Readalong, and after forcing my way through the first 50 pages or so, the reading got a little easier. I still didn’t find the story very accessible, but I got used to the jumps in the narration and could place the characters a little better. Then I was simply overwhelmed by the sense of alienation that saturates this novel.
The main character, Tayo, fought in World War II and was a prisoner of war. He returns with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. There is no doubt that that is central to the story and that that makes it a good selection for the Literature and War Readalong. But I found it to be only a secondary aspect of the book. For me, the central point was the destruction of a way of life that began long before the second World War.
As narratives from the past and present have shown over and over again, it is hard enough to come back from the trauma of war and resume life as it was. It is so much worse to come back and have no life to resume. But that is what Tayo is facing. On the reservation, there is a constant struggle to remember and practice life the way it used to be lived. There is the never-ending corruption caused by alcoholism, prostitution, and white Americans who have no regard whatsoever for Native Americans. There are prejudice, guns, and fences. And there is Tayo’s realization that to “them,” he is no different than the Japanese they fought against. The fact that he fought with them means nothing to them, yet it only adds another layer of destruction to Tayo’s life.
Tayo can finally begin his journey of healing when he participates in a ceremony led by a medicine man who is able to explain the changes the world has undergone. He meets people who still follow old rituals and are close to nature. Tayo starts to remember stories he was told and things he was taught, and the more he remembers the more he is able to make sense of the world around him, offering him the chance to find a way forward in it. I found those passages when Tayo watches the land and the animals the most accessible. I also found them a soothing contrast to the misery that permeates this book.
I don’t believe what I am saying here is doing this book justice. In the Penguin edition I read, Larry McMurtry writes that “Ceremony is a novel whose unsettling story has lost none of its force in the nearly [four] decades since it was published.” I whole-heartedly agree, and I know I would benefit from a second, and even a third, reading, if only to better appreciate the layers of the story and the lyrical prose that shines especially in the parts that describe nature. But I’m sorry to say that the callousness with which people treat each other today, coupled with the callousness described in the book, proved to be too much for me at the moment. It made me feel unable to build a connection to the book, but the fault is entirely mine. The loss is mine as well.
I’m hoping to be back in form for Caroline’s next selection, Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky, which starts on October 31.