Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko, is hugely confusing but full of wisdom for readers who can slow down long enough to absorb it—which means that I probably missed a lot of what this book had to tell me. I have a feeling, though, that one reading, even for slower readers, is not enough for this tale of a Laguna veteran of World War II who needs to reconnect with his place in the world. The narrative is weighted with meaning, peppered with stories in verse from Laguna lore. No wonder critics and readers love this book; Ceremony is the kind of book Calvino would call a classic because I don’t think it will ever finish saying what it has to say.
The plot of Ceremony is impossible to describe in anything other than the broadest of strokes. Once Tayo accedes to his family’s request to seek help from the medicine men, it becomes hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. Everything that happens is real enough to Tayo. At the beginning of the novel, Tayo is struggling. He flashes back frequently to the death of his cousin during a death march and his waking nightmare that he killed his uncle because the Japanese soldiers holding him captive ordered him to (this last didn’t actually happen). Tayo drinks a lot, trying to get some relief from his persistent nausea, weeping, and insomnia. Once Tayo goes to the medicine men, he finds himself on a quest to take back as much as he can—lost family-owned cattle, territory, control over himself, his reputation—or accept the loss of what can’t be taken back.
If I had to map out the structure of Ceremony, I would have to draw the novel has a spiral.The novel grows more confusing as Tayo quests, but by the denouement, I could see stunning parallels between where he started and where he finishes. We end up, physically, back were Tayo started—at his uncle’s ranch—almost a year after the novel opens. Spiritually and psychologically, we’ve traveled miles with Tayo. His journey is a stark contrast to the lives of nearly everyone he meets. So many of the secondary and tertiary characters are stuck in patterns of poverty, alcoholism, and abuse. One character is a Catholic who is so concerned about what people think of her that she can’t be happy in her faith.
The ceremony of the title is something new, based on Laguna practices and lore, particularly the ceremony the Laguna used to hold for warriors returning from battle. Several times during the narrative, medicine men and people Tayo meets point out that change is life and stagnation death. Because Tayo is returning from a war unlike anything the Laguna have ever taken part in and because their way of life has been so disrupted by white people, it’s fitting that the medicine men and Tayo have to create something new for him. Nothing else would feel right.
People who know me and my personal lack of belief might be surprised to find that I liked this book. The narrative does not feel like it’s been dressed up in Laguna practices. Instead, Ceremony lives the lore. I can’t describe it any other way. Because Tayo is building something meaningful and because we get to watch him do it, this book feels incredibly wise and rich. Yes, parts are confusing. Tayo is a confused character. But there are a lot of ideas to wonder over once you’ve closed the cover on the last page.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who have gone through traumatic events that have separated them from their places and people.