Ceremony was published in 1977 by Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko. The Penguin Classics edition of the book includes the authors preface in which she recalls her process of writing the novel, now considered a seminal work of 20th century American literature. Silko, who grew up on the Laguna Reservation in New Mexico (that same on which the events of her short take place) produced this work, in addition to a series of short stories and poems, after receiving a MacArthur “genius” award. Her work is of significance to the Native American community — and to 20th c. American fiction as a whole — in content and form both. Interspersing the stories of her people throughout the narrative, Silko blends the forms of the “traditional” novel with those forms of storytelling passed down along generations of her community. In doing this, a focus of on the earth, on nature, and on the balance of the natural world is put to the forefront. Beyond this, Silko, who is of mixed-decent, writes compellingly of a main character, Tayo, who struggles to find his place in either white society or the Laguna community.
Summary: Ceremony tells the story of Tayo, a mixed-blood army veteran recently returned from service in the Pacific frontier during WWII. Suffering from PTSD after witnessing the death of his “brother” (cousin) Rocky, Tayo begins drinking heavily with the other returned “war heroes” of the Laguna community. He goes through a few stints in army hospitals and in the care of community medicine men before meeting a slightly-off-kilter medicine man called Betonie. Betonie reveals the truth of white “witchery” to Tayo, explaining to him how the practices have corrupted the ways of whites and Native Americans both. After meeting Betonie, Tayo gains the clarity to locate the herd of cows purchased by his uncle Josiah before his death, and sets out to bring the wild pack back to their ranch. Helped by Montaño, he is able to corral the cows, and eventually brings them home. The two begin a relationship but it is cut short because Tayo’s friends start rumors about his health and mental state posing a danger to the community. Tayo and Montaño separate and he flees the ranch, narrowly avoiding death at the hands of his enemy, Emo. The novel ends with the rooting out of “the destroyers” from the community, by death (Harley) and by moving to California (Emo). Tayo is welcomed back to the community by the elders, and the novel ends with the return of rain and, with it, balance between the people and the earth. Sunshine exists, again.
Significant moments in the text include: (1) Betonie’s explanation of the ceremony (and its need to change/grow over time) to Tayo (124-127). (2) Discussion on stories and “the way that stories all fit together” (229). (3) Tayo’s views of white people (this comes up a lot, but page 39 is a particularly good example, I think).
About a reverence for nature, connect to Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone.” For an essay response on identity/belonging, connect to either Zamora’s Unaccompanied, or to Wharton’s House of Mirth. Finally, on an essay about war/after-effects of it, this text could work well with Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
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