LESLIE MARMON SILKO, wh has previously written a number of bewitching short stories and poems, has published an outstanding novel. Perhaps the least significant statement that can be made about Ceremony is that the author is a woman - the first Native American woman to publish a novel so far as I know. Novels by uncommon, even though the oldest one (Chief Simon Pokagon's Queen of the Woods ) was published in 1899. Granted, N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn (1968) won a Pulitzer Prize and Hyemeyohsts Storm's Seven Arrows (1972) has become a kind of underground bestseller, but these are the exceptions.
The world that Silko creates in Ceremony is essentially a masculine one. Her story centers upon an Indian veteran named Tayo immediately after World War II. Crippled by more than his involvement in the war, his story (and Silko's novel) becomes an elaborate exorcism of the past, a purification rite of all the emotional tensions inflicted upon him since his childhood. As the narrative weaves in and out of the past and the present - juxtaposing scenes from Tayo's childhood and adolescence with the war and its aftermath - a pattern slowly begins to emerge. Tayo's angst, his feelings of emptiness and aloneness, are less the result of his war experience than they are of earlier events in his life.
Tayo has always been a kind of outcast - even from his own people. His mother was a prostitute, his father was white. When he was four years old, his mother left him with her sister, who subsequently raised him but never let him forget the stigma of his birth. Auntie raised him reluctantly, directing most of her love and attention towards her own son, Rocky, who was expected to become Auntie's link to the future. But then the war intervened and smashed all of Auntie's hopes for her legitimate son, Rocky and Tayo enlisted. Only Tayo returned home - shell shocked and battered by the fighting in Japan - harboring guilty feelings not only about his mother and his white blood but also about his cousin's death.
The war becomes an incredibly enlightening experience for Tayo - as it did for so many American Indians. For a time, he represses the implications of what he has seen. One episode becomes central to his confusion: the Japanese soldiers, whom Tayo was ordered to kill by his sergeant, look like his own people - especially his uncle, Josiah, who died while Tayo was away fighting. Their "skin was not much different from his own. The skin. He saw the skin of the corpses again and again, in ditches on either side of the long muddy road - skin that was stretched shiny and dark over bloated hands." Back home on the reservation, after he is released from the veterans' hospital, whenever the darkness of his past intrudes he confuses his own people with the Japanese. What difference is there between killing the Japanese and white Americans slaughering his own people down through the ages?
The ending of this powerfully conceived and often violent novel involves a purgation and an epiphany. While Tayo is being pursued by several of his drunken war buddies, whose lives have become as precarious as his own, he seeks refuge in an abandoned uranium mine near the reservation. From the jungles of his mind he recognizes why the Japanese faces have merged with those of his own people. It was from this uranium that the bomb that was subsequently dropped on Japan was made. Silko comments, "He was not crazy; he had never been crazy. He had only seen and heard the world as it always was: no boundaries, only transitions through all distances and time." For the first time, Tayo is able to comprehend a unity within his shattered world.
Tayo's experiences may suggest that Ceremony falls nicely within the realm of American fiction about World War II. Yet Silkos novel is also strongly rooted within the author's own tribal background and that is what I find especially valuable here: the numerous poems she incorporates into the text of her story, the rich use of traditional ritual, folklore and myth, the evocation of life on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation (where she grew up and now lives with her husband and children.) Ceremony is an exceptional novel - a cause for celebration.