1930: Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge

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From the Back Cover:

An enduring American classic, Oliver La Farge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel captures the essence of the Southwest in 1915. At a ceremonial dance, the young, earnest silversmith Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful but elusive “American”-educated Navajo. As they experience all of the joys and uncertainties of first love, the couple must face a changing way of life and its tragic consequences.

My Thoughts:

Laughing Boy follows a young Navajo as he encounters, and falls in love with, Slim Girl, a Navajo who was taught and raised in “American” schools, instead of growing up with the native traditions in a Navajo family. Despite the warnings of some of his friends and family, Laughing Boy marries Slim Girl, and soon finds himself in unfamiliar territory, living away from the traditional Navajo villages, on the edge of one of the “American” towns. Slim Girl uses her knowledge and familiarity of the town to control her husband, having a larger plan to use Laughing Boy to bring her back to the traditional Navajo ways, and getting back at the white people for her education and upbringing. As the native and white cultures continue to clash, both between people, and within Slim Girl herself, and as she finds herself actually falling in love with Laughing Boy, both their worlds are left in turmoil.

While I’ve read a several westerns, often portraying the Native Americans as the savage antagonists, and even some books looking at reservation life in the modern era, such as Sherman Alexie’s fantastic The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, I haven’t read much about the first few generations of Native Americans in the reservation system. I started the novel without any knowledge of era and culture in Navajo history, and came out of it with a much better understanding. This is primarily because Oliver La Farge constructed the novel from a place of experience. An anthropologist by trade, he spent much time in the Navajo territories of New Mexico before writing the novel, and would go on, not only to write several non-fiction works about the Navajo people, but was also the president of the Association on American Indian Affairs for several years, championing the rights of the Native Americans to a government that largely attempted cultural assimilation when it came to the Native Americans.

One of the ways they enacted this assimilation was through the boarding schools run by the federal government, the type of school in which Slim Girl was educated. The Navajo who still lived by their traditional ways of life often looked on these schools with disdain, seeing it as a betrayal of tradition, and in the novel, Slim Girl must work to convince Laughing Boy’s family of her worth as a Navajo because they remain distrustful and skeptical of her for growing up outside of the native culture.

Their skepticism isn’t entirely unfounded, however, as the differences in Slim Girl’s culture and identity began to show themselves against Laughing Boy. She uses alcohol, though sparingly, as a way to control him, and forces him to hide his alcohol consumption from his family because she knows they will not approve. She continues to have a relationship with a local farmhand, exploiting him for money and gifts, which she sees as her way to get some revenge on the white people for what they’ve done to her, for robbing her of her culture.

Slim Girl captures the struggles of the Navajo who yearn for their traditions and cultures, but have lost them in such a way that they would not fully understand the traditions even if they were to be brought back into them. Laughing Boy, on the other hand, was born into and raised with the traditions, but under the influence of Slim Girl, who wants that life for herself, begins to lose them and become something different. It is an evolving landscape, with influences arising from many directions at once, all threatening the old way of life for the Navajo, beyond what the reservation system has already stripped from them. And it is the perfect background for an anthropologist to build a story within. La Farge’s interest in rediscovering and preserving culture seeps through the pages of the text, but at the same time, he seems to acknowledge that the act of observing and preserving those cultures necessarily changes them. Because Slim Girl does not understand the Navajo culture, her attempts to regain it through Laughing Boy change the cultures and traditions within him. Perhaps La Farge understood this tragedy of his studies, or perhaps I am merely reading too much into what La Farge wanted to be a cultural study of the Navajo in the early 20th Century, through fictional characters.

This is a novel that works on multiple levels: it is a love story, a cultural study, and a literary novel full of beautiful prose. The characters, though from an unfamiliar time and unfamiliar culture, are understandable and often relatable. The relationships and conflicts mirror struggles that people continue to have today, the struggle to discover identity, the struggle between the traditions our parents instilled in us and a culture that doesn’t appreciate or understand those traditions. There is something timeless and tragic and personal running through the novel from beginning to end. Something worth rediscovering through a lost time and culture.

Favorite passage:

There were constant little surges of delight in his heart over trivial, minor things–a shadow across a cliff, the bend of a cottonwood, the sheep coming in at evening, their silly, solemn faces all about the hogahn–why should they have changed? A man does not realize that he has changed himself, or only partially recognizes it, thinking that the world about him is different; a familiar dish has become no longer enjoyable, a fundamental aphorism no longer true; it is a surprise, then, when his eyes and ears report unchanged, familiar impressions. So the wonderful sameness of things, the unfailing way in which expectation was fulfilled, were proofs of something beautiful in the order of the world.

Why you should read it:

A fantastic look at Native American culture in the early 1900s, as they still struggled to preserve tribal identity within the Reservation system and encroaching assimilation into European-American culture, it is filled with characters who are at once real and believable, but who also represent separate and conflicting aspects of the changing Navajo culture.

Currently reading: Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes

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