Sunday, February 21, 2016

All is not to be laughed about...

Laughing Boy: A Navajo Love Story by 
Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge
I kid you not with this author's name. 
He was named for his great-great-grandfather, Oliver Hazard Perry

I only learned of this book through one of my Borders Book Club members. She and her husband "winter" in warmer climes each year 
and she participates in a book club there. 
Haivng mentioned this as their next read, 
I naturally had to check it out 
and decided to literally check it out from the library 
and read it myself!

This would be an interesting book to discuss with others.
However, I would love to know how indigenous people felt about this book at the time of its publication.
Did it reflect life as it was for them? How accurate was it? accurate could it be? 
Since this Harvard-educated white male simply "studied" these cultures?
I am not trying to downplay or in any way discount or denigrate any positive results this man's study and writings may have had, but these are questions I asked as I was reading. Granted, La Farge did join and/or lead organizations which championed American Indian rights in his lifetime, but is that the same as living and actively participating within a culture/society? This is the age-old controversy of anthropological study and resulting publications. This book did win the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so I'm certain it did advance a certain amount of awareness and knowledge of indigenous people in the U.S. at the time and into the future, and that is a good thing! And as we now realize, any "author" always inserts his/her own life experience into their own writing to varying degrees, no matter what the subject matter. There is very little to no chance of any human being ever reporting objectively, though s/he can try to do so.

This book did a great job of demonstrating the marginalization created for Native American children who were kidnapped from their own homes and "re-educated" in English-speaking schools. In hindsight, I can only wonder at the underlying thought processes and motivations of white people at that time. I can only assume they felt they were doing what was best, but...really?!? To kidnap children from their homes, isolate them from their families and others within their communities and then force them to learn to live life as a member of a different culture/society. What if indigenous people had done that to white children/families at Plymouth Rock? Would that have been acceptable? But I digress...

To his credit, La Farge did not just turn his back on indigenous people once he "studied" them, but instead he published a body of nonfiction as well as fictional materials to inform others of the plight of their cultures and societies as a result of "European colonization of the Americas," as the Wikipedia article is aptly entitled. Those who landed at Plymouth Rock and were eventually able to establish a "colony" were far from the first to settle this area we now call "the United States of America." Although we were all taught otherwise in public school history classes, those were in fact lies or at the very least, omissions of historical progression...sad, but true... There were many thriving civilizations throughout this land prior to the arrival of "invaders" from England and that Spanish explorer, Columbus. What they brought to this land was disease and oppression overall...virtually annihilating those who were already settled in this land.

As to the book itself, I thought it did a good job of illustrating a Native American lifestyle, as embodied within the relationship between Laughing Boy and Slim Girl. (Though there is no way I can know this was accurate...) The reader learns of the hierarchy within this Native American family and how long-term committed relationships between partners begin and are sanctioned (or not) by the elders. Slim Girl is not accepted by her own people nor by the whites, as symbolized in the solitary location of her home, outside of 'town' and not within a tribal community. As Red Man tells Wounded Face:
'...She lives alone, she does no work, she is rich. The Americans make her rich, for badness. She is two faces and two tongues. You see her clothes and her skin, and hear her voice, but all the rest inside is American badness. I know. Hear me, I know.'  (45)
She is no longer trusted nor considered "acceptable" by 'her people' because she was one of those kidnapped children educated by whites, nor do the whites accept her as one of them, except to do their bidding. Although she realizes she thinks differently from her own biological/blood relatives and the Native American community, she wishes to learn the required skills to become one of them as an adult, though she is willing to continue her relationships with certain whites in town as a way to earn money faster so she and Laughing Boy can become "successful" in the eyes of the tribal and familial elders. She perseveres to become an excellent weaver of tapestries, a skill highly valued among females within her own Native American community. I could appreciate her initial errors and her determination to practice until she excelled. Although...

Slim Girl is what I would term "a conniving bitch." While I recognized her overwhelming feeling of displacement and "need to belong," I found it difficult to forgive her lies and manipulation of Laughing Boy to accomplish her own goals, no matter how much she felt she was treating him right, all her actions were, in the end, all about her. One aspect of this was her insistence upon regulating his consumption of alcohol by allowing him only one drink per night that she exclusively mixed for him. It was almost as if he believed she put him 'under a spell' with this drink. Laughing Boy had never tasted whisky before and she was able to control him with this imbibing ritual each evening. 
  Before supper there was the well-mixed drink again, with its attendant elation and the curious feeling at the back of his teeth. He finished the brew.
  'I should like to take some more of that.'
  'That is not a good thing to do.'
  'Why not?'
  'If you take too much you become foolish. You grow old before your time.'
  'That would not be good. Perhaps it would be better not to take any. You do not take it.
  'It is not every one who is able to drink it...If I take it, it makes me sick quickly. It is all right for you, you are strong. It just makes you feel well, doesn't it? You like it, I think?'
  'Yes, I like it. It is good for me.'
  'It is good for you.' And she told herself, 'I shall tie you with it. It is another hobble around your feet, so that you will not go away from me.' (72)   
Despite all this manipulation and control, Slim Girl did provide him with a secure base and selling markets in which to hone his skills as a silversmith/jeweler and establish a thriving business. As a couple they became very "successful" (financially/economically) in the eyes of the tribal and familial elders. But her underlying self-serving motives and actions were troublesome to me, to say the least. Slim Girl exemplified conflicting feelings of self-doubt throughout, but her overall goal was clear.
...she was jealous of his people, of something they had in common which she could not share. (88)
I must mould and guide this War God I have made. I must not let him get away from me. None of the bad things must happen; I must make no mistakes. I am not a Navajo, nor am I an American, but the Navajos are my people. (40)
Her dream is to finally reunite with her people as the accepted and respectable wife of Laughing Boy, moving to and living within the Navajo community as a successful couple. 

We learn of the vigilante 'law' followed by the Navajo, as demonstrated by Laughing Boy's recovery of a pony.
...she must take him in hand.
  'What have you done? American Chief will put you in jail.'
  'No, it is all right. That man--he gestured toward the butte--'I did not hurt him much; besides, he is a Pah-Ute. He took this horse from my brother last year. He is bad, that one....He was a bad shot, look.'
  He showed her proudly a long, shallow scratch on his forearm.'  
  'And the belt?' She pointed to the silver at his waist. 
  'I do not know form whom he stole that. It is a pretty good belt.'
  They laughed together. (47)
Admittedly, I was shocked after reading this passage! How could Laughing Boy know the belt didn't rightfully belong to that man? And he not only 'recovered' this pony, but also stole the man's pony on which he was riding! And the discrimination! Laughing Boy's actions were justified because this man belonged to a different tribe, Pah-Ute; he was not Navajo. Oh, my... 

I was reminded of Fates and Furies and A Circle of Wives--
each of us only 'knows' what our partner 
chooses to share of themselves with us. 

A 'coincidence' reveals more about Slim Girl's life in town and Laughing Boy uses this same vigilante law to invoke punishment. However, it is another who finally disrupts their relationship... 
The original cover image to the right depicts the final scene.
'In beauty it is finished, in beauty it is finished, in beauty it is finished. Thanks.'  (189)

This was a rather intense read and I'm glad to have read it. 
I can see why it would be considered "an incentive to excellence," 
as Joseph Pulitzer required the award recipients should be. For me, I believe it was important to recognize this as a depiction of the damage caused by whites kidnapping and re-educating indigenous children. I consider this book to be an indictment against not only the past, but also a warning against any one group of humans ever repeating such egregious actions against any other group of humans.
(Though as we now know, Hitler's insanity and World War II were in the near future...)

Though I am no fan of graphic novels, Julianne of Outlandish Lit reviewed Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection edited by Hope Nicholson not long after I completed reading this book and I admit to being curious enough to actually check this out from the library and try it. If nothing else, it should make for a good compare/contrast with this novel. 

Have you read this or any similar book(s)?
Can an "observer" accurately depict the lives of those "observed"/studied?

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