In Spring 2014, I took English 346: American Indian Literature at Iowa State University to satisfy my English B.A. degree’s U.S. Diversity requirement. My other options were women’s literature, U.S. Latino/a literature, African American literature, and more broad survey of ALLLLL the multicultural literature. I chose American Indian literature because I wanted to take something in which I had the least background knowledge.
Unfortunately for me now (but fortunately for me then), the class was almost entirely a lecture-class with a super chill professor who did not care if we had our computers out. So I was almost always working on homework for other classes. He didn’t even test us to make sure we were reading. All we had to do was show up. He was completely comfortable talking the whole time. I feel like the professor laid out the class’s major themes in the first week of class and there wasn’t much I actually missed, beyond the class discussion on the books . . .
Anyway, I always told myself I would read these books one day. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth dedicating a lot of time to writing this review, especially considering how unpopular book reviews are anyway. But I loved reading and thinking about this book and my good pal Ely said she wanted to see a full-length review, so even if she’s the only person who reads this, it’ll be worth it. I’m sure I’ll enjoy looking back on it too.
• • • Ceremony • • •
Pages: 262 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Alienation, colonialism, healing power of stories, guilt, witchcraft, post-WWII trauma, alcoholism, dealing with grief
Genre(s): New Adult / Native American / Literary Fiction
Age Group: 16+
* ⁑ ⁎ ⁂ My Thoughts ⁂ ⁎ ⁑*
I really liked this book and how beautifully it fits within the western literature and U.S. history with which I’m already familiar while also providing a view into the Native American experience of life post-WWII in the 1950s. Tayo is a super empathetic young protagonist who returns from Japan after WWII traumatized by having lost his two most beloved people in his life, his cousin Rocky and uncle Josiah.
Tayo is facing alienation and dealing with a grief that no one seems capable of understanding or soothing. Part of the reason he is so helpless is that he was an outsider in his community even before the war. Tayo’s mere existence as a “half-breed” has been a stain on his family name since he was a child, something his aunt never let him forget. Being an outsider, he felt a unique grief not just of being other but from also seeming to be the only person see how deeply his people are hurting.
This book effectively captures the complexity and nuance of Native American guilt, shame, and misplaced blame for their misfortune. Their shame in having not been strong or smart enough their keep land, having the spoils of their land continually flaunted in front of them, and from wanting and being denied friendship with white people. (Honestly, it’s heart-breaking.)
Ultimately Tayo finds someone who understands his pain and is able to situate his struggle amongst a larger story in which Tayo is a crucial part. Betonie, a medicine man also of mixed heritage, has a more forgiving perspective of white people and sees beyond to common source behind the larger societal problems of both white and Indian people.
He tells Tayo how he can make things right by recovering his uncle’s
missing stolen cattle. But his bigger mission is to complete the story (the ceremony) to combat the witchery Betonie claims is responsible for both his people’s plight and white people who have the power to destroy the world.
❝At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong . . . things which don’t shift and grow are dead things.❞
Ceremony is an ode to the power of storytelling and the need to adapt. Regardless of your culture, I think most people (especially us book bloggers) can appreciate the power of stories, how they seem to hold a certain kind of magic. Storytelling brings characters and worlds to life. It can keep people alive, as Tayo learns, even in memory. There are important lessons in this book from which I think anyone, regardless of culture or heritage, could benefit.
❝This feeling was their life, vitality locked deep in blood memory, and the people were strong, and the fifth world endured, and nothing was ever lost as long as the love remained.❞ (220)
—✁✃ Craft ✁ ✃—
Prose • The book is written in the third-person past-tense and primarily follows Tayo, but jumps in time through narration and dialogue. In addition to the main story of Tayo readjusting to his life back home amongst the Laguna Pueblo Indians after fighting in Japan in WWII, the novel’s story is enhanced by poems that relate old stories that explain Tayo’s world-view how to interpret his current struggles.
Not much attention is spared for clarity in terms of time or who is referenced with pronouns like he/she. The ambiguity helps keep the story dream-like, but also generalizable to others who may find themselves forced to follow in Tayo’s footsteps to heal.
❝It seems like I already heard these stories before . . . only thing is, the names sound different.❞
Digression: My professor used the terms “circular and accretive” to describe the way much Native American literature is written, which is derived from the oral tradition in which there is a lot of repetition in the spiraling narrative. Each time the narrative loops around, more meaning is built upon the story in the mind of the listener/reader. He talked about how this mimics how children can learn, by listening to stories over and over and one day the story may click in a certain way at the right time.
Structure • Chapters are not numbered but somewhat distinguished from mid-chapter breaks by extreme indentation. Throughout the book we also get short stories formed like poems interspersed with the main prose that represent ceremonial stories presumedly passed down to explain problems like drought and colonization.
Some of these poems are complete in themselves, like the explanation for how white people were created by witchery to destroy the world. (Honestly, the story behind the existence of white people is one of the main reasons worth reading this book. It’s obviously just a myth, but there’s something underlying the quirky horror story, yes, that’s worth considering there.)
CompleMentary Books ☟
|The Things They Carried||The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian||Slaughterhouse-Five|
|If you want to read about the American soldier’s experience in a rainy jungle climate (Vietnam) and post-war readjustment.||If you want to learn more about Native Americans in a contemporary YA novel featuring a young boy torn between two worlds.||If you want to read a classic work of fiction that depicts the surreal effects of WWII on an individual’s psyche.|
Amongst the books I recommend above, I’d also like to make note of the others I was asked to buy for my Native American literature survey (which I haven’t yet read but plan to do so in the near future):
- House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
- Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
- Winter in the Blood by James Welch
❧ ☙ END NOTE ☙ ❧
Funny side note for anyone who actually reads my blog post end notes, I remembered that I had to do a presentation on one of the books I was supposed to have read for this American Indian literature class. I vaguely remembered making a Prezi for it and was able to access my old account there associated with my school email. And guess what! I did what was probably about a five-minute presentation on Ceremony (without having read it)!
I was cringing so hard as I looked through it! But somehow I was not off at all. It’s probably because the professor LITERALLY told us everything he wanted us to know from the book and I took notes in preparation for that presentation! Anyway, here’s a link to the Prezi. It’s nothing extraordinary and obviously doesn’t include my any of my discussion or transitions between ideas so it may not mean anything to you.
Have you read Ceremony? If so, what’d you think?!