Benjamin Hale and the ongoing hand-wringing over the failure to award the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2012

I’d set this particular topic down weeks ago, but a blog I read steered me to this essay about the Pulitzer Prize by Benjamin Hale, a novelist (who was eligible this year, but he swears that isn’t influencing him at all—Ann Patchett swore the same thing in her diatribe written several weeks ago….no offense to either writer, but I think in both cases the writer doth protest too much).  I would have let him go by uncommented, but A) he takes a shot at Laughing Boy, the winner in 1930, B) he takes a broad shot at all the early winners, and C) he takes a shot at the very notion that anyone would dare consider themselves fit to award a prize for true art.  I think Hale makes a few very reasonable observations, but I think he misses the boat in a few other ways, and hey, this is the Internet, and we both get to have our say.  He talks to an audience of tens of thousands, and I talk to you, my friends, fellow lit-bloggers, and spammers (how’s that American Airways scam coming, by the way? you guys really seem to be pushing it hard this week).  But I’ll take you all over his New York literati friends, who seem to be a relatively nice lot, I guess, but they seem awfully self-congratulatory as well (or that’s how his piece came off when I read it).

Anyway, here’s my responses, in order.  Laughing Boy, I will grant you, is not a work of lasting cultural impact like Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, although I kind of doubt Mr. Hale has read it.  If he had, he’d know that, unlike Hemingway, Oliver La Farge was doing something really extraordinary in 1930—he was a white American man writing a thoughtful and serious portrayal of minority characters, in which white Americans figure as bit players (and mostly cast in the role of villains—or at the very least are negatively portrayed).  In fact, I am hard-pressed to name any other young white male author doing anything so culturally smart and open-minded in that era—if there are others, I’d like to know about them.  No, La Farge is not Hemingway or Faulkner.  But to single his one book out as the Pulitzer’s most scorn-worthy decision is really cheap, and frankly I think shows that Hale is unfamiliar with the work, which doesn’t really inspire confidence.  I could certainly give him Pulitzers to rant about, if he wants them.

Regarding his shot at the early Pulitzer winners, I think that he seems awfully smug about the “forgotten” early novels, given that he then spends much of the rest of his piece noting that artists are not always appreciated in their own time—in particular, he wishes that he could encourage the unappreciated-in-his-time Herman Melville.  I agree with him on Melville, but here’s my question for Hale: how do you know that these novels have been justly forgotten?  Isn’t it possible that many of them have been as wrongly neglected today as Melville was wrongly neglected in his lifetime?  Why should we assume that our tastes now are better than their tastes were then?  I know from experience the worth of tackling another age’s literature and trying to understand it.  Sure, it’s sometimes deeply disappointing—I think we are better at seeing and appreciating some things now (like the validity of minority viewpoints and experiences)—but at other times I have been truly and wonderfully surprised.  I somehow suspect I’ve read far more of the Pulitzer’s first 20 years than Mr. Hale has—I can’t match his credentials as a writer, but I’d thank him not to talk too loudly about novels whose worth he’s been content to judge purely by their current popularity among the  academics with whom he discusses books.  Perhaps in another decade, or century, Josephine W. Johnson will be received into the canon as an important American voice, and T. S. Stribling will be acknowledged as having been as perceptive about the South he tried to chronicle as the vaunted William Faulkner was about his South.  I’ll admit it seems far-fetched.  But then, many authors have languished for centuries in obscurity before being returned to the light by the right critic champion.  Anyway, the basic problem I have is that his own argument undercuts his dismissive attitude about the early Pulitzer winners.

Lastly….man, am I reluctant to come out swinging in defense of literary awards.  I didn’t choose the Pulitzers for this blog’s mission because I’ve always been such a big fan.  I don’t hang breathlessly on the National Book Award nominations, and I’ll confess that I probably couldn’t name five Man Booker winners if you held a gun to my head.  But Hale’s lengthy ramble hits all sorts of odd points—attacking the idea of twenty journalists handing out the Pulitzer Prize, attacking groupthink on awards committees in general, side-swiping the Grammys for never giving awards to punk bands, etc., etc.—and really got under my skin after a while.  Firstly, Mr. Hale, on behalf of book lovers and librarians everywhere, I would ask you to cut out the professionalization of literary opinion that has been disastrous for a couple of American generations of readers.  An MFA getting in high dudgeon because twenty journalists—I mean, can you believe it, journalists???—are issuing a prize for a novel (how dare they have an opinion?) is all of the things I hate most about literary snobbery.  Do you really think only MFAs and novelists should be allowed to hand out awards for novels?  That journalists should be denounced as “a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature” suggests to me that Hale doesn’t think ordinary readers get to have their opinion, or else that their opinions are of no worth.  And I personally think that stinks.  The Pulitzers have never pretended to be anything but what they are—the journalists are all identified and the prize has always been awarded by them.  Hale doesn’t even know the prize’s terms—he’s angry that they’re choosing “the best”, when the Pulitzer is almost alone among literary prizes in that its criterion doesn’t include the word “best”.  It’s simply recognizing “distinguished fiction”.  It’s journalists selecting (with the advice of a group of literary-minded jurors) a novel that they think merits attention, and prize money.  Sure, there’s a “best” implied in the act, I suppose, in that they choose only one, but I admire the award’s humility in not claiming the word “best”.  If Hale thinks awards shouldn’t be given by “a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature”, he’s welcome not to pay attention to their efforts, or to organize a group of top novelists who would issue their own award.  But to shout negatively about it is just going to continue the lousy atmosphere that’s crept up around “serious fiction” in the United States—the notion that it’s difficult, that it’s only for people with postgraduate degrees who donate money to NPR, that the common person can’t be supposed to understand it or have a well-informed opinion about it, etc.  The fact that he dwells on who’s giving the award, and their lack of qualifications (as compared with him and his literary friends) really sours me on his commentary.

Photo of Herman Melville

“Perhaps the hypos are getting the best of Mr. Hale. I suggest he sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And why is it journalists giving this award, Mr. Hale?  Because Joseph Pulitzer, that covetous old sinner, left money for prizes of all sorts, and in addition to encouraging other endeavors in the art of writing, he wanted there to be a prize for the novel.  Who does it hurt, Mr. Hale, that someone wins the prize?  No one that I can think of, off-hand.  But I know who it helps.  You see, while Hale is dancing around lamenting the fate of the poor, forgotten, neglected, penniless Herman Melville (who was all of those things, and whose fate was lamentable—I’m not disagreeing with him on the merits of that case), he’s forgetting that the Pulitzer is in part a way out for people just like Melville.  Thornton Wilder was an unknown boarding school teacher in 1928, with one failed novel to his name, when his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, won the Pulitzer Prize.  It drew attention to what turned out to be a remarkable little novel, and changed Wilder’s life—he left the prep school to teach at the University of Chicago, and went on to write many notable plays and novels, including the unforgettable Our Town.  Had it not been for the Pulitzer, it’s hard to know what Wilder’s life would have looked like…maybe a lot more like Herman Melville’s?  The point is that if Old Joe Pulitzer felt like leaving a little money and fame, to be handed out once a year to a reasonably accomplished American novelist, I can’t work out why Hale thinks it’s a bad idea.  Does he think the literary world overhypes the Pulitzer?  Okay, then encourage them to pay attention to other awards—or suggest that people read more broadly, or whatever you like.  But don’t pretend that what you’re doing in this essay is more noble than what Joseph Pulitzer’s endowment is doing.  Every year (well, er, except for 2012, and the other occasional years when the award isn’t given), a novelist’s career is impacted for the better by this prize.  Sometimes it’s a famous name, but when it’s not, it’s the sort of thing that changes their life.  If Hale doesn’t want artists dying in obscurity like Melville, I think he should want more prizes and awards, more outpourings of love for writers, not less.

I know I got a bit worked up over this, but Hale’s commentary was a train wreck [upon consideration, I think I was a bit over the line with "train wreck", since I did think Hale made some useful comments---I'd replace the phrase with something more like "Hale's commentary was weighed down too much by the things that bother me..."] of the things that bother me most, especially that portion of his rant that seemed to exclude anybody who didn’t have his credentials from having a worthwhile opinion about literature.  I think novelists, and the professionals in the field of writing and reading more generally, should be praising the idea that you don’t have to be a writer to like good writing, and the idea that there can be all sorts of legitimate and worthwhile responses to a novel.  Don’t box people into having to think “the right thing” about the “right writers”—if they hate Faulkner, or Melville, we should be encouraging them to say why they feel that way.  And we should let that conversation (intense though it may be) spur all of the people involved into being more thoughtful, more purposeful, more excited readers.  Hale loses track of that in his piece, and it’s a shame.  All right, enough of my playing Don Quixote on behalf of the Pulitzers—back to reading, and hopefully blogging in the near future.

1930: Laughing Boy, by Oliver La Farge

Stunning: this is my first review in a year.  I’ve been an intermittently busy blogger, but a distracted one, it seems.  I am back in the saddle now, though—Laughing Boy is done, and I already have Years of Grace on hold at my library.  First things first, though: my review.

Literary Style:

I’ve been pretty positive about La Farge all the way through, pointing out a few deficiencies here and there, but being generally happy with the novel.  He is incredibly skilled at drawing out how human beings really feel, and what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes.  He is rather bad at setting, and I think he may have engineered the novel to avoid being too large a cast: there are really only two characters who take up about 90% of the space in the book.  But they’re wonderful characters, and I love them both.

Love is a strong word but I mean it.  La Farge succeeds in his novel, I think, because he sets out to tell us about two people he admires but without worrying whether we will admire them too.  He talks about their faults as easily as their strengths.  He hides a little of their foolishness for the sake of the plot, but in the end all is in the open.  And the point of the book, it seems, is a simple one—to get us to the point of empathy with these Native Americans.  I could ramble on about larger significance and deep themes, since I do think there’s more here, but I don’t think it’s vital to La Farge’s goal.  He was (as he says of himself, in the preface to the copy I’m now reading) a young man who had lived briefly with the Navajo in the years immediately after “civilization” was really beginning to encroach.  He saw a life there he wanted other people to touch also, maybe especially because so few people in that America really had any sympathy with Native Americans as real peers.  He writes a novel that, in its simple phrasing and with its very straight-forward plot, explores the inner life of two Navajo—their relationship to religion, to sex, to money, to their traditions, to increasing contact with white Americans—for the sake of doing so.

I think I’m making it sound more boring than it is, but I want to really fix this in my memory, and in the blog’s memory.  This is the first Pulitzer novel that’s not only been sympathetic to a minority, but has actually succeeded in treating minority characters with the dignity and respect of being real human beings.  In order to do that, La Farge has to jettison a lot of other things.  But the result is this quiet little novel that begins in childish joy and ends with very mature grief, a novel that, 80 years later, is still moving (to me, at least) because it makes its characters too real for me to avoid feeling their emotions alongside them.  He finds a way of writing that simultaneously makes the foreignness of their phrases clear (they speak a different language than I do) and yet does not destroy their intelligence by dumbing down the dialogue.  I don’t know if high schoolers today would sit still for Laughing Boy.  But if they did, I think more of them would connect with the story than wouldn’t, and in the end it would spark the right kind of conversations about America.  That is can still do that now makes it a worthy Pulitzer winner, in my book, even if it isn’t Wharton (and it’s not).

Historical Insight:

Ironically, one of the reasons it can age that gracefully is that I don’t think it’s a particularly good novel about its time—La Farge sets the novel in 1915 but I only know that from his preface.  There are indications of traditional Navajo practices, especially artistry and religion, and they often feel very vivid: that’s the strongest historical piece here.  But the relationship to white Americans is left very unexplored.  La Farge says a few harsh things that needed to be said in 1930, but too much cannot be said in that context, and so it isn’t.  The book is revealing about children taken away from their families to the “Indian Schools”, but in a limited way—I don’t think I learned anything I couldn’t have guessed.  I feel things, though, that I had already known—feel them in a much deeper way—because I empathize with the characters.  Maybe that’s the best way to sum this up: this isn’t really a novel that intends to talk about America, but its characters may bring home some ideas about America you’d already considered.  The big caveat here is that I have no idea if this is an accurate novel about the Navajo.  I assume, given La Farge’s sincerity and his first-hand experiences with the Navajo, it is likely as accurate as an outsider could make it.  If I’m wrong, and he’s botching big things about the Navajo culture, then the book should be downgraded more in this category.

Review:

According to my unscientific scale, Laughing Boy receives a “well worth reading, especially for young adults”.  I think almost anyone could get into the story of two young people falling in love but struggling to know how much they should (or can) live up to the expectations surrounding them.  For adolescent folk, I think this is an especially powerful topic.  This isn’t an afterschool special: it’s not clear that either of them really makes the right decisions in critical moments.  But I think it would provoke the right questions, and perhaps prompt the right kinds of dialogue, for someone who finds themselves in a similar situation.  Seriously, this one should not have been forgotten: go borrow a copy from the library, and see how it strikes you.

The Last Word:

As always, I leave you with a passage from the novel.  In this case, late in the book, Laughing Boy has just concluded a very painfully difficult confrontation with his wife, Slim Girl.  He has thought deeply into the night, and has made a resolution about their future: lest you think I’m giving away the story’s end, let me assure you I’m not.  I just think his thoughts after he rises the next morning are revealing of, in part, what I like about the novel.  Here is what he tells her:

You have lived in a terrible world that I do not know. I cannot judge you by my world.  I think I understand.  You have deceived me, but you have not been untrue to me, I think.  Life without you would be a kind of death.  Now I know that I do not have to do what I thought I had to, and I am glad for it.  Now I know you, and there is no more of this secret thing that has been a river between us.

As soon as you are able, we shall go North.  If there is a place where you have relatives, we can go there.  If not, we can go to T’o Tlakai, or some place where your clan is strong, or wherever you wish.  We shall get the sheep that my mother is keeping for me, and we shall buy others, and we shall live among The People.  That is the only way, I think.

Understand, if we go on together, it is in my world, The People’s world, and not in this world of Americans who have lost their way.

“He did not realize that he was studying his wife critically, as one might an opponent.”

I know this novel’s been dragging on too long, as I’ve been distracted by other things. So I’ve made the conscious decision to get this book finished (especially since I enjoy it) and move forward. So this is my last update about Laughing Boy before my review.  The above quotation is, of course, Laughing Boy, who finds that marriage to a secretive lady-of-the-evening (“prostitute” is such a harsh word….and a bit misleading in this case, though not much) ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.  He, of course, does not initially realize that Came-With-War, his wife, has this extracurricular occupation, but this is the part of the novel where things get complicated.  I don’t want to give away a lot of the plot, since I think this is a good enough book to recommend, so I want to focus on what I think La Farge does well, independent of the plot (which is, I’ll just say, believable enough to avoid distracting you, but does operate on a bit of a heightened melodramatic level).

La Farge is great with characters—not Whartonesque (no one in this book could really rival Mrs. Manson Mingott), but near Edith in his talents.  His ability to walk down the tense line he does—how a troubled young marriage balances between trust and suspicion, how a single heart can build up hatred to the point that it looks like love, how a young woman can manage to contain two cultures, two worlds, in one life—takes that kind of deft touch, and he’s good with it.  At times, he even sparkles with a clarity that is, in fact, equal to similar moments in Wharton and Austen: most memorably, a brief passage where he describes a wealthy American who pays more and more to try to bind his lover to him, noting that while the man knows that money is no way to win a sincere affection, deep down he needs to be lied to convincingly enough to blind himself to the truth, for his own sake.  That willing self-deception, driving with it the downward spiral of overcommitment, is a really complicated emotion, but La Farge makes it come across.  He is stilted in dialogue, but usually I think because he wants his native characters to speak using their idioms and their cultural values.  Because he’s not quite good enough to bring us inside the culture, their outward interactions feel stiff and somewhat formal, but that’s just the way many cultures look to the uninitiated—the feeling I get is very strong that he allowed some conversations to be less dramatic rather than try to “spice them up” with what would inevitably be caricatures.

And the setting here continues to develop really intriguingly: La Farge is wretched with visual details (in my opinion—I never get a really clear image of localities, events, etc., in this book) but fantastic with details about how characters see and perceive each other.  That means that the environment around these characters rises more slowly than I want it to, but that as it becomes clear, I see the surroundings through a very well-rounded and human lens.  I don’t see the pasture because he helps me “see” it, I see the pasture because I see in it Laughing Boy’s dreams of success, his emotional relationship to the horses he raises, the importance that an old friend meets him there when he least expects it.  La Farge isn’t a great craftsman at every level, which keeps this book from my personal pantheon.  But he was smart enough to know what he did well, and stuck to it: like a lesser Baroque composer who only really understands canons, and decides to write a few good ones rather than slave away on a wretched fugue or two because everyone else is doing it.  Though maybe that analogy works for too few of you?

This novel explores a lot of great issues and without prejudgment (or excessive moralizing).  You don’t see much condescension in the narrator’s perspective on Came-With-War’s infidelity: if anything, I think the novel’s position is that sometimes good people do unwise things, and there’s generally a reason for it. Both she and her husband struggle with the question of whether it’s better to grit your teeth and hold on in the tough times, or if it’s better to cut one’s losses and find a new path—neither of them (yet, at least) have given any sense that either choice is right.  I’m curious how a Native American, especially a Navajo, would see this novel…from my perspective, it’s very respectful of Navajo tradition and positive (in an honest way) about its relevance in an increasingly “American” world.  (“American” isn’t the right word, but “industrial” is farther off, and I don’t know that I have any other better options.)

A review soon, as well as reviews of two books sent me by authors (one a good friend, and one a recent arrival in the comments section here) who have nothing to do with the Pulitzers but who I won’t be able to help talking about.  And I may review or reflect on some books I’m reading for my last slate of classes here at the end of graduate school.  All that, plus starting a new Pulitzer book, and keeping up with Poetry Friday….we’ll see how much I can accomplish, but I hope to keep the train moving.  This Pulitzer goal isn’t going to go away, and neither am I.

“I have seen more than you and all you People, I know more.”

La Farge is proving to be a really sound story-teller—someone who uses very sparing characterizations and minimal descriptions of setting to create a sort of stage for the play to enact on.  It is very staged, and wouldn’t appeal to everyone: maybe most of all the Pulitzers so far it reminds me of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, although Wilder was interested in philosophy, and I think La Farge is interested more in identity.  Slim Girl is a slippery figure through the section I’ve just read, in which she accompanies her husband to be with his people—a tense visit in which his family may order him to reject her, in which the truths she’s kept hidden will be revealed.  She doesn’t know how Laughing Boy will react, and is taut as a wire for chapters at a time.  The whole way, I keep revising my opinion of her.  Is she calculating—her love for Laughing Boy a convenient affection that adds some believability to her acting the part of the lovesick wife—or sincere?  How close to the edge of the precipice is she willing to walk, and is it because she loves danger, because she wants to be caught in her misdeeds, or because she can’t work out how to back down?  It’s nice to have a more complex character again…someone who is in a few small ways reminiscent of Ellen Olenska from Wharton’s masterpiece, The Age of Innocence, as a woman returned to a culture that has cast her out, who wants and does not want to be a part of it again.

La Farge is, in my opinion, shockingly sensitive to the culture given his time period.  His characters speech patterns are a little too halting, but very human and believable.  Here’s a long passage of Laughing Boy explaining himself to his old friend, Jesting Squaw’s Son, upon seeing each other for the first time since Laughing Boy’s hasty (and, frankly, transgressive, within his culture’s norms) marriage:

“I do not think you will know what I am talking about, but you understand me.  I want you to know.  I have been down Old Age River in the log, with sheet-lightning and rainbows and soft rain, and the gods on either side to guide me.  The Eagles have put lightning snakes and sunbeams and rainbows under me; they have carried me through the hole in the sky. I have been through the little crack in the rocks with Red God and seen the homes of the Butterflies and the Mountain Sheep and the Divine Ones.  I have heard the Four Singers on the Four Mountains.  I mean that woman.

It sounds like insane talk.  It is not.  It is not just because I am in love.  It is not what I feel when I am near her, what happens to my blood when she touches me.  I know about that.  I have thought about that.  It is what goes on there.  It is all sorts of things, but you would have to live there to see it.  I know the kind of thing my uncle says.  It is not true.  We are not acting out here, we are pretending.  We have masks on, so they will not see our real faces.”

Maybe the book has blinded me with my sympathy for Laughing Boy, but I don’t think so—I think that’s an example of a really thoughtful portrayal of a Native American (from a white man in 1930).  He uses the metaphor and myth of the Navajo, but in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or exploitative to me: Laughing Boy is trying to tell his friend what it is like to be in the kind of world-altering, immersive love that he’s in, and he uses spiritual language to aim at it.  He admits going in that his friend doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but hopes he will understand him: isn’t that a great phrase?  It reminds me of Chief Bromden’s “It’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”  There’s a surprising subtlety to Laughing Boy (given the usual portrayals of minorities in the fiction of this era), and what’s equally heartening is that he’s not an uncomplicated “good” character.  He cheats store owners to give his friends a laugh.  He admits to deceiving his family because he can’t trust them to trust him.  This isn’t some kind of “noble savage” narrative, and that’s its own kind of relief.  La Farge thinks there’s a real complicated story to tell in this setting of cultural tension and he’s brave enough to try.

I think I belabor the point about this novel’s thoughtful examination of minorities, and I want to step back and say why I do.  It’s certainly in part because fiction in the 1920s (Pulitzer-winning fiction) is more racist than I’d expected.  But I think in a larger sense it’s because I’m looking for the seeds of the civil rights movement in this country—for the sign that we’re going to grow up and stop being afraid of skin color and accents, the sign that America will learn to be America.  Part of this journey is me trying to find a country that frustrates and inspires me in equal measures, and the country I’ve been finding so far is deeply confused (borderline deranged, honestly) on the topic of race.  Minorities are either invisible or heartless savages or brainless dupes or thieving children, and regardless there’s no evidence from even the best of writers (Wharton and Cather, who had it in them to do this) that there was an interest in leaping into the unknown and trying to honestly see the world through the eyes of a character who doesn’t share the author’s race.  La Farge’s attempt to do this isn’t just good because it’s pleasant to read fiction without retching at the racism—it’s good because it tells me that, decades before the real progress begins but many, many decades later than it should have begun, Americans were starting to show a willingness to try to see the world from someone else’s perspective.  I think we’re still very bad at that—though honestly, I’m not sure that most of the “civilized” nations are a lot better (look at issues of race and ethnicity in much of Europe, for example).  But because of who America is and what the promise of America represents, we intentionally set the bar higher for ourselves.  We said that all are created equal, and that we were willing to die for that principle.  Many Americans have—not just Washington’s men at Valley Forge or Grant’s in the Wilderness, but women and men throughout the country in the 1920s and 1930s who were lynched because of their unwillingness to defer to the racist boundaries that had been laid down around their lives, and more still throughout the rest of the 20th Century.  Maybe even today.  It would be good—good not in the bland everyday sense of that word (like “this sandwich is good”) but in the real, sturdy, enduring sense of the word (like “goodness and mercy shall follow me”)—to see that these dead shall not have died in vain, as Lincoln said.  It would be frivolous to say that a simple little novel about the Navajo is what they died for.  But it appears to me as the first real literary flickering of the hope that would tear down the Jim Crow laws and spark civil rights movements in every minority community in the United States for half a century.  That’s the reason I can’t stop dwelling on it—because it’s one of the highway signs I’ve been looking for on the road to America.  This is a good novel, and I’m intentionally cutting back on the details I’m giving you.  It’s because I want you to read it, and I hope you will.

A brief thank-you

I am busy with work tonight, and if I find free time I will spend it watching a DVD with my wonderful and patient wife, so this will be very short.  I just want to thank those of you who made this such a lively month on my blog—over 700 visitors this month means it’s the busiest time here since I founded the blog, and I think this week in particular set a record for most visitors as well.  I’m planning more when I find time soon—a review of Laughing Boy, of course, as well as some reflections on this year’s Academy Award nominated films (most of which I have seen or will see) and how they illuminate (or don’t) some of my questions about story and character and the United States, and probably a little more exploration of how readers approach books (including, unless I chicken out, my best explanation of “doorway” theory as expressed by Nancy Pearl).  So basically I thought I’d say to you visitors out here on the Interwebs that I am very pleased and flattered that you’d drop by even for a moment to see what’s here, and I hope what I have planned sounds interesting/relevant to you.  And now I must go back to my reading.  Cheers!

“I am not a Navajo; it is not given to me to do these things.”

What’s most remarkable about what La Farge is doing in Laughing Boy, in my opinion, is that he’s able to make the character of Slim Girl so compelling.  This is, after all, an emotionally detached young woman, whose love is at least 31% conniving, who resists displaying weakness as much as she can, whose life is so full of secrets that even I, the reader, can’t be positive what she does when she goes to town (though as I indicated previously, I am almost certain she works as a prostitute in some fashion).  It’s hard enough in the 21st Century to be able to get inside the head of a character like that—for a man, not of her race or generation or social class, writing in the late 1920s, to be able to do it as well as La Farge does is impressive.  I won’t call his performance flawless, but it’s certainly gripping.

The quotation used as this post’s title begins a remarkable internal monologue that I think is a great example of this.  She has taken up the art of weaving, a traditional Navajo skill, as a way of reaching out to her young husband (who is a skilled silversmith).  But she was raised in a boarding school, and has no real feel for the art.  She has made and destroyed numerous garments, eternally disappointed at her poor workmanship.  Finally, at the point where this monologue begins, she had leaped into weaving, inspired by a particular artistic vision and desperate to make it visible to the man she increasingly loves.  And now she is standing back from the blanket, which is yet another shoddy, half-realized creation.  Her thoughts pivot wildly between ideas.  She is struck at how easy it was for her Mother and yet how tough it is for her.  She thinks her husband will love her anyway because he is devoted to her.  She thinks he will leave her.  She remembers being praised for her drawing skills at the school.  She laments that her husband would not appreciate drawing, only weaving.  She wonders if perhaps he could accept drawing.  She then confronts the two plainest, most irreconcilable facts: she is an untalented weaver whose work will never satisfy her, and yet she feels a deep and irresistible urge to weave because weaving is part of the Navajo life inextricably.  This frustrates her so that she shouts “No use.  God damn it to hell!  God damn me!  Chindi, mai, shash, Jee Cri!”  (The italics are in the original.)  You can’t imagine how jarring this is until you’ve read a lot of 1920s novels…the appearance of what would today pass as relatively mild profanity leaps off the page with abandon.  I love that La Farge wants us to be this close to her—that he’s unafraid of letting her be coarse and angry and helpless because he trusts us to stick with her.  This is the most adventurous Pulitzer winner I’ve read so far, I think, and yet in some ways it is so mildly domestic and hopeful.

Yes, domestic and hopeful.  Laughing Boy comes home to her anger, and sees the poorly executed weaving.  And he quietly steps forward, wordlessly picking up a curry comb, and begins to slash at the weaving fiercely.  Slim Girl thinks for a moment he is trying to rip it apart, but she stands back, silent.  Eventually he steps away, and she can see how his comb has torn loose the nap of the wool, softening and blurring all the lines, pulling the wool together into a smooth surface.  Her weaving is beautiful.  It is just as she had hoped it would be.  And he turns to her, and says “I am not telling you a lot of things.  I am just letting you see something.  I think you understand it.”  This was an unbelievably beautiful moment for me.  La Farge tricks me as a reader—he lures me in with the harsh realism of her anger, only to show me that the blanket will not be a symbol of failure but of grace.  Laughing Boy’s restraint is such a luminous expression of his masculinity—he is a Navajo man, and (as far as that society is depicted in this novel, at least) there was never going to be an emotional conversation.  He does for her what he can, showing her the truth without condescending to her, allowing her to draw her own conclusions about what it means to be Slim Girl, what it means to be Navajo.  Because he says so little, that brief exchange says a lot to me; works on a lot of levels.

There’s a lot more to say about this novel, but it’s late, and I’m getting to like it well enough, anyway, that I’d rather not give it all away.  I think this book could still be a very solid YA novel (at least in the context of a middle or high school curriculum, if not just a pleasure read) even today, and I find La Farge’s depiction both of the relationship of a young married couple and of a changing native society to be really nuanced and authentic.  It’s still a novel from 1930, so there is still a bit of a sepia glow to it—the emotional parts can easily become a bit sentimental, the descriptions of the landscape can feel a bit too florid, etc.—but it is holding up well for me.  It’s crossed the threshold from being “surprisingly inoffensive about the Navajo for its time” past “surprisingly inoffensive about the Navajo” to “surprisingly sensitive to Navajo ways of understanding and being”.  I am not a Native American, of course, much less a member of the Navajo: it may be that La Farge’s depiction is still insufficiently accurate or fair.  But from what I’ve read and learned about the peoples of the Southwest, I feel like I can trust him more often than not, and that trust combined with two characters I am growing to love makes this a great read.  If you can find it at your local library, give it a shot—it’s not long, and I think it may surprise you too.

“I am not a Navajo, nor am I an American, but the Navajos are my people.”

Much credit to Oliver La Farge, who continues to surprise me by saying something interesting and even possibly relevant about the situation for Native Americans in the early 1930s.  I know I came in with low expectations, so it’s not as though I’m reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  But Laughing Boy is proving very immersive in what feels to me (based on my limited historical knowledge) like a realistic scenario for young Native Americans in the Southwest at the time.  Laughing Boy’s story explores a lot of territory—what is expected of a man, how tensions between tribes (the Pah-Utes and the Navajo, principally) dominated their experience and allowed the “Americans” to play one off the other, etc.  But I’m increasingly fascinated by Slim Girl, who’s proving to be a very complex young woman—raised in a boarding school (a place so awful, she tells Laughing Boy on their wedding night to kill their children if the Americans ever come to take them off to a school), not quite “native” enough for the Navajo but never “white” enough for the Americans, savvy in business but unable to keep a lid on all her emotions.  La Farge does a good job, I think, of drawing out her inner life.  Here’s an extended example from immediately after she’s convinced Laughing Boy to elope with her:

“If she did not watch out, she would love this man.  She did not intend to love any one; had she not learned enough of that?  He was necessary to her; he was the perfect implement delivered to her hands; he was an axe with which to hew down the past; he was a light with which to see her way back to her people, to the good things of her people.  She held him up against the past, matrons and teachers at school, platitudes and well-meaning lies.  And now, for all their care and training and preaching, she was ‘going back under the blanket,’ because under the blanket were the things worth while, and all the rest was hideous.  With her knowledge and experience, with what the Americans had taught her, she would lead this man, and make for them both the most perfect life that could be made—with an Indian, a long-haired heathen Indian, a blanket Indian, a Navajo, the names thrown out like an insult in the faces of those who bore them, of her own people, Denne’, The People, proud as she was proud, and clear of heart as she could never be.”

I grant you, this isn’t terribly subtle work: La Farge wants to be pretty direct about her position between worlds.  But look at how skilfully he stays on balance.  Laughing Boy is a tool to bring her back to her people…and then, so casually, La Farge lets her re-state it “the good things of her people”, as if her people and the goodness of their life are the same thing, as if to say she cannot see the drawbacks of life on the reservation (or else as if to say that she thinks, against all odds, she can only take “the good things” and leave the bad behind).  Even those last two clauses at the paragraph’s end, simultaneously fusing her pride with the pride of her people and cutting a canyon between their honest clarity and her unavoidably deceptive heart.  She is a character I can get to know.  Whether I will agree with her, or even trust her, I don’t know yet, but I like that La Farge makes her so easy to grab onto.  The first minority character in the Pulitzers, unless I really am forgetting someone, who feels fully three dimensional.

And that’s especially true because, unless I am completely misreading the signs, Slim Girl is a prostitute.  Or at the very least, she uses sexuality to get herself money and favors from men.  I don’t have any proof from the novel yet that she consummates any of these relationships, but if not she certainly is leading a man to believe she will.  I have to admit, I was pretty shocked by this revelation, especially as La Farge drops it in slowly and casually, as if to say “Oh, how does she make her money?  Well, let’s say a lot of gentlemen know her.  Know her well, if you catch my drift.”  Though not the title character, it feels like her story at this point, less than half-way into the novel: her story of how she grows closer to a native heritage she’s lost (but awakens to as she gets to know the strong young man she has married), her story of how she balances worlds (she dreams that the money she earns can be turned to profit by her new husband, whose artistry and craft can turn a little silver into beautiful artifacts and jewelry—she thinks they can become rich and then go away to live together in happiness), her story of how a young woman can gamble her whole self and lose.  Because I don’t see how she, living perilously close to scandal in the white world and already a scandal to “her people” as she is, can hope to win.  And I wonder if Laughing Boy will be brought low along side her, in the process.  He seems loyal and kind, and utterly bewitched by her personality (even more than by her beauty).  Such things are tragic flaws in fiction, as often as not.  For the first time in a while, on this Pulitzer run, I think this is a novel some of you should go read….head to your library and get that ILL department working for you!