So begins Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge, a book that, at least at the outset, focuses on the story of Laughing Boy, a young Navajo teenager who is excited by horse-races, a little envious of the more sophisticated Navajo who live south of him (and who know “American ways”), and enthusiastic about good food and good singing. Those of you who walked through the valley of the shadow of Scarlet Sister Mary at my side will detect some major alarm bells in this description, and I can hardly blame you. But here are some reasons why I wouldn’t jump to conclusions about this one…not yet.
1) While the characters speak in a distinctive fashion, there’s no gross caricatures here. Furthermore, any singing or poetry is usually rendered in Navajo, and in a fashion I’d call respectful.
2) From the beginning this community is shown to be diverse–all Navajo aren’t alike in experience, interests, or perspective on the world. There’s a sense of a real society here, and one that La Farge has at least some grasp of.
3) La Farge writes an “Introductory Note” that is, on the whole, encouraging. He notes that the Navajo character names are drawn from names he’s heard, or read about in scientific accounts…so there’s some indication he’s working from a combination of real experience with the Navajo or anthropologists that (despite their condescending attitudes in the 1920s) were surely getting a lot closer to the truth about native cultures than popular prejudice. And he closes the note with this remark that I thought a bit telling:
This story is meant neither to instruct nor to prove a point, but to amuse. It is not propaganda, nor an indictment of anything. The hostility with which certain of the characters in it view Americans and the American system is theirs, arising from the plot, and not the author’s. The picture is frankly one-sided. It is also entirely possible. —O. La F.
The first couple of sentences were starting to irritate me—he was striking me as excessively defensive, and deferential to people’s offended sensibilities. But that last sentence was excellent. It’s not common even today for an American novelist appealing to a “popular” crowd to suggest that outsiders may see the United States more clearly than we ourselves do. That someone was willing to tuck it in (however obliquely) to an introduction to a novel of the late 1920s/early 1930s is an unexpected wonder. I won’t let it get my hopes up too high, of course: there’s certain to be a lot here I won’t be able to agree with, coming at it 80 years later. But the openness of the author’s mind at the outset makes me willing to walk a while with him and see what’s here that is truly insightful. We’ll see where it takes us.