I’m reluctant to be too happy with any novel of this era of American history that takes as its subject a minority group. But so far, La Farge is impressing me. The account of the dancing and singing—a festival with some elaborate unspoken rules—is very convincing, and the characters seem more than the flat caricatures I endured at the hands of Julia Peterkin. Laughing Boy in particular seems the perfect adolescent, oblivious to more than he ought to be, but totally obsessed with a few minute details (particularly the facial expressions and body language of a girl he either hates or loves…and probably both). The conversations he has with his fellow Indians are certainly in a particular style—they don’t talk like Harvard grads—but the style seems to have a music of its own. They think real thoughts, and can express themselves very capably…the limitations of dialect I suffered in the previous novel don’t seem present here.
Even the encounter with white Americans plays well—the native boys know just enough English to be able to take advantage of the men. Laughing Boy’s no cheat—he’s selling them a real, native-made belt that has intrinsic monetary value. But he sees nothing wrong with getting an edge on the man he bargains with…unbeknownst to the white tourists, their conversation in English about how high they’re willing to pay is transparent enough to Laughing Boy that he squeezes every dime out of them that’s possible. It was nice: an encounter that could easily have made the Navajo seem like either naive children or scheming thieves is handled in a way that makes them merely equals to these white men who have come to the reservation. Not equals in every sense, but in the only sense that matters in a good haggling session—both of them know they’d rather have what the other man has (money, or a belt), and both of them use the best posturing they can to maximize the deal from their perspective. This time a Navajo wins, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be that fortunate next time, especially if the tourist catches on.
So I like that about this book—I like Laughing Boy, and while the other characters are pretty thin so far (other than the girl with the bewitching eyes and the eerily serene demeanor), it’s very early yet, and I’m not feeling anxious. I don’t know what the book is setting out to do, though. It feels a bit like a book for 8th graders, whose point, by the end, is to show them that Navajo kids grow up about the same as them, other than some funny dancing and drumming that’s kind of cool if you think about it. I don’t mind that message at all—it’s a pretty good message, all things considered, and Lord knows the 1930s needed to hear it a bit more clearly. But it doesn’t quite feel ground-breaking enough for a Pulitzer award winner. I want to come away with an insight for me in 2010, and not merely glad to see there was enough of an insight for a racist-only-because-ignorant middle-class American in 1930. We’ll see if it’s there.
In the back of my head, I’m thinking of the Dawes Act, the Carlisle Indian School, the legacy of Wounded Knee, and the fact that, though he doesn’t know it, Laughing Boy is only a few years from the Indian New Deal that will restore recognition to his people as a sovereign nation. I don’t know if La Farge is, though. He doesn’t have to be, as long as we’re going somewhere else. I just want to go somewhere.
On an entirely separate note (but related to “going somewhere”), in my non-Pulitzer reading right now, I’m tackling Italo Calvino’s If, on a winter’s night, a traveler. What a bizarre book…a novel with (so far) at least five beginnings and no endings seem likely to ever come in sight. I feel like I’m on a novel roulette wheel that they won’t stop spinning. Maybe the contrast of Calvino’s intricately structured novel with this sweet but very plain-spoken book by La Farge is what makes me a little edgy about where we’re headed. Or maybe I’m over-analyzing a bit too much.