Yes, that’s right, after 6 months this blog is back doing what it does best…meticulous blow-by-blow coverage of the field of mediocrities that managed to win Pulitzer after Pulitzer in the 1920s and 1930s. Fortunately (and without meaning to) I left this relative quagmire from one of its few tiny hills that rise above the waterline—Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. In case you’ve forgotten, you can of course click the necessary tags to read the rest of my posts, but the short summary version is that it’s a novel about a Navajo teenager named “Laughing Boy”, and, where I left off in June/July, it had managed not to be wretchedly condescending, racist, or unbelievable in its depiction of life among the tribes of the Southwest at the time.
And so far he’s holding course, more or less. There’s a little stumble here and there, which I think arises mostly from his desire to make their speech patterns distinctive. They sound like Navajo speaking English as a second language…like intelligent people having real conversations, mind you, but still limited by the language. This rises above the unbearable dialogue in Scarlet Sister Mary (whose speech patterns I cannot bear to reproduce yet again), but it still feels like they’re not given room to be fully mature human beings in dialogue. La Farge compensates, though, by making their internal psychology very sensitive and real. Laughing Boy is a wonderful adolescent—distractable, girl-crazy, proud, unsure of himself, aloof but also a little childish beneath that exterior. He isn’t Huck Finn (or Scout Finch, for that matter), but there are times when this book feels like a decent kid brother to those deservedly famous coming-of-age tales (which only a real snob might call bildungsromans, and I’m not quite that snobbish). It doesn’t have the same depth, or the same moral quandaries (as yet). But I get the sense that La Farge genuinely likes and identifies with his protagonist, and he’s interested to see how he handles the process of stepping over the line into manhood.
That line is about to be crossed. Laughing Boy has decided to marry the intriguing “Slim Girl” he’s seen at the dances. He doesn’t care that she’s an orphan, that she was raised at a school run by whites and has no real place in the tribe. That’s certainly a well-worn conceit for a story—the young man whose passion makes him fall in love with an exotic young outsider whose status is condescended to by his family—but La Farge is good enough with character that I feel I’m willing to care regardless. The novel benefits, I think, from my relatively high interest in character (the plot, incidentally, is very meandering and formless…if vivid characters in a wandering plot doesn’t suit you, steer clear). And I can tell from all La Farge’s hints that he wants to explore that boundary between the “native” and the “white” world. I don’t know how sensitively he can do this. He’s not an insider in native culture, or even an outsider descended from insiders (as far as I know). It may be that the story will founder in that dangerous shallow—certainly few (if any) American authors prior to 1930 were able to handle racial division and tension with any kind of wisdom or grace. But if he can manage it even a little, I think it will be a worthwhile journey. So here’s hoping it continues well.
Last comment (and perhaps something that will spark comment): Am I wrong about American authors prior to 1930? What’s the earliest American novel you can think of that handles race and racial divides well? I think we can take To Kill A Mockingbird as our baseline—we know that in 1961 a white woman named Harper Lee could do this well (I think she does very well, but I’m willing to pare it down to “well” for the sake of general agreement). What authors—particularly white authors—before her rose even close to that level of insight? I am eager to hear your thoughts.