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!