“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.

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