La Farge is proving to be a really sound story-teller—someone who uses very sparing characterizations and minimal descriptions of setting to create a sort of stage for the play to enact on. It is very staged, and wouldn’t appeal to everyone: maybe most of all the Pulitzers so far it reminds me of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, although Wilder was interested in philosophy, and I think La Farge is interested more in identity. Slim Girl is a slippery figure through the section I’ve just read, in which she accompanies her husband to be with his people—a tense visit in which his family may order him to reject her, in which the truths she’s kept hidden will be revealed. She doesn’t know how Laughing Boy will react, and is taut as a wire for chapters at a time. The whole way, I keep revising my opinion of her. Is she calculating—her love for Laughing Boy a convenient affection that adds some believability to her acting the part of the lovesick wife—or sincere? How close to the edge of the precipice is she willing to walk, and is it because she loves danger, because she wants to be caught in her misdeeds, or because she can’t work out how to back down? It’s nice to have a more complex character again…someone who is in a few small ways reminiscent of Ellen Olenska from Wharton’s masterpiece, The Age of Innocence, as a woman returned to a culture that has cast her out, who wants and does not want to be a part of it again.
La Farge is, in my opinion, shockingly sensitive to the culture given his time period. His characters speech patterns are a little too halting, but very human and believable. Here’s a long passage of Laughing Boy explaining himself to his old friend, Jesting Squaw’s Son, upon seeing each other for the first time since Laughing Boy’s hasty (and, frankly, transgressive, within his culture’s norms) marriage:
“I do not think you will know what I am talking about, but you understand me. I want you to know. I have been down Old Age River in the log, with sheet-lightning and rainbows and soft rain, and the gods on either side to guide me. The Eagles have put lightning snakes and sunbeams and rainbows under me; they have carried me through the hole in the sky. I have been through the little crack in the rocks with Red God and seen the homes of the Butterflies and the Mountain Sheep and the Divine Ones. I have heard the Four Singers on the Four Mountains. I mean that woman.
It sounds like insane talk. It is not. It is not just because I am in love. It is not what I feel when I am near her, what happens to my blood when she touches me. I know about that. I have thought about that. It is what goes on there. It is all sorts of things, but you would have to live there to see it. I know the kind of thing my uncle says. It is not true. We are not acting out here, we are pretending. We have masks on, so they will not see our real faces.”
Maybe the book has blinded me with my sympathy for Laughing Boy, but I don’t think so—I think that’s an example of a really thoughtful portrayal of a Native American (from a white man in 1930). He uses the metaphor and myth of the Navajo, but in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or exploitative to me: Laughing Boy is trying to tell his friend what it is like to be in the kind of world-altering, immersive love that he’s in, and he uses spiritual language to aim at it. He admits going in that his friend doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but hopes he will understand him: isn’t that a great phrase? It reminds me of Chief Bromden’s “It’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.” There’s a surprising subtlety to Laughing Boy (given the usual portrayals of minorities in the fiction of this era), and what’s equally heartening is that he’s not an uncomplicated “good” character. He cheats store owners to give his friends a laugh. He admits to deceiving his family because he can’t trust them to trust him. This isn’t some kind of “noble savage” narrative, and that’s its own kind of relief. La Farge thinks there’s a real complicated story to tell in this setting of cultural tension and he’s brave enough to try.
I think I belabor the point about this novel’s thoughtful examination of minorities, and I want to step back and say why I do. It’s certainly in part because fiction in the 1920s (Pulitzer-winning fiction) is more racist than I’d expected. But I think in a larger sense it’s because I’m looking for the seeds of the civil rights movement in this country—for the sign that we’re going to grow up and stop being afraid of skin color and accents, the sign that America will learn to be America. Part of this journey is me trying to find a country that frustrates and inspires me in equal measures, and the country I’ve been finding so far is deeply confused (borderline deranged, honestly) on the topic of race. Minorities are either invisible or heartless savages or brainless dupes or thieving children, and regardless there’s no evidence from even the best of writers (Wharton and Cather, who had it in them to do this) that there was an interest in leaping into the unknown and trying to honestly see the world through the eyes of a character who doesn’t share the author’s race. La Farge’s attempt to do this isn’t just good because it’s pleasant to read fiction without retching at the racism—it’s good because it tells me that, decades before the real progress begins but many, many decades later than it should have begun, Americans were starting to show a willingness to try to see the world from someone else’s perspective. I think we’re still very bad at that—though honestly, I’m not sure that most of the “civilized” nations are a lot better (look at issues of race and ethnicity in much of Europe, for example). But because of who America is and what the promise of America represents, we intentionally set the bar higher for ourselves. We said that all are created equal, and that we were willing to die for that principle. Many Americans have—not just Washington’s men at Valley Forge or Grant’s in the Wilderness, but women and men throughout the country in the 1920s and 1930s who were lynched because of their unwillingness to defer to the racist boundaries that had been laid down around their lives, and more still throughout the rest of the 20th Century. Maybe even today. It would be good—good not in the bland everyday sense of that word (like “this sandwich is good”) but in the real, sturdy, enduring sense of the word (like “goodness and mercy shall follow me”)—to see that these dead shall not have died in vain, as Lincoln said. It would be frivolous to say that a simple little novel about the Navajo is what they died for. But it appears to me as the first real literary flickering of the hope that would tear down the Jim Crow laws and spark civil rights movements in every minority community in the United States for half a century. That’s the reason I can’t stop dwelling on it—because it’s one of the highway signs I’ve been looking for on the road to America. This is a good novel, and I’m intentionally cutting back on the details I’m giving you. It’s because I want you to read it, and I hope you will.