1930: Laughing Boy, by Oliver La Farge

Stunning: this is my first review in a year.  I’ve been an intermittently busy blogger, but a distracted one, it seems.  I am back in the saddle now, though—Laughing Boy is done, and I already have Years of Grace on hold at my library.  First things first, though: my review.

Literary Style:

I’ve been pretty positive about La Farge all the way through, pointing out a few deficiencies here and there, but being generally happy with the novel.  He is incredibly skilled at drawing out how human beings really feel, and what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes.  He is rather bad at setting, and I think he may have engineered the novel to avoid being too large a cast: there are really only two characters who take up about 90% of the space in the book.  But they’re wonderful characters, and I love them both.

Love is a strong word but I mean it.  La Farge succeeds in his novel, I think, because he sets out to tell us about two people he admires but without worrying whether we will admire them too.  He talks about their faults as easily as their strengths.  He hides a little of their foolishness for the sake of the plot, but in the end all is in the open.  And the point of the book, it seems, is a simple one—to get us to the point of empathy with these Native Americans.  I could ramble on about larger significance and deep themes, since I do think there’s more here, but I don’t think it’s vital to La Farge’s goal.  He was (as he says of himself, in the preface to the copy I’m now reading) a young man who had lived briefly with the Navajo in the years immediately after “civilization” was really beginning to encroach.  He saw a life there he wanted other people to touch also, maybe especially because so few people in that America really had any sympathy with Native Americans as real peers.  He writes a novel that, in its simple phrasing and with its very straight-forward plot, explores the inner life of two Navajo—their relationship to religion, to sex, to money, to their traditions, to increasing contact with white Americans—for the sake of doing so.

I think I’m making it sound more boring than it is, but I want to really fix this in my memory, and in the blog’s memory.  This is the first Pulitzer novel that’s not only been sympathetic to a minority, but has actually succeeded in treating minority characters with the dignity and respect of being real human beings.  In order to do that, La Farge has to jettison a lot of other things.  But the result is this quiet little novel that begins in childish joy and ends with very mature grief, a novel that, 80 years later, is still moving (to me, at least) because it makes its characters too real for me to avoid feeling their emotions alongside them.  He finds a way of writing that simultaneously makes the foreignness of their phrases clear (they speak a different language than I do) and yet does not destroy their intelligence by dumbing down the dialogue.  I don’t know if high schoolers today would sit still for Laughing Boy.  But if they did, I think more of them would connect with the story than wouldn’t, and in the end it would spark the right kind of conversations about America.  That is can still do that now makes it a worthy Pulitzer winner, in my book, even if it isn’t Wharton (and it’s not).

Historical Insight:

Ironically, one of the reasons it can age that gracefully is that I don’t think it’s a particularly good novel about its time—La Farge sets the novel in 1915 but I only know that from his preface.  There are indications of traditional Navajo practices, especially artistry and religion, and they often feel very vivid: that’s the strongest historical piece here.  But the relationship to white Americans is left very unexplored.  La Farge says a few harsh things that needed to be said in 1930, but too much cannot be said in that context, and so it isn’t.  The book is revealing about children taken away from their families to the “Indian Schools”, but in a limited way—I don’t think I learned anything I couldn’t have guessed.  I feel things, though, that I had already known—feel them in a much deeper way—because I empathize with the characters.  Maybe that’s the best way to sum this up: this isn’t really a novel that intends to talk about America, but its characters may bring home some ideas about America you’d already considered.  The big caveat here is that I have no idea if this is an accurate novel about the Navajo.  I assume, given La Farge’s sincerity and his first-hand experiences with the Navajo, it is likely as accurate as an outsider could make it.  If I’m wrong, and he’s botching big things about the Navajo culture, then the book should be downgraded more in this category.


According to my unscientific scale, Laughing Boy receives a “well worth reading, especially for young adults”.  I think almost anyone could get into the story of two young people falling in love but struggling to know how much they should (or can) live up to the expectations surrounding them.  For adolescent folk, I think this is an especially powerful topic.  This isn’t an afterschool special: it’s not clear that either of them really makes the right decisions in critical moments.  But I think it would provoke the right questions, and perhaps prompt the right kinds of dialogue, for someone who finds themselves in a similar situation.  Seriously, this one should not have been forgotten: go borrow a copy from the library, and see how it strikes you.

The Last Word:

As always, I leave you with a passage from the novel.  In this case, late in the book, Laughing Boy has just concluded a very painfully difficult confrontation with his wife, Slim Girl.  He has thought deeply into the night, and has made a resolution about their future: lest you think I’m giving away the story’s end, let me assure you I’m not.  I just think his thoughts after he rises the next morning are revealing of, in part, what I like about the novel.  Here is what he tells her:

You have lived in a terrible world that I do not know. I cannot judge you by my world.  I think I understand.  You have deceived me, but you have not been untrue to me, I think.  Life without you would be a kind of death.  Now I know that I do not have to do what I thought I had to, and I am glad for it.  Now I know you, and there is no more of this secret thing that has been a river between us.

As soon as you are able, we shall go North.  If there is a place where you have relatives, we can go there.  If not, we can go to T’o Tlakai, or some place where your clan is strong, or wherever you wish.  We shall get the sheep that my mother is keeping for me, and we shall buy others, and we shall live among The People.  That is the only way, I think.

Understand, if we go on together, it is in my world, The People’s world, and not in this world of Americans who have lost their way.


“The City of the West” seen through Western eyes

Yes, it’s time again for another rumination on Chicago—“rumination”, a word suggestive of digestive processes, of breaking down what you’ve taken in so that it can work on you, for good or ill.  A good word, I think, for Chicago and me.  We grow into each other, these days.

The title of this post arises from some thoughts earlier today: I saw references to Chicago as “the City of the West”, sometimes “the Great City of the West”, which were written back in the late 1800s.  I expect that perhaps as much as half the nation still sees Chicago as “Western” in some way—certainly as West of them, West of the places the country was first born.  But of course to me it is the East, the old place my family left behind more than a century ago.  I took a bus tour of my neighborhood with the other new faculty members from my university this week, and the Englishman sitting next to me was startled by something our tour guide said.  He turned to me—“Wait.  All this was built up in the 1910s and 1920s?  A hundred years ago this was farmland?  That’s incredible!”  The newness of the place astounded him, as I suppose it would any person who grew up in a 200 year old house in a village organized around a church that’s stood for 6 or 7 centuries.  But to me, of course, the notion of row upon row of brick houses, all of them 100 years old, is astonishingly old.  I live a few blocks from an El station that’s been there for 104 years.  Hear that, Seattle?  Mass transit in a neighborhood miles away from downtown for a century now.  Crazy.

What I do with this, I don’t yet know.  I feel young in this city of youth—the adolescent city Sandburg described in last Friday’s poem has grown up a bit, I think, in 100 years, but it’s still a 20-something with a chip on its shoulder.  Who am I, then?  Where do I come into this story?  I guess in a way this is one of the classic American motifs—the young man headed back East some distance from where he grew up and discovering how well he fits, if he will be accepted, if he will accept what he finds.  This is the plot of half of Henry James, isn’t it?  And it’s Jay Gatsby’s arc, and Nick’s too.  Arrowsmith’s, I suppose, to name a Pulitzer winner, and the protagonist from One of Ours whose name, I am ashamed to admit, eludes me.  I wonder if fiction is helpful to me in making this journey, or if it’s merely a layer I’ll need to peel back—something that tricks me into substituting stories I’ve heard for my own authentic experience.  Does living what you’ve read about make the living less vivid?

I’m not telling you enough about my time in Chicago, and that’s why most of you are here.  There’s a lot to tell, but no way to make it a really compelling narrative without writing an epic; I’ll try to give a little info where I can.  In the last 8-9 days, I’ve discovered a world of art on my doorstep—I’ve never lived in a city with paintings like the Art Institute’s, and I’m going to spend some time there (I get in free as a faculty member of an Illinois institution).  I am curious to see how that will affect me.  To see Monet not once in a great while, but rather anytime I like.  To see Monet not as a visitor to some foreign city where “Monet” lives, or as a visitor making a quick tour through Seattle in an exhibition, but rather as an inhabitant of my time and place, more or less.  Monet, of course, being a stand-in for dozens of the world’s great artists.  We spent hours at the AIC last Saturday, and will definitely be going back, if only because I have never in my life said “that painting is so moving, I want to see it again in a couple of weeks and see how it strikes me”, and I wonder what it will be like if I try that.  Am I an art person, after all?

The food in Chicago is varied and wonderful — in the last few days I’ve had fantastic food from 5 or 6 different cultures, including amazingly authentic Polish pierogi, and the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever had (who knew that they needed cardamom?  Thanks, Sweden!).  It’s easy to just rave about the dining options in my city, but I’m hoping to draw something out of all these little restaurants in the long run.  All these nationalities expressing something with food—is it who they really are?  Is the presence of all this cuisine in Chicago some kind of culinary embassy system, a way of touching lands I may never see and learning to understand their people?  Or am I fooling myself if I think that way, ignoring the fact that all of this food is simply a commodity exchanged for my money, and I’m not being sold “authentic culture”, I’m being sold whatever they can package for an American audience?  I’ve always lived in a city full of immigrants—Seattle and Vancouver are pretty cosmopolitan, and heck, even the suburbs I’ve lived in have shown real ethnic diversity—but I don’t think I’ve thought enough about what that means.  The fact that I’ll be working with the most diverse student population I’ve ever encountered is, I think, getting into my head a bit.  I want to be good at reaching out to, and identifying with, people whose experiences are really very different from mine.  I think I have been good at that in the past.  We’ll see how well it works here, where I am a fish, not out of water, but adjusting at the very least to a new part of the lake, if not another watershed entirely.

That tour of my neighborhood I mentioned gave me a lot to think about—I allegedly live in my neighborhood’s “pocket of poverty”.  To be fair, the tour guide had no idea he was gesturing at my apartment building when he was saying these things.  But still, it raises some really good questions for me: what is poverty, really, especially in America today?  If I lived in a poor place, how would I know it?  If my neighbors are poor, does that obligate me to them any more than if they lived across town?  What do I need to do to be a good citizen of my block, and not just my city as a whole?  The neighborhood’s full of ethnicities and immigrant stories, as I said earlier.  We are home to the school in Chicago with the most spoken languages in its student body (70 different languages, I think?).  We are also home to the best public school in the state.  They are not the same school.  Is that inevitable, or a choice we made?  I live a few blocks from the only memorial in the whole of the United States to the Cambodian genocide victims—the people who died in the Killing Fields.  I know nothing at all about the Killing Fields, other than the name Pol Pot and a sense of deep sorrow in the few Cambodians I spoke to at the memorial.  What should I know, and how much time should I invest in learning it?  How can one person get full enough of the world to feel satisfied that they know enough?  This, as I recall, was Socrates’ problem.  And all of this arises merely from me paying slightly better attention to my immediate surroundings for an afternoon.  I hope to get past the questions to some answers, sooner or later.

“Pulitzers”, you say, “James, have you forgotten that this blog is about literature?  About reading novels, one of which you’ve been mired in for months?” I know, I know.  That’s going to ramp up next week: I have found a copy of Laughing Boy from the 1950s in my library.  I’ll not only be able to finish it, but I can reflect on a new preface La Farge wrote for the 1950s edition that reveals a bit of what he thought he was doing in writing about Native Americans, and what he later regretted.  And then I hope to move forward.  There’s some good American writing waiting for me, and perhaps it will help me get a better handle on this city of mine, which some call the most American of cities.  Frankly, I’m not sure yet—not sure how to sort my way through the hype of “Chicago” to figure out what Chicago actually is.  It’s a town that makes evangelists of its residents, perhaps most of all the people who move here from other parts of the country.  I’m going to have to hold back certain impulses that direction just to be able to see it with any accuracy.

So, in short, Chicago continues to work on me (as evidence in the emotions tangled above), I’m continuing to find things to appreciate about my new city (with the exception of those who drive and ride on its roads—never have I feared more for my own safety and the safety of others in a North American city), I’m expecting some lit-blogging this week as I shake off the rust and get back in the saddle (so to speak), and my propensity for making parenthetical remarks continues nearly unabated (though you must like at least some of these asides, or else you could hardly stand to visit the blog at all!).  I don’t know if these weekly Chicago reports are really of interest to many folks, so we’ll see how many I continue to produce.  But for now they seem to be a good way for me to journal, at least, and that in itself is a worthwhile thing to do.  Have a good weekend, and peace and safety to those of you in the path of Irene.

Poetry Friday: Chicago

Yes, yes, I know: Carl Sandburg has, in 2 years of Poetry Fridays (and given my lapses, we’re only talking maybe 50 or so posts), been given the stage thrice.  And that’s at least twice more than a number of other poets I like better than him.  But for crying out loud, if the first Poetry Friday from Chicago is not “Chicago” from Carl Sandburg’s 1916 anthology entitled Chicago Poems, Carl himself would rise from his grave (which, for all I know, is nearby) and throttle me with his zombiehands while reciting stark couplets about my grim demise.  As is now customary, I offer my thoughts below the poem:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

I have always liked this poem—it taps into the “raw energy” I mention in my post below about Chicago, although I wonder now if I’m imposing on the real city what Sandburg’s city sounds like in the poem. Anyway, the relentlessness of those opening lines, bold and blunt, captures me right away. This is a poem about a prosaic city—a city that is unapologetic, loud, bubbling over with life, bloody-handed and sweat-stained. And Sandburg can’t get over the fact that he loves it in spite of its obvious faults: it reminds me of Shakespeare’s “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”. In both cases, poets take conventions of the time—Elizabethan love poems and the kind of propaganda/advertising verse a lot of late 19th Century poets wrote about their booming hometowns—and invert them curiously, as they strip away all the compliments and somehow the love shines through all the more. Maybe that’s a fault in Sandburg: he excuses the brutality, the cruelty, the depravity of Chicago because it’s so freaking charismatic in its exuberance that he can’t take his eyes off it. I can’t quite tell what he means by it, to be honest—whether he’d accept that Chicago in the early 1900s is a bad place but a fascinating one (like a Iago, it becomes a villain more fascinating than any hero you could put on stage), or whether he’s arguing that the fascination redeems the badness. Or perhaps that both are true and that either way the city is a city to be reckoned with.

Maybe that’s the clearest image I take from the poem: Chicago can’t be overlooked, and is not about to be forgotten. Whatever history is made in the land will be made in part by Chicago. And that’s too bad for the neighbors but it can hardly be helped. The way you shake the world is to take hold of it as roughly as Chicago does, and with the same ignorant adolescent strength.

It’s a famous poem, and many of you will have already known it (some of you because I made you read it in 11th grade). What do you think Sandburg’s up to? I can’t put my finger on it and I want to — I don’t live in his Chicago, but his Chicago shaped my city, and for that reason I’d like to see through his eyes. I think his poem is one of the most “American” poems I’ve ever read, for the way it combines the language and the topic, but again I may be on a Chicago “high” right now. I remember more than one student telling me back in the day that I was too enthusiastic about this poem, come to think of it! I’m hoping it inspires some reaction in you, and that you’ll share it. Regardless, have a great weekend.

Salutations from the Windy City

Most of you (All of you?) who read my blog know that I have recently undergone a great transition—specifically, I have moved from the Pacific Northwest, the region I have lived in all my life, to Chicago.  This move affects me in a myriad of ways: not simply a new job and a new city, but new weather, new transportation, new accents and languages in the air around me, etc.  I’ll be recording my thoughts and reactions to the move in a lot of places, and this blog will be one of those places.

“But wait!” you may say, “isn’t this blog about Pulitzer Prize winning novels?  Or wasn’t it supposed to be?  You’ve lost your way, O traveler, and are not sticking to the strict boundaries of the blog!”  And I reckon there’s a kind of accuracy in your comment.  But of course I make the rules here, and on a deeper level, what I’m doing is consistent with why I started this, about 2 years ago.  I read the Pulitzers, as opposed to the Man Bookers or the Caldecotts or the MLA’s list of the 100 greatest novels, because they purport to tell me about the nation in which I live.  And I think my adjustment from Pacific Northwesterner to Old Northwesterner, from PST to CST, from the Mariners and the Seahawks to the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears, from the Space Needle to the Willis Tower, from Guterson to Bellow, from Roethke to Sandburg, will be a transition that impacts my ideas about my country, its art, and who I am as an American.  This post is the first, therefore, of what I expect to be a goodly number of musings on the journey I’ve taken.

Opening thoughts: this country is enormous.  It is more varied than people will tell you—to hear folks talk, I thought the road from Ellensburg to Wisconsin would be straight, flat, and featureless.  But it’s not: Montana and South Dakota are different places.  Heck, western and eastern South Dakota are different places.  And though most of the land east of Bozeman is flatter than Seattle’s surrounding terrain, almost none of it is pancake-like.  There is a special and remote beauty to the great plains, the clouds hanging luminous and pink above your head as the sun slips behind the Rockies, the lightning crackling ahead of you as you make slow gains on a storm that dwarfs all human scales.  You feel every rise and fall of the road, longing (at least I did) for the little river valleys, peering into stands of trees to see if farmhouses still nestle there.  I confess no real desire to stop and live in those places, but harbor a real fascination with what it must be like to live and work and hope and dream in a world as enormous and confined as those prairie small towns look from the road.  I had the good fortune to stop and visit with a friend who has done just that—live much of her life in a small town—and I saw how truly happy that life can be.  It is a kind of living I doubt I will ever really know, and so I wonder how much of it I can reach vicariously through art, how much of it I can incorporate into my idea of my country by hearing about it and trying to imagine it.  It makes me curious about a couple of the novels I have already read (Willa Cather’s in particular), and interested in what lies ahead in the upcoming books.

Chicago is impossible to capture in any kind of detail.  My one trip to the Loop thus far impressed on me one major realization—no matter how many times people say it, no matter how much you read about it, you cannot fathom until you are there the bigness of Chicago.  Not just the size of the city itself (which sprawls across the landscape like the descriptions of Mrs. Manson Mingott’s obese frame in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence) but the size of the individual buildings.  Walking around downtown, time and again I saw a building in the distance and thought “oh, that’s large”, and then, as I walked nearer it, gradually realizing that holy mackerel this is a building built on the scale of Olympus scratch that Zeus himself would throw his back out lifting it wow I wonder if the thing creates its own weather downwind of itself.

I say this with a certain amount of pride, tempered with my usual skepticism about the American fascination with the “bigger is better” approach.  I’m seeing a lot to love about this city, which is American in a way I haven’t experienced before.  The diversity of my neighborhood combined with a sort of raw energy makes you feel the melting pot’s sides rising around you—it’s not what it was in 1910 (and thank goodness for that) but I start to get the feel for what it might have been to grow up in that world.  How it might have been for a young Pole or German or Swede, and how it may be today for a young Arab or Latino or Korean or Ukranian, to come to this city and say “I’m making a fresh start here”.  Many of the people I encounter in the city are immigrants, and some of them share a little of their stories.  The Iranian cab driver who fled the revolution in 1979. The young African woman at my college’s info desk whose parents had to decide, more than a decade ago, whether they would settle in Chicago or Seattle.  The Muslim baker down the street staying open late for Ramadan so that the community can get something sweet after they break their fast.    I don’t know if I can become a Chicagoan like they are—whether the roots soaked in that Pacific drizzle and shaded by evergreens will ever feel at home in Midwestern soil.  But they’ve come farther than I have, and know more than I do about what it means to make a home.  I like living in their city, and maybe one day it will be mine too.

This is rambling and less detailed than I’d intended.  That would probably make a decent description of 90% of my blog posts, I know!  But I’ll leave it here.  I’ll say more about Chicago, and what I think it may be telling me about America’s meaning for me.  And I should probably note, since I’m now a professional, that this blog often carries personal opinions of mine on a range of topics, but it is in no way affiliated with my work for my employer, and of course my opinions are in no way a reflection of the opinions of my employers.  I don’t think I’ll say anything truly unfair here, and hopefully little that is unwise, but it seems prudent to me to issue some kind of disclaimer.  Now to serve up a piping hot dish of Poetry Friday—my best to you all, wherever you may be scattered across the wide world!