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.

2 comments on “1930: Laughing Boy, by Oliver La Farge

  1. […] overstating the case—at its worst, the novel isn’t a total train-wreck.  It’s Laughing Boy without much of anything in the way of psychological depth; it’s something like Lamb In His […]

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I enjoyed reading this book for its subject matter, particularly coupled with Willa Cathers Death Comes For the Archbishop published about the same time. It’s not fine writing (leave that to the Faulkner and Hemingway published that same year), but I’m thankful this anthropologist took the trouble to write this book. By the time I reached the ending which seemed contrived, I was pleased enough with the experience not to care.

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