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.

Review:

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.

“He did not realize that he was studying his wife critically, as one might an opponent.”

I know this novel’s been dragging on too long, as I’ve been distracted by other things. So I’ve made the conscious decision to get this book finished (especially since I enjoy it) and move forward. So this is my last update about Laughing Boy before my review.  The above quotation is, of course, Laughing Boy, who finds that marriage to a secretive lady-of-the-evening (“prostitute” is such a harsh word….and a bit misleading in this case, though not much) ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.  He, of course, does not initially realize that Came-With-War, his wife, has this extracurricular occupation, but this is the part of the novel where things get complicated.  I don’t want to give away a lot of the plot, since I think this is a good enough book to recommend, so I want to focus on what I think La Farge does well, independent of the plot (which is, I’ll just say, believable enough to avoid distracting you, but does operate on a bit of a heightened melodramatic level).

La Farge is great with characters—not Whartonesque (no one in this book could really rival Mrs. Manson Mingott), but near Edith in his talents.  His ability to walk down the tense line he does—how a troubled young marriage balances between trust and suspicion, how a single heart can build up hatred to the point that it looks like love, how a young woman can manage to contain two cultures, two worlds, in one life—takes that kind of deft touch, and he’s good with it.  At times, he even sparkles with a clarity that is, in fact, equal to similar moments in Wharton and Austen: most memorably, a brief passage where he describes a wealthy American who pays more and more to try to bind his lover to him, noting that while the man knows that money is no way to win a sincere affection, deep down he needs to be lied to convincingly enough to blind himself to the truth, for his own sake.  That willing self-deception, driving with it the downward spiral of overcommitment, is a really complicated emotion, but La Farge makes it come across.  He is stilted in dialogue, but usually I think because he wants his native characters to speak using their idioms and their cultural values.  Because he’s not quite good enough to bring us inside the culture, their outward interactions feel stiff and somewhat formal, but that’s just the way many cultures look to the uninitiated—the feeling I get is very strong that he allowed some conversations to be less dramatic rather than try to “spice them up” with what would inevitably be caricatures.

And the setting here continues to develop really intriguingly: La Farge is wretched with visual details (in my opinion—I never get a really clear image of localities, events, etc., in this book) but fantastic with details about how characters see and perceive each other.  That means that the environment around these characters rises more slowly than I want it to, but that as it becomes clear, I see the surroundings through a very well-rounded and human lens.  I don’t see the pasture because he helps me “see” it, I see the pasture because I see in it Laughing Boy’s dreams of success, his emotional relationship to the horses he raises, the importance that an old friend meets him there when he least expects it.  La Farge isn’t a great craftsman at every level, which keeps this book from my personal pantheon.  But he was smart enough to know what he did well, and stuck to it: like a lesser Baroque composer who only really understands canons, and decides to write a few good ones rather than slave away on a wretched fugue or two because everyone else is doing it.  Though maybe that analogy works for too few of you?

This novel explores a lot of great issues and without prejudgment (or excessive moralizing).  You don’t see much condescension in the narrator’s perspective on Came-With-War’s infidelity: if anything, I think the novel’s position is that sometimes good people do unwise things, and there’s generally a reason for it. Both she and her husband struggle with the question of whether it’s better to grit your teeth and hold on in the tough times, or if it’s better to cut one’s losses and find a new path—neither of them (yet, at least) have given any sense that either choice is right.  I’m curious how a Native American, especially a Navajo, would see this novel…from my perspective, it’s very respectful of Navajo tradition and positive (in an honest way) about its relevance in an increasingly “American” world.  (“American” isn’t the right word, but “industrial” is farther off, and I don’t know that I have any other better options.)

A review soon, as well as reviews of two books sent me by authors (one a good friend, and one a recent arrival in the comments section here) who have nothing to do with the Pulitzers but who I won’t be able to help talking about.  And I may review or reflect on some books I’m reading for my last slate of classes here at the end of graduate school.  All that, plus starting a new Pulitzer book, and keeping up with Poetry Friday….we’ll see how much I can accomplish, but I hope to keep the train moving.  This Pulitzer goal isn’t going to go away, and neither am I.

“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.