Review by Yelisa Leiva, bookseller at Foggy Pine Books
“But long ago when the people were given these ceremonies, the changing began . . .but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong. She taught me this above all else: things which don't grow are dead things . . .”
Centering on Tayo, a Native American soldier returning home from the shattering horror of World War II, Ceremony unveils the persistent reality of dual identity in modern America, implementing mental health as another prevalent but disregarded truth, a conduit for layered conversation. The novel begins with Tayo returning to the Laguna Pueblo reservation, where his family and friends live. Revealing severe symptoms of PTSD, Tayo must return to his roots to recover from not only the war he had fought in, but the war within himself for being half-Native American and half-Mexican, a corporeal reminder of racial betrayal and perceived retrogression in his community.
While colonialism is a pressing matter in the novel, the Native American characters view white assimilation as something that they should esteem to be, exhibiting the despondent, embedded indoctrination. Auntie, Tayo’s Christian grandmother, resents Tayo for his ethnic identity although she willingly raises him, but praises her own son Rocky for preferring science that was introduced by white teachers over Laguna narratives. Rocky is later killed in the war, adding to Tayo’s guilt and internal turmoil. Silko takes the issue of colonialism and parallels this confusion to Tayo’s broken mind. She beautifully interweaves the personal and socio-political issues through Tayo’s journey of cultural ceremonies and visuals within the pages themselves, such as purposeful large, blank spaces between Tayo’s memories and interjecting poetry and tales that are pertinent to the Laguna culture.
The ceremony becomes integral to Tayo’s recovery. Betonie, an old medicine man, organizes the ceremony for Tayo, telling him of the necessary change he must find within himself and America. The ceremony involves him digging through his past and recognizing fear as the reason for the conflict within himself and his community. As the novel delves further into Tayo’s spiritual journey, his reality emulates those of his ancestors stories, including characters like the Night Swan, a Mexican woman with hazel eyes and mystical powers, The Hunter, who transforms into a mountain lion and rescues Tayo twice, and the instance where Tayo curses the rain which inevitably results in a detrimental drought.
Although towards the end you wonder whether the entire novel was Tayo’s hallucination due to his PTSD, Silko does not create this question to harm the portrayal of those with mental illness, but does it to emphasize its severity; while Tayo’s fragmented reality is heavily illustrated, their is no harshness to this illustration, but rather presents gentle brushstrokes that request empathy and enlightenment on the issue.
If you like this novel, I recommend reading Whereas by Layli Long Soldier, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Passing by Nella Larsen.
Mary Prewitt: Owner, Ruthless Reader