When I finally read Ceremony it was a disappointment. The book conveys the disorientation and mental anguish of Tayo, the Laguna Pueblo Indian at its center. He feels guilt because he reneged on two promises to his family—really to his uncle Josiah, since there is little love between him and the aunt, Josiah’s sister, who grudgingly took Tayo in to save the honor of the family when her sister was impregnated by a Mexican and she left the baby. Tayo promised his uncle he would take care of his cousin Rocky (the aunt’s son), but Rocky died on a forced march to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Earlier Tayo had promised his uncle to take care of his cattle, since it was always understood that Rocky would leave the reservation to excel in college and then make a success in the white world. But Tayo got talked into enlisting by Rocky.
There are larger guilts in the air and earth and the past. The action takes place in the area where uranium was mined for the Manhattan Project and not far from where the first atom bomb was tested; Tayo’s grandmother saw the flash and never knew exactly what it was. The Japanese come off better than the Americans in Tayo’s experience: his fellow soldiers are order to shoot Japanese prisoners, and though Tayo cannot bring himself to participate, he sees his uncle Josiah among the doomed Japanese. On the other hand, though they death-march their captives to a POW camp, the Japanese do not shoot them.
Tayo’s army experience is even more complex. Like the other reservation Indians in the war, he enjoys the respect and other perks accorded servicemen while they are in uniform. But they are fighting for a land that has already been stolen from them, and once out of uniform, they feel the same old bigotry as before. All this Silko conveys during the first part of the book, which is painful. I thought more than once about the fallacy of imitative form.
In the ceremony part of the book the writing is better but the matter gets fantastic. The ceremony begins with the medicine man Betonie’s instruction of Tayo and continues as Tayo rounds up Josiah’s cattle, led by Betonie’s vague instructions about the Pleiades. Tayo also finds a beautiful woman, also somehow connected with the Pleiades, and an instant love bond is formed between them. Eventually Tayo completes the ceremony by resisting violence with other Indians he perceives as being agents of the witchery in the world. That witchery has been, according to the book’s origin stories, responsible for creating the Europeans and their invasion of America. I don’t believe in magic, but that’s not the real obstacle for me here, any more than it is in The Tempest or in Homer. The problem is the wish-fulfillment romance and its embarrassingly sentimental treatment.