Monday, September 27, 2010

Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge

Although this book was first published in 1929, it still has resonance as a novel commenting on the fate of the native American Indian tribes when their lands were invaded by the settlers from European countries. Oliver La Farge, the author, was an anthropologist who studied the Mayan culture in Central America and the Indian population of the American Southwest.

The story concerns Laughing Boy, a young Navajo man who meets another young Navajo woman, Slim Girl, at a native dance ceremony, and falls in love with her. She actually seeks him out, but is not as smitten with love as he is. Her motives are more self-seeking, as she is determined to use him to remold her life into an Indian one.

What we know about Slim Girl is her resolve and her anger against white people. She was reared away from her family in a missionary school. As a young woman, she had embraced the Christian faith and the American culture, when something happened that caused her to abandon the whites and all that they offered her. When she meets Laughing Boy, she has renounced her upbringing, and is trying to find her way back to her people and their values.

Right away, Slim Girl finds that her course is not so simple, and that she could not foresee the complications that present themselves. She herself falls deeply in love, and finds herself in sway to a “real” Navajo brave…one who can order her to wait when an adventure calls him. Tension in the story arises from Slim Girls’ hidden strategies to have an Indian life, but one without undue hardship and sacrifice.

The story is as much a love story as a story of Slim Girl’s “hubris”, and how her ruthless planning will rend the two asunder. With vivid descriptions of the Navajo religious ceremonies and of the beautiful desert setting, the book is a testimony to how the Indian’s tribal life managed to linger on, before the white man’s civilization fully encroached it.

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