Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Pulitzer Project: Laughing Boy
There was nothing overtly offensive about Laughing Boy. If anything, the book is sympathetic toward the plight of the Navajo in the early 20th century. It condemns, for example, the Indian schools that punished children for speaking their native language and that left the children existing in a cultural limbo: cut off from their heritage but not accepted by the white world either.
Maybe the problem was the book just felt dated. Even worse, I felt like I was reading a Zane Grey novel. I read a lot of Zane Grey in high school and to say the books were formulaic is an understatement, cheap westerns where it's pretty much a case of if you've read one, you've read them all. Of course, if a person has never read a Zane Grey western, then maybe Laughing Boy will seem delightfully different instead of stale and cliche-ridden.
The basic plot line is the usual: boy (Laughing Boy) meets girl (Slim Girl); they're instantly smitten. She, however, has a Dark Secret, something in life that has given her a Bad Reputation. When Laughing Boy goes to his oldest uncle to say he wants to marry Slim Girl (after knowing her for a day and talking with her one time), his uncle tells him The Family Does Not Approve. No kidding. At this point Laughing Boy hasn't even taken the time to ask her about her lineage -- which is one of the things about the book that felt wrong. Laughing Boy is supposed to be so traditional he doesn't speak English, he's a total blanket Indian, someone who never attended a mission or Bureau of Indian Affairs school and who is totally immersed in the Navajo belief system. So by not asking about her lineage, i.e., finding out her mother's clan, he's risking committing incest.
In any case, he ignores his uncle's advice. The young couple elope, they live reasonably happily for awhile, and then Slim Girl's past catches up with them.
In the forward to the book, the author mentions spending a fair amount of time in the early 1920s on the Navajo reservation (or close to it). I got the impression, based on the content of the book, he was there long enough to learn about basic creation beliefs and Navajo religious ritual (sand paintings, etc) as well as some bits and pieces of the language so was able to weave those elements into the novel, but not long enough to really understand the clan system. Does it make a difference in terms of the quality of the novel? Probably not. It set me up to be dubious about the entire book -- it's hard to get into a story when the author has started off with something that feels so wrong -- but other readers may not have the same reaction.
The book was made into a movie starring Roman Navarro in 1934. If I were to cast it today, I'd put Adam Beach in the lead. The character of Laughing Boy has that sort of clean-cut, upbeat persona that Beach seems to end up projecting regardless of the role he's supposed to be playing. Slim Girl would be trickier -- although the title of the book is Laughing Boy, Slim Girl is the character it really revolves around. Her life, her past, and her secrets make her a much more complicated character. With Laughing Boy what you see is what you get; you know exactly how he's going to respond and why he does what he does. And in the end, of course, in the fine literary tradition of the Fallen Woman Must Pay for Her Sins, Slim Girl's secrets cost her and Laughing Boy everything.
Laughing Boy earned Oliver La Farge the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for best novel.