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  • Silko: Writing Storyteller and Medicine Woman
  • Ellen L. Arnold
Brewster E. Fitz. Silko: Writing Storyteller and Medicine Woman. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2004. xii + 288 pp.

Brewster Fitz's collection of eight interconnected essays on textual or secondary orality in Leslie Marmon Silko's narrative prose offers exciting new perspectives on Silko's work. Fitz states that he discovered Storyteller in 1992, and given his interests in literary theory, he was particularly attracted by the "aesthetic, ethical, linguistic, and formal problems posed by the interaction between literacy and orality" in Silko's work (ix). Framing his study within poststructuralist, postmodern approaches to American Indian literature, Fitz presents fresh readings of old favorites like Ceremony and "Lullaby," as well as groundbreaking interpretations of such underappreciated, undertheorized texts as "From Humaweepi, the Warrior Priest," "Coyote Holds a Full House in His Hand," and Silko's newest novel, Gardens in the Dunes.

Drawing on passages from Storyteller and Silko's essay "Books: Notes on Mixtec and Maya Screenfolds, Picture Books of Preconquest Mexico," Fitz makes the case in his Introduction, "The Writing Storyteller," that Silko interiorized writing at an early age from the Marmon family tradition of the writing storyteller epitomized by Silko's Carlisle-educated great-aunt, Aunt Susie. Fitz argues that the tension in Silko's work between this interiorized literacy and her desire to write from within a primarily oral culture that is threatened by literacy reflects Silko's yearning for a culturally syncretic textual orality, a "writerly dream of grounding the oral tradition and her texts in an ontologically privileged kind of universal language in which writing and orality are organically one, life-affirming, all-embracing, and motherly" (7).

In chapter 1, "Bears: Writing and Madness," Fitz examines bear stories in "From Humaweepi, the Warrior Priest," the short story [End Page 194] "Storyteller" and other selections from Storyteller, and Ceremony, to explore interrelationships of writing, orality, and madness, and to describe a narrative point of view he finds characteristic of Silko's writing. Comparable to magic realism or Victor Turner's notion of "total perspective," this point of view erases boundaries between the imaginary and real, natural and supernatural, creating a realm "where language has ontological efficacy, . . . creating the things to which the words refer" (35). In this syncretic and liminal space, Silko ceremonially "rebirths" herself, becoming, Fitz suggests, a "writing medicine woman" who heals cultural wounds through written orality (50). Chapter 2, "Back to the Text: 'Lullaby,'" examines writing as both an instrument of destruction of Navajo culture (figured in the unraveling Army blanket that belonged to Ayah's dead son), and the healing remedy administered by the writing storyteller to restore the oral world it has wounded (represented by the beautiful woven traditional blankets that now exist for Ayah only in memory). Thus, says Fitz, Silko "stand[s] in for the Navajo medicine man" and the story itself becomes "the maternal blanket in which the vitality of Navajo ceremony is warmly wrapped" (81, 90).

Chapter 3, "'The Battle of Pie Town,' or Littlecock's Last Stand," compares Silko's "A Geronimo Story" to Austin N. Leiby's historical account of the service of Laguna scouts in the 1885 Apache campaign (based in part on records kept by Silko's great-grandfather Robert G. Marmon and his brother Walter). Using the tradutorre (translator)/traditore (traitor) aphorism, Fitz examines the rhetorical and linguistic battle at the heart of the story. Here Fitz finds most clearly articulated the cultural wound—the loss of the Keresan language—that he assumes to be the origin of Silko's yearning for a "perfect tongue" (237). Chapter 4, "Dialogic Witchery in 'Tony's Story,'" compares journalistic accounts of the historical murder behind "Tony's Story" to Silko's fictional version, arguing that Silko rewrites the "journalistic and legal story that is a classic example of the narrative of assimilation" as "a narrative of ethnic resurgence" (119). By changing the date of the events from Good Friday to San Lorenzo Day, the day in 1680 on which the Pueblo Revolt began, Fitz observes, Silko continues the Revolt textually, "seek[ing] justice in written orality" (128).

The final three chapters of the book...


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pp. 194-197
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