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Reviewed by:
  • Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony: The Recovery of Tradition
  • Leah Sneider (bio)
Robert M. Nelson. Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony: The Recovery of Tradition. New York: Peter Lang, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4331-0205-9. 197 pp.

In his critical examination of Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, Robert Nelson includes portions of previously published material in half of the chapters; the other half are entirely new. Therefore, many of us have read about half of Nelson’s discussion in other forms and publications since about 1999. In other words, this text has been ten years in the making, evidence of Nelson’s thorough thought, research, development, and dedication to providing new research on one of the most written about texts in the field.

In the introduction, Nelson posits that Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony: The Recovery of Tradition is his attempt at “a comprehensive study of the Pueblo and Navajo sources for this novel” akin to Susan Scarberry Garcia’s study (Landmarks of Healing) of N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1). His goal is to connect the many stories within Ceremony as well the story of Ceremony to the traditional Pueblo stories as “print version[s] of an oral performance” while acknowledging the blending of culturally informed literary traditions displayed in a printed story (2). Therefore, Nelson, responding simultaneously to Paula Gunn Allen’s criticism of the novel, clarifies that his approach is purely a printed text–to–printed text relationship, focusing on previously published ethnographic texts that include full-length transcriptions and/or interpretations of Pueblo stories, including most predominantly Franz Boas’s Keresan Texts (1928), John M. Gunn’s Schat-Chen: History, Traditions and Naratives [sic] of the Queres Indians of Laguna and Acoma (1917), and Leland Wyman’s The Red Antway of the Navaho (1965). This project of “modern intertextuality” seeks to recover, reclaim, reintegrate, and reanimate these stories, “all with a view to healing” (3, 4).

By mapping both the placement and movement of stories within the story while maintaining a focus on the “backbone” of the story (the cultural and medicinal power of stories generally but also the [End Page 97] story of Tayo specifically), Nelson uncovers the departure-recovery motif in Ceremony common to Laguna ceremonial stories and story cycles (like the Yellow Woman stories), thus privileging Laguna “text and texture” (18). Nelson assuages fears regarding Silko’s source material coming directly from sacred clan stories. Instead, his printed text–to–printed text methodology reveals how the source material for the novel actually comes more directly from published ethnographic texts. Therefore, he claims that Silko’s novel “repatriat[es] Laguna ‘artifacts’” in order to keep the stories alive as the backbone of the people. Furthermore, in comparing Silko’s text directly to these ethnographic texts, Nelson reveals the specifics of Silko’s craft and performance as coming from a contemporary storyteller who liberates the stories from the confines of ethnography and brings them back to life.

Nelson’s methodology centers on the homological rather than analogical relationship between the text and the embedded stories. Homological relationships result from “two or more analogous entities [that are] derivatives of some preceding entity”; in other words, they are directly related because they spring from the same source (29). In the case of Ceremony, the narrative and the embedded texts derive from and are in the process of recreating or becoming a part of “the long story of the People” (29). Nelson thus begins to explore this homological relationship by focusing on the “four axes of Silko’s literary performance”: the homologies of character, function, cultural context, and motif (29).

Nelson attempts to figure out whose voices are present in the first four movements of the novel and ultimately who narrates Tayo’s story. He proposes that if the story centers on Tayo’s recovery and transformation, then perhaps he is his own storyteller and narrator. Yet, the movement from voice to ambiguously gendered voice allows the story to emerge from a liminal zone of space and time and grants it unlimited possibilities. Furthermore, passage through these text-based “hoops” places the reader within the ceremony itself, making us active rather than...


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