Life after Work

Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge, Pulitzer Winner of 1930

“Laughing Boy” by Oliver La Farge is another book that gives the reader a glimpse into the life of an ethnic minority – Navajo Indians. This story takes place in 1915. Laughing Boy is a young, traditional Navajo who falls in love with a Navajo girl called Slim Girl. He marries her although she is an outsider. Slim Girl has no family, she was raised by Anglos in a boarding school, which alienated her from her native culture and where she was horribly mistreated. Her miserable childhood makes her despise White people but Slim Girl is willing to use them if necessary to reach her goal – to become Navajo again. She tries very hard to emulate the more traditional lifestyle, learns to weave and so on, while also making money more or less as a prostitute or “kept woman” of a White man (unbeknownst to Laughing Boy of course). She wants to use the money to buy a better life on the reservation for her husband and herself. While I was reading about this I kept worrying about Laughing Boy finding out and when he does, tragedy ensues, although not as horrifically as expected (I thought he would kill her). Laughing Boy ends up shooting the white man (not fatally if I recall correctly, it has been a few months since I read the book) and the couple are both on the run. Eventually fate catches up with the two, although again not in a way I expected and I found the end unsatisfying. Another Navajo man who has a grudge against them shoots at the couple, and Slim Girl dies.

This story is interesting for me for a few reasons. Not only do I live in the Southwest and have traveled all over the Navajo Nation, I have woven two (very simple) Navajo rugs so far and have learned about this fascinating culture. The book deals with a time when traditional people could no longer avoid running into white people, tourists or traders. Children were forcefully removed from their families and carried off to boarding schools where they grew up to be neither Indian nor White, poorly equipped to survive in either world. The traditional lifestyle was about to disappear.

Oliver La Farge was a teacher on the reservation for many years which enabled him to describe the landscape and people fairly well. Again, there is controversy over whether a White man can truly write from a minority perspective. Some Navajo say the book is all right, others disagree, and some First Nation authors dismiss this type of literature altogether. I was unhappy with the book for different reasons. For one, the prose sounds really dated and when the Navajos talk (or think), their language sounds stilted, a bit like “movie-Indian” talk. Something else I didn’t like is that the author had to make the woman the tragic figure of the pair. I liked that she was very resourceful and cunning, and in many ways at least equal to Laughing Boy in their relationship, but in the end she dies and I really don’t know why that was necessary. I expected her to get killed when Laughing Boy finds out about her secret life, but in the end it happens in an unrelated incident, which made me feel as if the author (god-like, from the heavens, as it were) wanted to punish her for being so “uppity” that she thought she could turn her life around.



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