At just under 200 pages the story is not long, yet it failed to captivate me until about the last fifty pages. The cover of my copy includes a quote from the New York Times that says, "[A novel of] lucid beauty, vital artistic imagination, and a clear, almost hypnotic style."
Hypnotic, yes. Clear? Absolutely not.
La Farge's background is in anthropology and he is credited with discovering two previously unknown languages while working in Central America and the American Southwest. Throughout his life he was an advocate for the rights of Native Americans. As a highly educated anthropologist (he held two degrees from Harvard), he had an intimate, inside knowledge of Native American culture. It is clear from the narrative of Laughing Boy that he understands explicitly many things about Navajo culture that outsiders do not understand. Yet instead of finding a way to express normal activities of Navajo culture clearly to non-Native American readers, he too frequently writes assuming that his audience knows what he does. Which we usually don't. And so are often confused. Or at least, I was often confused, especially at the beginning. Take this passage from the opening page:
"He wished he could work while riding; everything was so perfect then, like the prayers, hozoji nashad, travelling [sic] in beauty. His hands, his feet, his head, his insides all were hozoji, all were very much alive. He whooped and struck up the Magpie Song till the empty desert resounded -
Several days after finishing the novel I was still wondering about what I missed from this story, when it occurred to me that perhaps that is exactly what La Farge wanted. Why would an author choose to use a second language in a story, knowing many readers would not understand it? Perhaps La Farge wanted his readers to feel a distance between themselves and his characters, to butt right up against those barriers to understanding another culture and wrestle with that feeling. I have a bad habit of making assumptions and I started this novel assuming that of course all writers must want their readers to understand their characters intimately. But maybe they don't? Maybe that's part of the point of Laughing Boy, to have some unanswered questions at the end.
Perhaps I'll read it again later in life (long after I've finished the other three million books on my To Read list), and by then I'll be able to accept seeing things I cannot understand, and letting them lie. For now I'm moving on to the next book on my neverending list.
And it's Years of Grace, by Margaret Ayer Barnes, which has so far been the most difficult text to acquire. Used copies on Amazon start at $40, the famous John K. King Used & Rare bookstore in Detroit has a copy for sale for $50, and only one Michigan library owns a lendable copy and it is 83 years old. I'm afraid this is a sign that it's not a very good book. And it's almost 600 pages long. So we shall see.
There I go, making assumptions again.