I enjoy reading novels from direct eras. When I was trying to decide what to read for this month, I came across Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. It was written in 1929. This book helped open people’s eyes to the real life struggles of Native Americans which were caused by mistreatment by our government and societal prejudices. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1930 for Laughing Boy and it was adapted for the 1934 film of the same name.
La Farge was an American author and anthropologist. He studied Ancient cultures of North America and Native American culture. While on an expedition to the Olmec heartland, he discovered San Martin Pajapan Monument 1 and the ruins of La Venta. During another scientific expedition to Central America and the Southwestern United States, La Farge discovered two previously unknown languages. After writing Laughing Boy, La Farge moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico and continued his study of Native American culture. He became involved in American Indian rights and eventually served as president of the Association on American Indian Affairs.
I mention La Farge’s credentials and his personal history because Laughing Boy is the story of a Native American and Slim Girl, the woman he marries. La Farge goes into great detail about tribal customs and ceremonies as well as native beliefs about White men or “the Americans” as they are called in his book. In a time when Native Americans were portrayed as cold blooded killers or treated as comic relief in most books, La Farge gives Laughing Boy and Slim Girl dignity and personhood. He also brings to light many of the hardships and indignities faced by Native Americans.
Laughing Boy meets Slim Girl at a Native festival. He is bewitched by her beauty. She sees in him a way back to her people and an escape from the life she has been forced to lead after being taken from her family at age five and sent to one of the Indian schools.
They cut her hair and called her Lillian. They taught her English, saved her soul and replaced her gods with the Holy Trinity. She learned to value the material things so important to the Americans, but when she left the school, she was not accepted into their world or allowed to be part of her tribe. Lillian/Slim Girl struggled to find work, a place to live and food to eat. She’d heard about the Indian School girls who traded favors for money, but she never thought she would become one.
After dancing with Slim Girl at the festival, Laughing Boy hears stories about her from his friends and members of his family who were simply passing along the stories they had heard.
Ignoring their warnings, Laughing Boy begins an awkward courtship with Slim Girl and marries her without their blessing.
They settle into married life away from the reservation and the town of the Americans and gradually fall in love. It’s a union that brings out the best in both people. Laughing Boy is a gifted jewelry maker and he hones his craft with her encouragement. He teaches her the ways of his people and she reclaims her Native heritage. Together they plan to return to the reservation and their people, but Slim Girl insists they must wait until they are have attained a certain level of success and wealth – something she attempts to measure by a combination of Native and American standards.
I’m not going to spoil the ending. You should read the book to find out what happens, but be warned - they do not get their “happily ever after.”
Keep in mind as you are reading the book is set around 1914 when the first horseless carriages were making their way onto Indian lands. Times were changing and many tribes were struggling to maintain their old traditions. Native Americans had very different laws, customs and views about life and death than their “American” neighbors.
As powerful as this book is, I wonder how different it would be if it had been written by a Native American. La Farge does an admirable job sharing Laughing Boy’s emotions and beliefs, but did he fully understand what he never had to experience firsthand? As a writer, I like to believe we can crawl inside our characters and feel what they feel, but as a reader I think of Alex Haley and Roots and the power of Anne Frank’s diary written in her own words.
Oliver La Farge wrote several works of fiction and non-fiction. Most of his works were influenced by Native American culture. E of his better known works include A Pause in the Desert: A collection of short stories, The Mother Ditch, Pictorial History of the American Indian, Behind the Mountains, Raw Material and The Man with the Calabash Pipe.