Ceremony Study Guide

A narrative of loss, struggle, and redemption in the wake of World War II, Ceremony (1977) ranks among the defining works of Native-American poet and novelist Leslie Marmon Silko. Although Ceremony is normally classified as a novel, the text is in fact a combination of styles and genres that defies easy categorization. The work's main narrative follows the life of Tayo—a young half-American Indian, half-Mexican war veteran—as he reflects on the horrors of war and searches for solace. Tayo's story is delivered in meticulously detailed naturalistic prose. This story is complemented by the symbolic and allegorical poetry that appears throughout Ceremony, and that draws on the storytelling traditions of the Laguna Pueblo community where Ceremony is set—and where Silko, for her part, grew up.

Ceremony and its harrowing narrative of Tayo's breakdown and recuperation emerged somewhat indirectly. Silko conceived and wrote the story not while residing in her native New Mexico, but while accompanying her husband John Silko to Ketchikan, Alaska. In terms of topic and character, Ceremony did not even begin with Tayo; rather, the book has its genesis in a story about a Native American veteran named Harley, whose pursuit of alcohol was meant to lead to wild and humorous misadventures. (Harley appears as a relatively minor character in the final version of Ceremony.) The shift towards a more serious approach to Native American veterans was the product of Silko's reflection on the actual veterans from her own community, their experiences, and their ongoing struggles. As she explains in the introduction to the Penguin Deluxe Edition of Ceremony, "Even as a child I knew they were not bad people, yet something had happened to them. What was it?"

Already potent and meaningful as Silko's attempt to sketch out "what had happened" to the men of an older generation, Ceremony was also central to Silko's success and visibility as an author. In 1981, at the age of 33, she was awarded the prestigious MacArthur "Genius Grant" on the basis of her writing and filmmaking. Ceremony and the volume that immediately followed it, Storyteller (1979), were no doubt instrumental in winning Silko this high literary honor.