Chapter 63: “Laughing Boy” by Oliver Lafarge (1930)

“You have lived in a terrible world that I do not know. I cannot judge you by my world.  I think I understand.  You have deceived me, but you have not been untrue to me, I think.  Life without you would be a kind of death.  Now I know that I do not have to do what I thought I had to, and I am glad for it.  Now I know you, and there is no more of this secret thing that has been a river between us. As soon as you are able, we shall go North.  If there is a place where you have relatives, we can go there.  If not, we can go to T’o Tlakai, or some place where your clan is strong, or wherever you wish.  We shall get the sheep that my mother is keeping for me, and we shall buy others, and we shall live among The People.  That is the only way, I think. Understand, if we go on together, it is in my world, The People’s world, and not in this world of Americans who have lost their way.”

LaughingBoyHaving come off The Edge of Sadness—the novel that made me feel so completely sad and alone—I wanted to read something a bit more uplifting, heartwarming, happy. I perused my shelves of the 20 or so Pulitzers I have left for this Project, looking for the title that seemed to best fit the bill: The Executioner’s Song, The Caine Mutiny, Advise and Consent… They all seemed pretty bleak.

Then I found it: the 1930 Pulitzer-winning novel, Laughing Boy, by Oliver LaFarge. How could this possibly be a bad choice? How could this possibly be a sad book? It’s a novel about a boy who laughs!

Or so I thought…

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This was such an interesting novel—it was essentially the truly American version of Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde; a coming-of-age story, a beautiful love story, a story of conflict between two cultures and ideologies. Just like the Montagues and the Capulets, this novel is the struggle of competing allegiances and ideologies that the Navajo Laughing Boy and the half-Navajo, half-American Slim Girl face while trying to make their love work.

Sometimes I recap the novels in these reviews, but I really feel, in this case, that the preceding sentences are enough. This was a very simple, straightforward, easy-to-read novel about a very, very difficult subject, but LaFarge, somehow, manages to do it with rare beauty and grace.

Laughing Boy is a wonderfully told, beautifully written love story that,  I think, rivals some of the best writings on my Pulitzer shelf thus far. I very seldom love what my counterpart, Joshua, writes in his reviews of these books, but this excerpt from his review of Laughing Boy very well explains my feelings about LaFarge’s writing: “It is a short work…and its pacing early on is very meandering and soft. When it picks up near the end, you would think it would have to be jerky and swell with a fever pitch, but instead it crests more like a wave and crashed upon my heart voraciously and I struggled to keep my heart and head about myself as it rose above me.”

LaFarge’s writing is poetic and graceful, sweeping and moving. His timing is precise, his pacing is meticulous, his attention to detail is uncanny, and his storytelling is engaging.

What’s more, he knows how to tell a story without getting bogged down in details. By focusing all of his attention on two characters, LaFarge enables himself to easily maneuver a very difficult topic—one that is epic in its scope: Native American/white relations (which, of course, we also saw in N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (which, I learned while reading Laughing Boy, takes its name from a Navajo prayer)). I also applauded this tactic in my review of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral—by focusing all of his attention on one family, he is able to tell a very complicated story very gracefully.

I’m not sure, though, that this was LaFarge’s goal in writing this book. I don’t think he set out to explore the struggle between Navajo and whites—I think he just wanted to tell a story about the time, the people, and briefly tap into some of the customs. And all of this he more or less confirms in his rambling, base-covering Introduction (which is, on a side note, by far the oddest Introduction I’ve ever read; if you get the chance to read this book, do so just for the Introduction; he really does cover all his bases—he really didn’t want to offend anybody with this book).

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I loved this book, and I’d recommend it to just about anybody. A truly wonderful novel.

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