Monday, November 02, 2015
Book Report--Laughing Boy
There is no way of knowing whether he ever picked up the book, but because Casey Kuipers, a CRC missionary at the Zuni pueblo for many years, was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico in the early 1930s, it's not unlikely he would have seen or heard about or even read Laughing Boy, a New Mexico novel by Oliver LaFarge that won the Pulitzer in 1930, the first novel about Native people so honored.
You can't help but wonder whether Laughing Boy didn't contribute to Kuipers's own literary dreams. After all, he wrote three novels himself a year or two later.
Oliver LaFarge was an Anglo graduate student when he traveled to Southwest almost a century ago. What he knew about Navajos was what he picked up when he studied archaeology and observed the culture.
Kuipers could well have determined that his years of experience with the Zunis gave him enough similar experience to write his own novel showcasing Native life.
But Casey Kuipers' novels never won a Pulitzer. In fact, I'm quite certain he didn't sell many books. By choice and creed Kuipers, a schoolteacher and a missionary, carried a wholly different agenda into the novels he wrote about New Mexico's indigenous people. There are no schoolteachers or missionaries in Laughing Boy, but their effects loom over everything that happens in this touching old love story because mission schools essentially create the tragedy at the heart of the story.
Laughing Boy is a darlingly naive young Navajo blessed with abundant skills in traditional arts from horsemanship to leather work to silversmithing. His naivete arises from his character, as well as his lack of contact with a world outside of his clan and their neighborhood. In 1915, when the novel is set, much of the Navajo reservation was composed of clans and communities left largely unaffected by Anglo cultures surrounding them. They'd suffered horribly through warfare and mass displacement, just as many Native American tribes had; but by the time the first automobile showed up on the reservation, many young Navajos likely knew very little about life just a state away in California.
Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, who has been away to boarding school in California. And there lies the tale. She's a full-blooded Navajo, but her school experience has turned her into something of a prostitute. When the two of them marry, she finds the old ways of Laughing Boy's people quite repellent.
But attractive too, because Slim Girl knows she has no identity, no heritage, no one who loves her. Missionaries brought her the gospel, then banished her when she became pregnant by a white man.
She marries Laughing Boy believing he will help her regain what she's lost. From the first time Laughing Boy sees her, he simply adores her; she thinks he'll do. Slim Girl is a schemer and a liar, a woman without a country, but someone who is motivated to her deception by hate and desire for revenge against white people.
The narrative line of the novel is how she learns to love Laughing Boy and his sweet sincerity. The tale is that story, the story of their love growing toward a tragic end created when Laughing Boy discovers Slim Girl's deception. The two of them are as star-crossed as any couple in Shakespeare. What happens is textbook tragedy that simply wouldn't have happened if Slim Girl hadn't been, years before, hauled off to boarding school.
Loss of life, but triumph of love--that's the story.
Did it happen? No. Could it have? Yes. Did boarding schools rob their students of heritage and identity. Yes. Were they evil? Ay, there's the rub.
What I'd love to know is what a thoughtful, loving missionary/teacher in New Mexico in 1930 would have thought of Oliver LaFarge's Laughing Boy, especially when that novel won the Pulitzer Prize.
I wish I could ask Casey Kuipers, born right here in Orange City, Iowa, because he had to have had an opinion. After all, it was his work in the school and his Christian faith at the dark heart of all the sadness in this prize of a novel. What did Kuipers think?