Leslie Marmon Silko

"Almanac of the Dead"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark JUN 28, 1999)

"Sixty million Native Americans died between 1500 and 1600. The defiance and resistance to things European continue unabated. The Indian Wars have never ended in the Americas. Native Americans acknowledge no borders; they seek nothing less than the return of all tribal lands."

The Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko

I should have known better, with a title such as this. Really, what did I expect? I am finally on the last page of this book. It has taken me almost three months to read it. There were many times I thought I wouldn't go back to it. Psychologically it is the hardest book I have ever read. The words flow easily but the content is brutal and the worst images are repeated over and over. Like a war cry, it reverberates. Taken as whole, I have to say that this is one of most significant pieces of literature that I have read.

How do I summarize this 763 page novel? First we have Seese, a drug addict living with several homosexual men, one of which is the father of her baby. Her baby is stolen and she goes off to find him and tracks down a psychic woman she sees on TV. Lecha has been finding people for years and has made a good living from it, but she's decided to take a break as she realizes that she can only find the dead, never the living. She goes off to Tucsan, where Seese finds her, to live with her twin sister, Zeta. Lecha has decided that it is time to translate the Almanac that has been passed down for thousands of years. Zeta has already translated her section which, she alone knows, is the key to everything. She's stayed on their father's land and has good business running drugs and stocking arms. She raised Lecha's son, Ferro (another homosexual) who, with Paulie, helps with the business. Besides Seese, the other new employee is Sterling. He is a Laguna Indian whose tribe sent him away for a transgression he didn't think he really had control over. (If any character grows in this whole book, it's Sterling.)

Then there is Calabazas and his crew who have a healthy business importing pumpkins (filled with marijuana) into Tucson. He has the crazy Mosca and the handicapped Root working for him. We meet the Mafia through Max Blue (who lives on a golf course) and his sons and nephew. And there's crooked politicians, sadistic police, gun dealers and gun smugglers. Over the border, we have the Cuban Bartolomeo who is trying to educate the Indian masses on communism. His best student Angelita learns the lessons of Marx and Engle, but knows that Communism does not hold the secrets for the Indians. The communists rewrite history and do not want the Indians to remember their own uprisings, their own resistance.

We meet Menardo who earns tremendous wealth by running an insurance company that protects the rich against natural disasters and uprisings. Menardo, obsessed with security, becomes paranoid for his own life. And then there is blond Algeria, a trained architect, Menardo's second wife and lover to both Bartolomeo and Sonny Blue.

Meanwhile the Reign of the Fire-Eye Macaw has begun. The twin brothers are leading the people north. It is time to take back the land from the white people.

Silko's style in this novel is to repeat phrases, thoughts, and actions over and over, wrapping one story into the next. The stories each have their own pain, their own lessons. Some are very, very graphic. There are references of conspiracy that even the most paranoid may not even have dreamed up yet. The stories are so unique they are unforgettable. Sometimes we know the end of a story, sometimes we can only guess. She paints a picture of the White Man as a sadistic, self centered, self destructive force who has raped, pillaged and killed her people. But worse than that, the White Man has violated Mother Earth. To hurt the Earth is to kill himself. Because long after man is wiped from the face of the earth, the earth will be there and will repair itself no matter how long it takes.

"When Europeans arrived, the Maya, Azteca, Inca cultures had already built great cities and vast networks of roads. Ancient prophecies foretold the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. The ancient prophecies also foretell the disappearance of all things European."

  • Amazon reader rating: from 20 reviews


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About the Author:

Leslie Marmom SilkoLeslie Marmon Silko was born in 1948 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, of Laguna Indian, Mexican and Anglo-American heritage. She was raised on a Laguna Pueblo Reservation and studied at the University of New Mexico receiving her B.A. in 1969. She writes poetry, short stories and novels most of which draw on her Laguna heritage. Her novel Ceremony established her reputation as an important writer and won her a five year MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1981. This grant helped her start work on The Almanac of the Dead.

In addition to writing, her career includes an association with the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; Navajo Community College in Tsaile, Arizona; and professor of English at the University of Arizona, Tucson, where she is currently employed.

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