Capturing the essence of the Southwest in 1915, Oliver La Farge's Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel is an enduring American classic. At a ceremonial dance, the young, earnest silversmith Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful but elusive "American"-educated Navajo. As they experience all of the joys and uncertainties of first love, the couple must face a changing way of life and its tragic consequences.
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OLIVER LA FARGE (1901-1963) first traveled to Navajo territory on a Harvard archaeological dig. Laughing Boy was his first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
He was riding the hundred miles from T’o Tlakai to Tsé Lani to attend a dance, or rather, for the horse-racing that would come afterwards. The sun was hot and his belly was empty, but life moved in rhythm with his pony loping steadily as an engine down the miles. He was lax in the saddle, leaning back, arm swinging the rope’s end in time to the horse’s lope. His new red headband was a bright colour among the embers of the sun-struck desert, undulating like a moving graph of the pony’s lope, or the music of his song —
‘Nashdui bik’é dinni, eya-a, eyo-o . . . Wildcat’s feet hurt, eya-a, eyo-o . . .’
Rope’s end, shoulders, song, all moved together, and life flowed in one stream. He threw his head back to sing louder, and listened to the echo from the cliffs on his right. He was thinking about a bracelet he should make, with four smooth bars running together, and a turquoise in the middle — if he could get the silver. He wished he could work while riding; everything was so perfect then, like the prayers, hozoji nashad, travelling in beauty. His hands, his feet, his head, his insides all were hozoji, all were very much alive. He whooped and struck up the Magpie Song till the empty desert resounded —
‘A-a-a-iné, a-a-a-iné, Ya-a-iné-ainé, ko-ya-ainé . . .’
He was lean, slender, tall, and handsome, Laughing Boy, with a new cheap headband and a borrowed silver belt to make ragged clothes look fine. At noon, having no money, he begged coffee from a trader at Chinlee and went on, treasuring his hunger because of the feasting to come. Now he began to meet Navajos of all ages, riding to the dance. The young men bunched together — a line of jingling bridles, dark, excited faces, flashing silver, turquoise, velveteen shirts, dirty, ragged overalls, a pair of plaid calico leggins, a pair of turkey-red ones. Some of them were heavy with jewelry; Horse Giver’s Son wore over four hundred dollars in silver alone; most of them had more than Laughing Boy. They stopped to look at his bow-guard, which he himself had made. ‘I am a good jeweller,’ he said, elated; ‘I make silver run like a song.’ ‘You should make a song about yourself,’ they told him, ‘and teach the burros to sing it.’ ‘Have you had any rain up by T’o Tlakai?’ ‘No, it is just like last year. It is the devil. The grass is all dried up and the sheep are dying.’ ‘They had a cloudburst over by T’isya Lani. It washed out the dam.’ ‘It washed out the missionary’s house, they say. His wife ran out in something thin and got wet, they say.’ ‘Ei-yei!’ Tall Hunter and his wife drove past in a brand-new buckboard behind two fast-trotting, grey mules. He owned over five hundred head of horses, and his wife had thick strings of turquoise and coral around her neck. ‘His brother is in jail for stealing cattle, they say.’ ‘What is jail?’ asked Laughing Boy. Slender Hair explained: ‘It is something the American Chief does to you. He puts you in a room of stone, like a Moqui house, only it is dark and you can’t get out. People die there, they say. They haven’t any room; they can’t see anything, they say. I do not like to talk about it.’ Laughing Boy thought, I should rather die. He wanted to ask more, but was ashamed to show his ignorance before these southern Navajos, many of whom wore hats like Americans, and who knew so much of Americans’ ways. They raced. His horse was tired, but it won by a nose, which was just as well, since he had bet his bow-guard. Now he had six dollars. He hoped there would be gambling. Tsé Lani showed a distant bonfire in the dusk, with mounted Indians moving in on it like spokes of a wheel. About two hundred young men came together half a mile away, making their ponies prance, exchanging greetings. Crooked Ear carried the ceremonial wand. Now they all lined up, with the dull, red sunset behind their black figures. They started going like getting off to a race, right into a gallop, yelling. Over by the fire was shouting, and another line tearing towards them. The world was full of a roar of hooves and two walls of noise rushing together, the men leaning forward over their horses’ necks, mouths wide. ‘E-e-e-e-e!’ They met in a great swirl of plunging, dodging horses, and swept on all together, whooping for dear life, with the staff in front of them, almost onto the fire, then dissolved with jingling of bits, laughter, and casual jokes as they unsaddled by the pool. The steady motion of excitement was slowed then, in the last of the day, by the rocks and the pinons, by the reflection of the sky in the pool where flat, vague silhouettes of horses stooped to drink. The voices of many people, the twinkling of fires continuued the motif, joining the time of quiet with elation past and to come; a little feeling of expectation in Laughing Boy’s chest, a joyful emptiness, part hungeeeeer and part excitement. He tended his pony minutely. The little mare had had two days of loping; shortly he wanted to race her; three days of rest would not be too much. She was his only horse; he had traded two others for her. She was tough, as a horse had to be to live at all in the North country. He ran his hands down her withers, feeling the lean, decisive muscles. In all that section, from Dennihuitso to Biltabito, from T’o Tlikahn to T’o Baka, where he knew every horse by sight, she was the best, but she would meet some competition here. He felt as if she were his own creation, like the bowguard; at least he had selected her, as he had chosen the soft blue turquoise in the ornament. Little, compact, all black save for the tiny white spot on her forehead, she had the ugly Roman nose of character. She was like an arrow notched to a taut bowstring — a movement of the hand would release level flight swiftly to a mark. He was thinking some of these things, half hearing the noises of the people. Just like the prayer, ‘travelling in beauty.’ It would be good to be a singer as well, to express all these things through the prayers. He would like to know many of them, to learn to conduct the Mountain Chant, and know all the beautiful stories behind the songs and ceremonies inside the Dark Circle of Branches. That would be really on the trail of beauty; to work in silver and turquoise, own soft-moving ponies, and lead the Mountain Chant. Just thinking about it was good. It made him feel cool inside.
‘Hozho hogahn ladin nasha woyen . . . In the house of happiness there I wander . . .’
All the time he was passing his hand along the pony’s neck, along her back, feeling the lines of tough muscles. ‘E-ya, Grandfather, are you going to dance with the horse?’ Jesting Squaw’s Son called over to him, ‘food is ready.’ ‘Hakone!’ He returned abruptly to the quick-moving life of the dance. ‘I can eat it. I did not know you were coming.’ ‘I came when I heard you were to race your mare. I think there is money to be made, then, and I want to see her race.’ They went up arm in arm into the crowd, pushing their way into the circle around one of the fires. Busy housewives gave them coffee, the big pot of meat was passed over, and a flat, round loaf of rubbery, filling bread. The meat was the backbone of a yearling calf, boiled with corn. It was good. He munched joyfully, feeling his empty stomach fill, wadding himself with bread, washing it down with bitter coffee. A couple of Americans carrying their own plates dipped in gingerly. A Hopi, having collected everything he could possibly eat, sat down officiously beside them to air his school English and his bourgeois superiority.
A small drum beating rapidly concentrated the mixed noises into a staccato unison. Young men gathered about the drummer. Laughing Boy might have eaten more, but he left the fire immediately with Jesting Squaw’s Son. Some one led off high-pitched at full voice,
‘Yo-o galeana, yo-o galeana, yo-o galeana . . .’
By the end of the second word the crowd was with him; more young men hurried up to join the diapason,
‘Galeana ena, galeana eno, yo-o ay-e hena ena . . .’
They put their arms over each other’s shoulders, swaying in time to the one drum that ran like a dull, glowing thread through the singing, four hundred young men turning loose everything they had. A bonfire twenty feet long flared to the left of them. Opposite, and to the right, the older people sat wrapped in their blankets., Behind them, men crouched in their saddles, heads and shoulders against the night sky, nodding time to the rhythm, silent, with here and there a reflection of firelight on a bit of silver, a dark face, or a horse’s eye. Twelve girls in single file stole into the open space, moving quietly and aloof as though the uproar of singing were petrified into a protective wall before it reached them. Only the pulse of the drum showed in their steps. They prowled back and forth before the line of young men, considering them with predatory judgment. Laughing Boy at the back of the crowd looked at them with mild interest; he liked to watch their suave movements and the rich display of blankets and jewelry. One caught his attention; he thought she had on more silver, coral, turquoise, and white shell than he had ever seen on any one person. He speculated on its value — horses — she must have a very rich mother, or uncles. She was too slender, seeming frail to dance in all that rich, heavy ornamentation. He wished she would move more into the firelight. She was well dressed to show off what she wore; silver and stones with soft highlights and deep shadows glowed against the night-blue velveteen of her blouse; oval plaques of silver were at her waist, and ceremonial jewels in the fringe of her sash. Her blue skirt swung with her short, calculated steps, ankle-length, above the dull red leggins and moccasins with silver buttons. The dark clothing, matching the night, was in contrast to the other dancers, even her blanket was mainly blue. He felt animosity towards her, dark and slight, like a wisp of grass — only part of a woman. Her gaze, examining the singers, was too coolly appraising. Now she was looking at him. He threw his head back, losing himself in the singing. He wished he, too, had an American hat. Her mincing steps took her out of sight. Jesting Squaw’s Son’s arm was over his shoulder, and on the other side another Indian, unknown, but young. Their life flowed together with all those others, complete to themselves, merged in one body of song, with the drumbeats for a heart,
‘Yo-o galeana, yo-o galeana . . .’
Song followed song with a rush; when one ended, the next took up, as though the whole night would never suffice to pour out all that was in them. Some one plucked at his blanket; then with another, stronger pull it was snatched from his shoulders. He whirled about. The men near him snickered. The frail girl held his blanket up toward him, mockingly. ‘Ahalani!’ she greeted him. He stood for a moment in feigned stupidity. He did not want to dance. The devil! Then with a sudden lunge he snatched the blanket. It was no use. She hung on with unexpected strength, digging her heels into the sand, laughing. The men on either side were watching over their shoulders with open joy. ‘What’s the matter? I think your feet hurt, perhaps. I think you are bandy-legged, perhaps.’ Girls didn’t usually say these things. He was shocked. Her clear, low voice turned the insults into music, bringing out to the full the rise and fall of a Navajo woman’s intonation. All the time they tugged against each other, her long eyes were talking. He had seen girls’ eyes talk before as they pulled at the blanket, but these were clear as words. He wanted desperately to be back among the men. He nearly pulled her over, but she hung on, and her eyes seemed to be making a fool of him. Suddenly he gave up. She led him around behind the men, not speaking to him, uninterested. He pulled his end of the blanket over his shoulders, assuming the conventional pose of resistance, setting each foot before the other reluctantly, in response to her dragging. He watched her closely, but her grip did not slacken. Out in the clear space she transferred her hands to his belt. He pulled his blanket to his chin, masking enjoyment in a pose of contemptuous tolerance, like the other men dancing there. The solemn turning of the couples contrasted with the free release of the singers: this was a religious ceremony and a rustic, simple pleasure, the happiness of a natural people to whom but few things happen. They were traditional and grave in their revelry. According to the etiquette, whenever there is a rest, the man asks what forfeit he must pay; by the length of time taken by the girl to get down to a reasonable figure, he gages her liking for his company. The music paused an instant for singers to catch their breath. He made a feeble attempt to get away, then asked, ‘How much?’ ‘Ten cents.’ The prompt answer astonished him. He paid the forfeit, still staring at her, chagrined, and furious at the blank, correct impassiveness of her face, at the same time noting delicately chiselled features, set of firm lips, long eyes that in their lack of expression were making fun of him. Ten cents! Already! With a splendid gesture he swept his blanket round him, stalking back to the singers. He was set to lose himself in the songs, but he watched the girl drag out a man nearly as tall as himself. Instead of dancing in the usual way, they held each other face to face and close to, each with one hand on the other’s shoulder. It was shocking; and why had she not done it with him? But she had let him go the first time he had asked. She had insulted him, she was too thin, and probably ill-behaved.
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