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Laughing Boy

Laughing Boy
Oliver LaFarge
302 pages

Laughing Boy was published in 1929, and is billed on the cover as "the first authentic novel of the Navajo Indians." Oliver LaFarge was something of an authority on Native Americans, working as an activist most of his life. So I expected an account of day-to-day Native American life, describing customs and rituals that are more widely understood today. LaFarge does this in a surprisingly eloquent, lyrical way, such as this passage describing the start of a horse race:
Arrows from the bow -- no other simile. At the tearing gallop, flat-stretched, backs are level, the animals race in a straight line; all life is motion; there is no body, only an ecstasy; one current between man and horse, and still embodied, a whip hand to pour in leather and a mouth to shout. Speed, speed, but the near goal is miles away, and other speed spirits on either side will not fall back. (p. 56)
 
But this book is much more than cultural education. It is also a beautiful love story. Laughing Boy, a Navajo brave, meets Slim Girl at a dance and is instantly taken with her. She was raised by whites, so their relationship is controversial within Laughing Boy's family & tribe. She also has a bit of a reputation that he is blissfully unaware of. He helps her reconnect to her roots and learn traditional crafts; she helps him discover the wider world beyond his tribe. Their relationship evolves as they come of age themselves. LaFarge is far less lyrical when writing about relationships, and yet he manages to convey each person's deepest feelings of love, and of fear of failing the other. This book gets a 3-star rating because while it was good, it lacked a certain depth. It almost earned another half or full star because of its very moving ending. Recommended. ( )