Set in the year 1915, in the Navajo nation. Laughing Boy is a young man attending a large gathering where there are dances, horse races, trading and gambling. He’s excited to compete with his favorite pony and make some good trades, but something momentous happens when Slim Girl catches his eye. He’s fascinated by her bold behavior, when she speaks to him directly (something a proper girl would never do) and on impulse, they decide soon after to run off and get married. Laughing Boy hears rumors from others and faces criticism from his family about Slim Girl- she’s bad they say. She’s not a proper Navajo. He doesn’t understand what they’re talking about. Slim Girl had been taken away by the Americans when she was a little girl, sent to a boarding school where her language and culture were forbidden (to put it mildly). She is full of bitterness against the Americans and desperately wants to rejoin The People. She sees her union with Laughing Boy as a way back in, and for a time, this seems to work. They set up a little household together on the outskirts of a small dusty American town, where Slim Girl has a job she doesn’t want to leave, quite yet. I was surprised after closing the final pages, to think back and realize how much Slim Girl reminded me of Scarlett in some aspects! She wanted security, wanted to earn and save up money so she and Laughing Boy could return with wealth to live among the Navajo among respect and admiration. Unfortunately, her means to that goal were also her undoing.
There were many parts of this story I really enjoyed. Reading of this young couple’s determination to flaunt the norms- Laughing Boy ignoring all the whispers about his wife and refusing to believe any ill of her, certain they were wrong and that he could make a happy home. Slim Girl’s stubborn desire to learn skills that were taken for granted by other Navajo women and she struggled with- mainly weaving, but other things as well. Their joy in each other, and the complications that arose when doubts crept into their relationship, becoming a gap they struggled to repair. The one thing I felt dubious about was the casual mention of Slim Girl’s years in the boarding school. While it was obvious she was somewhat traumatized and turned callous by that experience, I felt like it could have been dealt with in much greater depth. Perhaps it was written this way though, because most of the story is told from Laughing Boy’s perspective, and he never really understood what an impact that experience had on her.
This book won a Pulitzer in 1930. Sadly, it’s one of those that I feel dismayed about, when looking up more info after I’m done reading. The author is not Native American, he wrote from outside the culture, though he spent several years working in Navajo territory, and admired them greatly. But it sounds like he got a lot of it wrong: American Indians in Children’s Literature. Regardless, I still think it’s a good story, I’m just disappointed it’s got false portrayals. (And I would really like to know what aspects of the culture were inaccurate here, but I haven’t done the info digging to find out yet).