Book Review: Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko

Cover of the book Almanac of the Dead on a table with a white background and pottery behind it.

You should read this book. 

I’m starting with that, because in a minute, I’m going to start listing all the things that make this a difficult book to read and it may sound like I’m encouraging you to ignore it.  I am most definitely not.  But you should be prepared for what you’re getting. 

First and foremost, it’s almost impossible to find a traditional “good guy,” despite the seemingly endless list of characters you meet.  Silko is putting all of humanity’s worst traits on display.  I don’t know if I can even remember all of the potential trigger/content warnings that should be included, but for starters, there’s sexual assault/violence, physical abuse, emotional abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, suicide, sadism, torture, and so on.  In short, this book is an indictment.  Specifically, it is an indictment of 500 years of European/European American colonialism and genocide and the unwillingness of society to recognize those crimes and address their fallout.  As such, those sins continue to rot and fester and spread to everyone.  (Have I sold you on this book yet?)

The overarching story is the efforts of a wide range of Native American characters to fight back against the injustices of a history of Euro-American conquest and those that stand in their way.  The list of characters is, in a word, long, so I won’t even try to go through each of them.  The book is divided into different parts, each introduced tied to a specific geography. Within each, a few chapters are dedicated to one set of characters, which then rolls into a completely different set, which in turn moves to a different location and a different group of people.  But everything cycles back together.  There are sets of twins who each have their own part to play in the fight to retake the lands stolen from them.  Elderly twin sisters Lecha and Zeta serve as an anchor.  From their estate in the Tucson area, they have returned to work on the titular Almanac of the Dead, a collection of pages passed down through generations, marking their history of their tribe (namely the Yaqui), surviving the death and destruction that literally chased the first carriers of these words.  Enduring the ravages of time and the attacks on memory, the book survives, edited and annotated and added to by new guardians until finally it is time for the twins to put it all together.  Living with them are Lecha’s grown son Ferro, a drug runner whom she left when he was a baby for her sister to raise; Sterling, a Laguna Indian who was exiled from his tribe and who is fascinated by Tucson’s gangster history and the story of Geronimo; Seese, a White, drug-addicted woman whose infant son was kidnapped and who hopes that Lecha’s psychic abilities will help her find him; and Paulie, who raises the guard dogs and is one of Ferror’s lovers.  And that’s just one group.  There are flashbacks and side stories and parentheticals, but like the tributaries of a river, the waters eventually all rejoin to flow to the sea.

Silko does a superb job of erasing the artificial boundaries erected between countries.  The border between the U.S. and Mexico matters only inasmuch characters have to deal with the hassle of border guards, but it is very clear that this means nothing to the descendants of those who freely lived in these areas and who had no say in the drawing of lines on maps.  The land itself is an essential part of the stories, and how people treat the land tells us something about them as well. There were several passages I saved because something caught my eye, such as this, where one of the characters we meet in Mexico recalls his Indian grandfather:

“The old man had been interested in what the Europeans thought and the names they had for the planets and stars. He thought the stories accounting for the sun and the planets were interesting only because their stories of explosions and flying fragments were consistent with everything else he had seen: from their flimsy attachments to each other and their children to their abandonment of the land where they had been born. He thought about what the ancestors had called Europeans: their God had created them but soon was furious with them, throwing them out of their birthplace, driving them away. The ancestors had called Europeans ‘the orphan people’ and had noted that as with orphans taken in by selfish or coldhearted clanspeople, few Europeans had remained whole. They failed to recognize the earth was their mother. Europeans were like their first parents, Adam and Eve, wandering aimlessly because the insane God who had sired them had abandoned them.”

Through it all, Silko reminds of historical events (the Haitian Revolution, the Mexican Emperor Maximilian and his wife Charlotte, the dirty wars of the Cold War era, etc.), the prophecies of various indigenous peoples, observations of Europeans and their descendants, and more.  This grand scope storytelling is expertly interwoven with the deeply personal and individual stories of each character, and reminds us of the cyclical nature of life and history.  Buried deep within this exposé of darkness and evil and rot is a note of hope, that eventually history will right itself.  The question is how much suffering must happen before then. 

This was a hard review to write and I don’t feel like I’ve done it justice.  There’s so much to discuss, but no simple way to do so.  I’ve seen academic articles and dissertations devoted exclusively to this book, and that seems about the level of writing I’d have to do if I wanted to fully break this down.  Published in 1992, it resonates today as we slowly, slowly, slowly and haltingly start trying to address our past.  Changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day is only a micro baby step.  To really engage and reckon with our history, our present, and our future, it’ll be uncomfortable.  There’s anger.  And while there’s a vocal segment of society that feels like anything that makes (white) people uncomfortable should be banned, ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.  To quote from the source: “History would catch up with the white man whether the Indians did anything or not.  History was the sacred text.  The most complete history was the most powerful force.”

You should read this book.

Have you read The Almanac of the Dead? What did you think of it? Did you struggle to get through it? Did it stick with you afterwards? Share your views in the comments!

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