“Lullaby” first appeared in Storyteller (1981), a book in which Silko interweaves autobiographical reminiscences, short stories, poetry, photographs of her family (taken by her father) and traditional songs. The book as a whole is concerned with the oral tradition of storytelling in Native American culture. Through a variety of formats, Silko attempts to reproduce the effect of oral storytelling in a written English form. She is also concerned with the transformative power of storytelling in the lives of her characters and the role of storytelling in maintaining cultural traditions and intergenerational ties, particularly in a matrilineal line from grandmother to granddaughter. Because of this focus, the physical surroundings of the action of “Lullaby” are not central to its narrative. The story begins with Ayah, an old Native American woman, leaning against a tree near a stream, reminiscing about some of the most tragic events of her life, as well as about the role of her grandmother in some of the most happy events of her life: “She was an old woman now, and her life had become memories.” She recalls watching her mother weaving outside on a big loom, while her grandmother spun wool into yarn. She remembers her mother and the old woman who helped her give birth to her first child, Jimmie. Yet she also recalls the time the white man came to her door to announce that Jimmie had died in a helicopter crash in the war. Because Ayah could not speak English, her husband, Chato, had to translate the tragic news to her. As Ayah reminisces about her life, including the loss of her children, the eventual rift between her husband and herself, and other tragic losses, the narrative slowly catches up to the present. In recent years, Ayah and Chato have begun receiving federal assistance checks in order to survive-Chato would immediately cash the check and go spend it at the bar. In the present tense of the story, Ayah goes there to look for him. When she does not find him there, she goes out in the snow to search for him, and comes upon him walking toward home. When they stop to rest, he lies down in the snow, and she realizes that he is dying. She tucks a blanket around him and begins to sing a lullaby her grandmother had sung when she was little: “And she sang the only song she knew how to sing for babies. She could not remember if she had ever sung it to her children, but she knew that her grandmother had sung it and her mother had sung it.”
While she is well read in the canonical tradition of Anglo-American writing, having delighted particularly, at an early age, in Edgar Allan Poe, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and, later in college, William Shakespeare and John Milton, Leslie Marmon Silko brings to her own work the sensibility and many of the structures inherent in the Laguna oral tradition, creating, for example, a subtext of revisioned Laguna mythology to the more conventional aspects of her novel Ceremony. Although, in a manner similar to that of other American writers drawing upon an ethnic heritage, Silko chooses to place her work in the context of Laguna culture, her work appeals to diverse readers for its insights not only into the marginal status of many nonwhite Americans but also into the universal celebration of the reciprocity between land and culture.
Silko’s short fiction is “told” in the context of her personal experience in Laguna Pueblo and serves as a written extension, continuation, and revitalization of Laguna oral tradition. Blurring the genre of the short story with historical anecdotes, family history, letters, cultural legacies, photographs, and lyric and narrative poems, Storyteller includes most of Silko’s published short stories and poems. While the stories certainly stand on their own, and, indeed, many of them are included in various anthologies, Silko’s matrix of thick description, conveying the mood of events as well as describing them, testifies to the essential role of storytelling in Pueblo identity, giving the people access to the mythic and historic past and relating a continuing wisdom—about the land, its animals, its plants, and the human condition—as an integral part of the natural process. About her collection, Silko has said,I see Storyteller as a statement about storytelling and the relationship of the people, my family and my background to the storytelling—a personal statement done in the style of the storytelling tradition, i.e., using stories themselves to explain the dimensions of the process.
In unifying the past and the present to illuminate the kinship of land and people, Silko’s story “Lullaby,” a pastoral elegy, evokes both beauty and loss. Set north of the Laguna Reservation, the story traces the life of an old Navajo couple, Chato and Ayah, from whose point of view the story is told by an omniscient narrator. While Ayah sits in the snow, presiding over her husband’s death, she recalls various episodes in her own life just as if she were sharing in Chato’s last memories. She is wrapped in an old army blanket that was sent to her by her son Jimmie, who was killed while serving in the army. She recalls, however, her own mother’s beautifully woven rugs, themselves symbolic of stories, on the hand loom outside her childhood hogan. Again contrasting the past with the present, Ayah gazes at her black rubber overshoes and remembers the high buckskin leggings of her childhood as they hung, drying, from the ceiling beams of the family hogan.
What Ayah remembers seems better than what she has at present—and it was—but she does not escape into nostalgia for the old ways. Ayah remembers events and things as they were, for they have brought her to the present moment of her husband’s death. She remembers Jimmie’s birth and the day the army officials came to tell Chato of his death. She remembers how doctors from the Bureau of Indian Affairs came to take her children Danny and Ella to Colorado for the treatment of tuberculosis, which had killed her other children. Despite their good intentions, the white doctors frightened Ayah and her children into the hills after she had unknowingly signed over her custody of the children to them. When the doctors returned with reservation policemen, Chato let them take the children, leaving Ayah powerless in her protest that she wanted first to try the medicine men. Chato had taught her to sign her name, but he had not taught her English. She remembers the months of refuge in her hatred of Chato for teaching her to sign her name (and thus to sign away her children) and how she fled to the same hill where she had earlier fled with her children. She remembers, too, Chato’s pride during his years as a cattle hand and how, after he broke his leg in a fall from a horse, the white rancher fired him and evicted them from the gray boxcar shack that he had provided for the couple.
As Ayah recalls these losses, she also recalls the peacefulness of her own mother, as if she were rejoining her mother, in contrast to the alienation of her own children from her after they had been away from home and learned to speak English, forgetting their native Navajo and regarding their mother as strangely backward in her ways. Now, with Chato reduced to alcoholism, senility, and incontinence, the old couple lives in the hogan of Ayah’s childhood, and her routine is interrupted only by her treks to Azzie’s bar to retrieve her husband. Ayah now sleeps with Chato, as she had not since the loss of Danny and Ella, because only her body will keep him warm. Fused with the heat of her body is the heat of her memory, as Ayah recalls how the elders warned against learning English: It would endanger them.
Ayah’s recollection is presumably in Navajo (though Silko writes in English): The language is the story of her life and her relationship with the land on which she lived it. Place dominates her values; an arroyo and a cow path evoke precise memories, yet the evocation of her life culminates in her decision to allow Chato to freeze to death rather than see him suffer through the last days of his degradation. She wraps him in Jimmie’s blanket and sings a lullaby to him which her grandmother and her mother had sung before her:
The earth is your mother,she holds you.The sky is your father,he protects you.SleepWe are together alwaysThere never was a timewhen thiswas not so.
Ayah’s closing song in the story joins birth with death, land with life, and past with present. Through her story, Ayah creates an event that supersedes the oppression of the white rancher, the stares of patrons at the Mexican bar, the rejection of her acculturated children, and the apparent diminution of traditional ways: The story continues the timeless necessity of the people to join their land with the sacredness of their language.
In the title story of her collection Storyteller, an arctic allegory set in Alaska, Silko focuses even more emphatically on the power of the story to create and to sustain the life of a people. By shifting from Laguna characters to Navajo characters and, finally, by using an Eskimo context, Silko stresses the universality of storytelling among peoples who codify the world through an oral tradition. “Storyteller” seeks to explore the ramifications of divergent ways of seeing the world (or hearing it), and, at the same time, the story models the process of the oral...
(The entire section is 3000 words.)