I’ve been very slowly listening to the audiobook of Leslie Marmon Silko’s The Turquoise Ledge. I read her novel Ceremony in an American literature course back in college, and her depictions of the horrors of the World War II Pacific theater (specifically the Bataan Death March) as well as native Pueblo culture and mythology were fascinating and eye-opening to me. I’ve been meaning to return to her work for a long time now.
Turquoise Ledge is a memoir, and especially compared to Ceremony, it is a remarkably gentle book. Pages upon pages simply describe Silko’s walks in the arroyos in the Sonoran Desert near her house in Arizona, where she collects pieces of turquoise of all shapes and sizes. She details the types of flowers and cacti in her garden, when in the day she goes out to water her plants and animals (she keeps a large menagerie of dogs and macaws), what time of year the wild bees and hummingbirds pass by her house, and under which outbuildings and geological features various rattlesnakes and racers live. Interspersed are stories of her native and Mexican family history, native mythology related to the local animals and weather patterns, and explorations of the portraits she’s painting of cloud patterns and star beings.
Both as an editor and as a writer, I’ve lately been immersed in the stricter forms of genre fiction and prescriptive nonfiction. When I’m editing nonfiction, I’m often working with authors to organize their chapters so they don’t repeat content and instead build a logical progression from topic to topic. Or in editing my own manuscripts, I’m trying to make my dialogue and action snappy and fast-paced to keep readers turning pages.
So at first, the rhythm Silko sustains throughout Turquoise Ledge felt jarring to me. It took me a bit to settle into the narrative and trust the seeming repetitions and the way that Silko returns over and over to different threads, such as her walks in the arroyos or her dogs’ fraught relationships with the rattlesnakes that live on her property. But once I got over my expectations of what a book “should” be like, I found the narrative engrossing and even hypnotic in places.
The eclecticism of Silko’s book was also part of what made it engrossing for me. Silko’s life is not simply different from mine in one or two ways but in pretty much every way. Even simple things like the climate she lives in and its flora and fauna are vastly different from mine (in the northern Midwest), to say nothing of the mythological stories her aunts told her when she was growing up or her experiences of communicating with cloud and star spirits. Several of the chapters end with lists of words and phrases in Nahuatl (Aztec) related to the topic at hand, and these sit side by side with chapters about her favorite Emily Dickinson poems or long tirades against her neighbor who is pillaging natural resources from the nearby national park.
It isn’t surprising, I suppose, since Turquoise Ledge is a memoir after all, but the unassuming intimacy of Silko inviting readers into her daily patterns, concerns, history, and artistic practices ultimately comes across as very generous of her and a quiet joy for the reader.