Laughing Boy

The Drink

Rum remains the drink to warm, cool or restore a man. But don’t refer to Bacardi as Rum in my presence–it ain’t.

DISSOLVE HALF A TEASPOONFUL OF SUGAR IN A DASH OF ANGOSTURA BITTERS, ADD 1 TEASPOONFUL OF SWEET VERMOUTH, ADD CHIPPED ICE. FILL OLD-FASHIONED GLASS TO THE BRIM WITH NEW ENGLAND RUM. GARNISH WITH LEMON PEEL AND SLICES OF ORANGE (IF YOU LIKE FRUIT SALAD)

-From So Red the Nose (Caps are from the original. Back then it was ok to shout your cocktails.)

LaughingBoyI think I’m going to have to to rank these cocktails by potency at the end of this project. I mean, is it ok to call this drink strong when I’ve said the same about almost all the others? As it is right now, I feel like I risk sounding like the girl-who-cried -wolf-and-can’t-hold-her-liquor. Let’s just say that this is the only drink so far that resulted in me binge eating cottage cheese and hate-watching the Left Behind movies.

Anyways, Laughing Boy is a milestone in this project because it was the first to require a specialty liquor, where “specialty” is defined by me not finding it in the grocery store. I don’t when you last perused the rums there, but you’ll notice that nowadays, big-box rums are all made in the Caribbean. However, once upon a time, New England had its own fine rum-making tradition, which for unknown (to me) reasons, was lost to history. Luckily (for me) it’s beginning to make a comeback, so thanks to my grandfather for hauling some Three Crow from Maine across the country for me.

Our author makes his own feelings clear about the difference between Caribbean and New England rum: “Never make this drink with Bacardi, because Bacardi isn’t rum, it’s sugar brandy.” And I can see where he’s coming from. Having mostly drunk Captain Morgan myself, this definitely comes off much stronger and drier– none of this girly “spiced” stuff. Which isn’t a bad thing, at all. As a rum girl myself, I found that New England rum still packed a very flavorful punch.

Although The Laughing Boy may be the biggest departure thematically from its namesake so far. Why represent a book set in the Southwest with a (then) New England staple? It doesn’t make any sense from a literary standpoint, but it’s kind of perfect for me: first-generation native of the Southwest, with an extended family of proud New Englanders. And author Oliver La Farge’s trajectory was similar — born in New York, but moving, well, pretty much everywhere south of it.

The Book

220px-LaughingBoy

This story is meant neither to instruct nor to prove a point, but to amuse. The hostility with which certain of the characters in it view Americans and the American system is theirs, arising from the plot. The picture is frankly one-sided. It is also entirely possible. –O. La F. New Orleans, 1920

-from the introduction to Laughing Boy

L0014328 Portrait of 'A medicine man, Navajo'One of my favorite parts of this project is the unique joy of picking up a book with zero expectations. Normally, I have dozens of influential voices when I chose a something to read: genre, cover art, reviews, author’s past work, who is recommending it, and why. With selections from So Red the Nose, all I know is the time period it was written in. Over the past three months I’ve delved into writing that was confusing, frustrating, hilarious, delightful, boring, and life-changing.

But with Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy, I did have one preconceived feeling — dread. I came to it knowing both the book’s subject matter (Navajos in 1915) and So Red the Nose’s terrible track record when it came to people of color. Add to that SRTN’s light-hearted synopsis of the book (Princess Giggle Water? Really??), and my hopes were not high. At best, it would be a bunch of barf-inducing noble savage stereotypes. At worst, well…

So imagine my shock when Laughing Boy turned out to be full of well-rounded characters, nuanced culture insight, and a sympathetic portrayal of the culture conflicts of the time period. And I had almost lost my faith in you, 1920s.

Zahadolzhá--NavahoLaughing Boy purports to be about the titular character, a young man who has lived his whole life on the reservation, but the real star of the story is Slim Girl, the woman he falls in love with. Slim Girl is… well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but let’s just say she has a dark past. This past has left her a bitter, angry, vengeful, and conniving woman, who you will be rooting for the whole way. No, really. Her past has left her emotionally damaged, but she struggles against her own darkness, trying to find peace and acceptance in two cultures that reject her. She is easily one of the strongest and most nuanced female character from SRTN so far, if not from my whole lifetime of reading.

She also gives one of the best descriptions of a codependent relationship as I have ever read: “unless she was the whole for him, she could not be sure of holding him.”

Culturally, this book most reminds me of Things Fall Apart. Both capture a tribal culture in a positive, but not romanticized way. Both meander from the plot to recreate tribal rituals, use folklore to reinforce themes, and attempt to stay faithful to native dialect. And both explore the consequences and misunderstandings that arise when this tribal culture clashes with a “civilized” one.

Now that's what I call perfect casting.

Now that’s what I call perfect casting.

If there’s one thing that maybe (maybe!) surprised me more than the appearance of a woman who subverts the madonna/whore trope, it was the unflinching and ruthless way La Farge depicts American/Native American relations during this time period, everything from the casually ignorant racism of a local goods trader to the brutal atrocities that were the Indian Schools. Of course, if I’d done my research, I would have realized this was because La Farge was a cross between Indiana Jones and Martin Luther King Jr.

Forgotten Classic or Better Left in the Past?

That’s two for two on Pulitzer Prize winners. Apparently these guys knew what they were doing.

Dyeing_wool_for_Navajo_Indian_rugs._Southern_Navajo_Agency,_1933_-_NARA_-_298600The only bummer about this book is that it wasn’t actually written by someone from inside the culture itself. Although, unlike Chinua Achebe, La Farge got to experience tribal life during the depicted time period firsthand, so that’s cool

Also, while I do enjoy literary midcentury Chicago and New York (and Chicago and New York and Chicago and New York ad infinitum), it was nice to get a really beautiful piece of literature from my side of the world for once. La Farge does a fantastic job capturing the wonder and solitude of the desert, and I enjoyed all the little cameos of places I know: the Grand “Cañon,” the petrified forest, Winslow, for some reason.

So yes, this book absolutely deserves its classic status, and I don’t think you’ll regret reading it. Just keep the tissues handy.

Laughing Boy is still widely available. Amazon has both paper and electronic editions. 

Next time: More fun than her and tastier than them, we begin a three-part series on that American classic: Applejack brandy!

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3 thoughts on “Laughing Boy

  1. Without the vermouth it is essentially a rum Old Fashioned. If you use granulated sugar rather than simple syrup I would muddle the sugar, bitters and vermouth together before adding the other ingredients to make sure everything properly dissolved…

  2. I’m in the middle of Laughing Boy right now, and I am thrilled to see there is a cocktail that I can make to celebrate finishing this book. Your blog is such a fun project, and I’m looking forward to following along for the rest of the books!

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