Summary of the Story
The book is not divided into chapters. It tries to give the experience of the Native American worldview by flowing in various segments, forward, and backward in time, in Tayo's life, and also switches suddenly to the mythic reality the tribe lives in outside the modern world. Blank spaces divide one segment from another, signaling a scene or mood change. The plot is not linear. It is circular, like the pattern of native life. Tayo does not have to go forward in his healing. He has to find the circle, the center, from which he came. The narrator is third person limited when it tells of Tayo's modern life but switches to a mythic impersonal tone when he is in ceremonial time experiencing the healing of contact with the primal powers.
Summary of pages 5-54
Tayo is a Native American half-breed from the Laguna Pueblo people in New Mexico. He returns home after World War II to the reservation where he suffers from what was then called battle fatigue and what is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome. He has been in a Veteran's hospital in Los Angeles being treated for mental illness by psychiatrists. They finally give up and send him home to his people, unable to find a cure for his distress. He suffers from anxiety, flashbacks, guilt, grief, and is unable to function normally. He cannot sleep, has nightmares, and cannot stop from vomiting and crying.
In this part we get flashbacks of the war from Tayo's point of view in which he fought the Japanese in the Philippines in the American armed forces, along with his cousin Rocky. His greatest trauma is the day Rocky died when he was carried in a blanket as a wounded soldier on a forced march to a Japanese prison camp. Tayo and an American corporal carried the blanket in pouring rain through the jungle. Tayo knows if they cannot carry Rocky, he will be shot or left to die. Rocky dies, and Tayo lives, a fact he feels guilty about, because Rocky was the favorite at home, the one with the promised future of a college football career. Tayo is the outcast at home. He was raised by Auntie and Robert, his aunt and uncle, Rocky's parents. Auntie resents him because he is her sister's illegitimate half-breed son, dumped on her to raise by an alcoholic prostitute sister, of whom she is ashamed. She punishes Tayo his whole life for bringing disgrace to the family.
Tayo also feels guilt about his Uncle Josiah's death, who died while he was at war. He irrationally ties Josiah's death to the incident in which he was supposed to shoot Japanese prisoners at short range. The face of one of them became his Uncle Josiah in his mind, and he feels he was the one who killed Josiah, though he was thousands of miles away. These hallucinations torture him.
At home, the Laguna people do not know what to do with him or the other wild young men who return from the war only to become drunkards and create scenes of violence because they do not have jobs. Tayo sometimes goes to the bar with them to get drunk, but he does not like to be with these other men who were his friends growing up, such as Harley, Leroy Valdez, and Emo. Emo has become cruel and violent. He does not like it when Tayo points out how they were the victims of the white war; the other veterans feel powerful when they tell their war stories, as if they belong in the white world. Emo likes to torment others, especially Tayo for telling the truth. Emo and Tayo are enemies. Once Tayo almost killed Emo in a bar brawl and they sent him back to the hospital.
Commentary on pages 5-54
Even in his state of distress, it is clear that Tayo is a sensitive and special person, though he is not perceived that way at home by his Indian family and friends. He believes he was not brave in war the way his cousin Rocky was. He thinks he was weak because he could not kill. He had a hard time seeing that the Japanese were the enemy. When ordered to shoot them, he sees his Uncle Josiah's face instead. At home, a Japanese family in Los Angeles helps him get on the train when he is sick, and he is confused, because they are kind to him. He does not like being trouble to others, and is ready to ask to be sent back to the white hospital when he cannot get better.
Old Grandma, however, insists that they bring in the medicine man, Old Ku'oosh, realizing that white medicine cannot help Tayo's soul. The back story of the family history is important as it comes out slowly in Tayo's memory. He is a half-breed and is not really accepted by the other Indians, except for Uncle Josiah, who loved him when he was a child. He is racked with guilt, feeling he let his family down somehow, responsible for Josiah's death and the drought that the people face because during the war he prayed for the rain to stop in the Philippines. For the Pueblo people rain is the sacred source of life in their southwest desert land, and their constant prayer is for rain. Tayo feels he did something evil by praying for the rain to stop during the war, and now his people have drought at home.
Tayo the half-breed has more respect for the old Indian ways than Rocky, his full-blood cousin, who wants to be a success in the white world. Rocky kills a deer in the way of a white hunter and is embarrassed when Tayo and his family want to pay respect to the deer's carcass so the deer will not be offended. Little inserted poems throughout the text tell parts of Indian myth and lore that help explain the tension between white and Indian ways. The episode where Tayo almost kills Emo is a foreshadowing of their enmity that leads to the climax. Emo represents something ugly and distorted about Indian life to Tayo. The description of the desert and the reservation is beautiful in its poetry about the natural setting and precise in describing the poverty of the people.