Author Archives: Madison Van Edwards

Pueblo Laguna Stories

Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller

To label the book Storyteller “fiction” would be wrong, but it would also be wrong to call it nonfiction, poetry, essays, memoir, or history. There is a collective truth to these terms in that there is a little bit of each in the Pueblo Laguna author’s book which combines the hummah-hah oral stories her Aunt Susie passed down to her with photographs of the important storytellers in her life from her childhood, historical context, Silko’s own fiction and poetry both fiction and nonfiction. In refusing to be labeled as any one literary form, the book comments on questions of identity and belonging. Storyteller also brings up questions about why we as humans write, read, and tell stories at all, ultimately deciding that we communicate by story for survival. The Pueblo Laguna people believe that telling stories is how elders share their practical wisdom in memorable ways with the younger generation.


The book’s incredible continuity preserves the literary language used by her familial influences on her storytelling to reinterpret old myths into a contemporary setting and tackle a more modern survival, as in the short story “Yellow Woman.” This one was told to her by her grandfather, and while maintaining the distinctive poetic diction of his version, Silko creates her own take on the myth where the fantastical being from the old way of life encounters a modern woman who knows the story and refuses to acknowledge that she is a part of it. In the old story, the woman is kidnapped by a mysterious creature and never seen again, but Silko’s Yellow Woman is a reluctant protagonist who goes with the creature willingly to get away from her unsatisfying marital life, eventually returning from the mountain adventure claiming she was kidnapped as an excuse for her disappearance.


The book is a great source for the recent history of the Pueblo Laguna people, splicing the memoir with historical context which explains why she was forbidden from learning the Laguna language. Silko remembers when children like herself were discriminated against for relating to their cultural identity, and so in order to keep her safe, Silko’s family would not teach her their language. The nonfiction memoir and history blends together to further mirror the stories of old by fusing narrative with educational survival guides.


Silko’s own fiction prose and poetry is featured in the book next to the traditional stories, with no distinction as to which is which. Her poetry and prose comments on sexuality, abortion and spirituality with the same grace as the wise tellers who taught Silko the stories about talking animals and gods. The idea behind the Pueblo Laguna storytelling is a versatility that each teller brings, changing the details slightly but always remembering exactly how the original goes, and Silko’s work meshes alongside those stories in total harmony.
Storyteller might defy literary form but ultimately it serves as an archive and tribute to her culture, her people’s history, family history and personal experiences.

Revived 18th Century Epistolary Novel

Hannah W. Foster’s The Coquette.

This epistolary novel anonymously published in 1797 and claimed later is based on a the factual death of Elizabeth Whitman which was sensationalized as a cautionary tale about the fatal consequences for women who have premarital sex.The real life person died in a tavern while giving birth to a stillborn, and was used as an example of what happens to women who do not behave. Hannah W. Foster introduces the novel as “founded in fact”  in this fictionalized account with several overlapping truths.

In the novel, Eliza Whitman becomes Eliza Wharton, the recently almost-widowed daughter of a priest, grieving her late fiance and regaining what freedoms she enjoyed before their engagement. Her musings on marriage as capture, on identity, and female friendship have given way for contemporary critics to interpret the recently revived novel as feminist text. The novel makes some serious claims about the danger of societal gender roles for men and women through the letters narrated by multiple men and women. The book contains many of the same scenes told through the eyes of different people including the Eliza’s villainous suitors, allowing readers to understand the real danger to Eliza’s well being was not one she ever had control over.

The letters also function to humanize Eliza as a fully feeling and complicated human being with motives and a conscience, not the immoral sinner the newspapers made her out to be after her death. This story represents factual fiction because it stays so close to the events and personalities of Elizabeth Whitman’s history. The fictionalized aspects come from the added characters and their accounts of interacting with Eliza, moving the plot along, and filling in the spaces between the key events leading to Eliza’s downfall. There is also an added pressure of the mother character representing the old widow Eliza could become, and the younger friends who do not understand her resistance to marriage.

In reading historical literature we do have to remember that it is only fiction, not hard evidence of the lifestyle from the time and region, yet The Coquette brings an indisputable authenticity to letters that it reads as a nonfiction account. However, the pacing of the book suffers at the hands of accuracy. The book spans a little over a year and includes the full length of Eliza’s pregnancy, during which not much happens.

Often when reading, there is little to no opportunity to ever truly determine authorial intent behind a piece, but the anonymous nature of the text and the revealing introduction gives some insight as to why the author chose to write the novel. There is such a noble intent by the author to make Whitman’s story heard fairly, and there seems to be a feminist solidarity in the act of writing and researching this novel. I found the criticisms of the novel to be more entertaining than the novel itself; it is quite dated and hard to get through, but the story and the history behind its conception is truly fascinating.