N. Scott Momaday's beautifully written memoir of childhood in Jemez Pueblo, NM is geographically as well as chronologically defined, incorporating "the empty spaces of time in the morning and afternoon," the wide blue New Mexico sky, and the undeveloped high desert into the narrative as Momaday searches the landscape of his memory for the key word or image, _the name_ for things, that will retrieve the entirety of his history. Retrieval of this complex history, of emotion and memory, "the vibrant ecstasy of so much being," is almost possible. "Again and again, I have come to that awful edge, that one word, perhaps, that I cannot bring from my mouth."
_The Names_ is moving in its description of the ceremonies of Jemez Pueblo and the stories of Momaday's family. The author writes sometimes in a child's voice and sometimes in his grandfather's or the voices of others around him. It is clearly a child's story, saturated with a child's sense of wonder. But Momaday also provides an account of the process of attempted recovery, the descent into storytelling: "The first word gives origin to the second, the first and second to the third, . . . and so on. You cannot begin with the second word and tell the story, for the telling of the story is a cumulative process, a chain of becoming, at last of being."
Momaday's exploration of language's structure and limitations makes much of the book beautiful to me, but gets weighted down in intellectualization from time to time. Scott Momaday is a scholar -- he went to Stanford -- and the analytical aspect of _The Names_ can be a bit dry at times. It is, on the whole though, a sensitive and moving exploration of a Native American childhood and one of my favorite male autobiographies.
That's how I think of this book - a photo album of old family photos with one long letter (or, perhaps it would be better described as a series of short notes written by someone trying to remember what they'd seen, heard, imagines, or discovered). It's a fun book to read straight through, or to flip around in, going back and forth through the photos and reading about the person whose face or photo catches your eye <g>. For info on articles & stuff written about this book visit: [...]