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Literature / Laughing Boy

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Laughing Boy is a 1930 novel by Oliver La Farge.

It is set among the Navajo people of the American southwest, circa 1915. Laughing Boy is a young Navajo man who grew up in an era where it was still possible for a Navajo to live with little contact of white folks. At a dance, he meets an enchanting young woman named Slim Girl. Laughing Boy is enchanted with her. Soon they are married, despite the opposition of his family, who point out that she was educated by "Americans" (white people) and that she does "the worst thing" for them (that is, she's a prostitute).

Slim Girl, as it turns out, was in fact taken away from her home and educated in white schools, and for a time she was a prostitute. Largely because of all that she is determined to get away from white people and live as a true Navajo once again. She views Laughing Boy as a way for her to get back to her roots and her people—but she's keeping a big secret.


Oliver La Farge was an anthropologist who studied the Navajo for years and had a working knowledge of the Navajo language.


  • Anticlimax: How the plot thread about Slim Girl's adultery ends. Laughing Boy catches her with her white lover. The white man runs off, but not before Laughing Boy shoots him in the arm with an arrow. Slim Girl asks Laughing Boy for forgiveness, explaining that she was bleeding the white man for money as a way to punish all white people...and he forgives her, and that's it.
  • Catapult Nightmare: "With a desperate effort he woke, sitting up, gasping with relief." That's how Laughing Boy wakes up after a nightmare in which the Navajo gods are coming to kill him.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Red Man, another Navajo who is present in the early parts of the novel as a rival to Laughing Boy, who tells Laughing Boy's family of his marriage to Slim Girl. After that he disappears from the narrative until the end, when he sees Laughing Boy and Slim Girl together, and in a fit of rage kills her.
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  • Convenient Miscarriage: Slim Girl is glad when, after she was knocked up by a white man who abandoned her, the child was born dead.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Laughing Boy catches Slim Girl cheating on him. She explains her long difficult history with white people, she asks his forgiveness, and he gives it to her. The two of them are seemingly past their issues and ready to face life together. Then out of nowhere Red Man, a rival for Slim Girl's favors who had disappeared from the novel after the first few chapters, pops up again. He sees Laughing Boy and Slim Girl together, and, on that same page just a few paragraphs down, fires at them with his rifle. Slim Girl is shot and killed.
  • A Dog Named "Dog": Laughing Boy has a friend, who is the son of Jesting Squaw. His friend's name is Jesting Squaw's Son.
  • Entitled to Have You: Why Red Man murders Slim Girl. He thinks "I took care of her. I ran her errands....I knew she was bad with Americans, but she would never do it with me."
  • Hair of the Dog: Slim Girl introduces Laughing Boy to whiskey as a means of controlling him. She specifically instructs him that he may wake up feeling bad after drinking, and if he does, he should drink some more.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: Laughing Boy, who holds Americans in contempt, enjoys teaching white tourists to address people in Navajo as "brother-in-law". It's an insult.
  • Karma Houdini: Red Man murders Slim Girl and gets away with it. A dying Slim Girl makes Laughing Boy promise not to take vengeance, and there's no suggestion of Laughing Boy going to the white police.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: The Central Theme is that Slim Girl's efforts to once again live as a Navajo are doomed, that she was ruined by being educated by white people and will never fit in. At one point Slim Girl remembers the cities of California and ponders how she can't really like the arid landscapes of Navajo country. As she's dying, Slim Girl says "The Americans spoiled me for a Navajo life, but I shall die a Navajo now."
  • You No Take Candle:
    • How Slim Girl's English is represented when she's talking to her white lover. ("My husban', he make trouble, dat one.")
    • This is reversed from how the dynamic usually goes, when Laughing Boy stops at a trading post owned by a white man, and is amused at the white man's "baby talk" Navajo language skills.