Silko’s first novel, it provides an alternative approach to history. Unlike secular history, which takes an academic, scientific method approach, the kind of spiritual perspective of history which Silko utilizes instead requires initiation, is eschatological and millennial. Ceremony takes place after World War II in the Laguna Pueblo, in the shadow of Mount Taylor. Mount Taylor is significant to the tribe as it is the location of the emergence myths of many Southwest tribes, as it marks the spot where the first man and first woman emerged from previous worlds, and the access point for the next world. Further, it is also the site of a uranium mine, signifying another kind of emergence place, as uranium represents a very real apocalyptic threat as well.
The main character, Tayo, a veteran of mixed ancestry returning from fighting against Japan in World War II. Returning to the poverty-stricken reservation at Laguna after a stint at the Los Angeles VA hospital, Tayo is recovering from battle fatigue, and is haunted by memories of his cousin, who died in the conflict when the two soldiers were forced to take part in the Bataan Death March of 1942. Seeking an escape from his pain, Tayo initially takes refuge in alcoholism. Gradually, helped by the mixed-blood shaman Betonie, he comes to a greater understanding of the world and his own place within it.
Ceremony has been called a Grail fiction, in that the hero overcomes a series of challenges to reach a specified goal; but this point of view has been criticized as Eurocentric, since it involves a Native American contextualizing backdrop, and not one based on European-American myths. It dramatizes the conflicts felt by many Native Americans, especially those returning from war: what to do when traditional healing is not strong enough medicine to heal wounds caused by modern technology? Is it possible for shamanistic traditions to change enough to address modern problems? The novel itself is a form of modern medicine, as the novel not only tells the story of trauma, but in the fragmented, multi-model narrative style (which includes multiple points of view, poems, prayers, and mythic stories), it is able to not only convey the character’s traumatic experience but involve the reader more directly than a straight ahead narrative would. In fact, by opening with an invocation and utilizing these different modes of narration, the novel itself invokes a sort of ceremony, which involves the reader in the very sort of “new medicine” it references.