I wish I had read this when it was assigned for a class almost 20 years ago. But then, again, I might not have understood it then.
Ceremony is the story of Tayo, a Laguna Pueblo man who has returned from service in WW2 with "battle fatigue," or what we would call today PTSD. He has survived the Bataan Death March, but carries even greater than normal survivor guilt because his cousin Rocky, whom he had promised to protect and bring home safely, did not survive.
After a stint in the military hospital in Los Angeles, Tayo returns to the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, where he spends some of his time with his Auntie (Rocky's mother and his own mother's sister), Old Grandma, Auntie's husband Robert, and an assortment of old buddies and fellow veterans. This latter group tends to do little other than get drunk and relive their glory days in the army. Neither family nor friends are helping Tayo recover.
He finally turns to traditional Pueblo medicine, which involves the creation of a ceremony specifically for him and his experience. It isn't easy, and it isn't instantaneous, but as he works through it, he learns to understand why, maybe, it is the only way for him to heal.
Silko's narrative is remarkably easy to read, and it's interspersed with her original poetry. But it's not a linear narrative. Scenes jump from present to past to past before that to future before the present and back again. There's mysticism in the poetry that infuses Tayo's beliefs, as well as showing up the contrast between those beliefs and Auntie's staunch Catholicism. All the conflicts are many-sided, and Tayo has to work through all of them.
This is not a pretty book. There's a lot of brutality in it, a lot of harshness. Not all the contradictions and paradoxes are neatly explained and resolved. For example, Tayo is half white, which Auntie considers a stain on the family's honor and reputation, because his mother had a child out of wedlock with a white man. Yet Auntie embraces the white man's religion and rejects the suggestions that Tayo seek help from the native medicine man, which she considers barbaric and primitive and uncivilized. She wants something that doesn't, and can't, exist.
These contrasts and paradoxes, of course, inform our current national situation as well, where the ironies have taken a profoundly tragic turn.
(Edited to correct some typos, and for clarity.)