The novel begins with three poems. The first introduces Ts’its’tsi’nako, the Thought-Woman, who is thinking up this entire story. The second poem, titled Ceremony, explains that stories are the only thing humans have to fight off illness and death, and stand up to evil. Stories grow in man’s belly and offer life, rituals, and ceremonies to humankind. Ceremonies are the only cure. The third poem is a blank page that says only, “sunrise.”
These poems fall into the oral storytelling tradition of the Pueblo people and many other Native American tribes. They introduce the importance of stories in the lives of Native people. Further, by placing within the human body (in the stomach), this beginning underscores how important stories are to physical well-being. The story officially starts with the word sunrise, an important ritual among the Pueblo people as sunrise is the time when the spiritual Dawn people come into contact with this world.
The narrative of the story begins with Tayo, as he sleeps fitfully in his sparse bedroom. Tayo dreams in a mix of English and Spanish, as well as Japanese and Laguna. He has nightmares of being in the humid, Philippine jungle during World War II and all the dead men he saw during the war. Tayo tries to calm himself by thinking of a deer, but he is distracted by a memory of seeing his Uncle Josiah among Japanese soldiers who have been executed. Tayo’s cousin Rocky tried to reason with Tayo that Uncle Josiah couldn’t possibly be in the Philippines, but Tayo is unable to ignore his emotions through logic.
The mix of languages in Tayo’s dreams mirrors the mix of cultures that Tayo has come into contact with, and the mix that must learn to coexist in the American southwest. While Tayo’s vision of Josiah is a sign of his guilt at leaving his uncle without help when Tayo enlisted for the war, it can also be seen as suggesting the broader interconnected world: Tayo’s experiences in the war still affects his own mental health, but Tayo’s actions in the war also had a deep impact on his entire hometown.
Tayo wakes up and goes outside. He sees the ranch animals, a cat and goats, peacefully going about their morning. Tayo tries to make breakfast, but is distracted by memories of his Uncle Josiah living in this house. The ranch is experiencing another drought, and the land is dryer than Tayo has ever seen it. Tayo has heard that it has been dry and windy for the past six years while he was at war, and he watches anxiously for storm clouds coming from the southwest.
The drought is the ultimate sign that the world is out of balance and unhealthy. The fact that the drought corresponds with Tayo’s years at war suggests that the action of going to war – and the very war itself – had a part in causing the drought in the first place. Yet though the war is over, the drought continues – a sign that the world remains out of balance after the war and requires active human intervention to be brought back to equilibrium.
Tayo remembers the jungle, where he could never escape rain. He blamed the rain for Rocky’s infected injuries, though he knows that Rocky was really hurt by a Japanese grenade. While Tayo and the army corporal carry Rocky on a blanket, Tayo prays for the rain to stop. When the corporal slips in the mud and drops Rocky, Tayo urgently damns the rain with a song.
Tayo blames a natural phenomenon – rain – for a death that was caused by human weapons. Tayo clearly thinks that his prayer to the rain led to the drought in his home – and the novel doesn’t really question that belief. The suggestion of the novel is that Tayo is out of balance with the world, that all humans are out of balance with the world, and that the world (symbolized by its overabundance of or lack of rain) is in turn out of balance itself. Health – the novel implies over and over – is not an overabundance of anything, but a balance.
Tayo’s song describes two sisters: Reed Woman and Corn Woman. Corn Woman does all the work in the fields while Reed Woman takes baths all day. Corn Woman gets angry and scolds Reed Woman, until Reed Woman goes back to their original world and takes the rain with her, causing a massive drought.
The mythical figures of Corn Woman and Reed Woman stand in for natural processes in the land, as the Pueblo philosophy honors nature by giving it sentience. Stories like this make nature into a sentient being that humans can relate to and more importantly have relationships with. That Tayo’s song of these sisters leads to a real drought in the novel also establishes the power of stories and songs within the novel and the way that the spiritual and “real” world are connected, and also begins to connect Tayo’s own story to the traditional Pueblo stories.
Tayo blames his song in the Philippines for causing the drought at the ranch in New Mexico. He looks mournfully at the yellow grass and his gray mule looking desperately for food. The mule’s white snout reminds Tayo of when he was “white smoke” in the veteran’s hospital in Los Angeles after the war.
The connections that tie together the whole world are strong enough that Tayo’s song in the jungle can have vast effects in his homeland of New Mexico. Calling himself “white” smoke associates whiteness with illness. Throughout the novel, pure white connotes death and destruction, flipping the assumed symbolism of white for good and black for evil – and establishing the foundation of the novel’s later contention that much of the evil in the world is a function of “white culture.”
Tayo felt invisible in the veteran’s hospital, and unable to interact with people through the fog that constantly surrounded him. He is unable to eat without throwing up and the entire world seems white to him. The doctors tell Tayo they are sending him home so that Tayo can return to his old life. Tayo cries.
Tayo’s experiences in the war leave him unable to participate in the world, one of the worst outcomes for a Pueblo Native American whose spirituality depends on being in harmony with the environment and other people. The feeling is again described as white, tying whiteness to isolation. Tayo’s illness is tied to his stomach, showing that part of his disease is a lack of connection to the old stories that are traditionally kept in the belly.
Tayo takes his luggage to the LA train station, trying to get used to life outside of the fog. Tayo is wary of a Japanese family that waits for a train beside him, and faints on the concrete. The Japanese family calls one of the train attendants to help Tayo. Tayo tells the train attendant that he does not need to go back to the Veteran’s Hospital, then asks why the Japanese people are not locked up. The train attendant says that the Japanese have been released now that the war is over, then walks away. Tayo, thinking of the smiling face of the Japanese boy from the family and of Rocky’s smile, throws up into a trash can.
Though the Japanese family only wants to help Tayo, the war has caused Tayo to put up barriers between himself and other cultures. This hostile “us vs. them” mentality is at odds with Tayo’s Pueblo spirituality, which causes Tayo to be physically ill once again. The Japanese boy, someone Tayo wants to hate, and Rocky, someone Tayo clearly care for deeply, are actually more similar than they are different, showing the connections that span all humanity.
Returning to Tayo’s present in the ranch house, Tayo sits on his bed watching the sunlight crawl across the walls. He thinks about the time he and Rocky climbed Bone Mesa, and how he used to believe that humans could touch the sky – indeed transcend any barriers – if they knew the right stories. After Indian school and Uncle Josiah’s death in the Philippines, Tayo no longer believes in the power of the stories.
Tayo’s memory hinges on two important concepts: stories and barriers. Stories have the power to let humans do things they otherwise could not, like touch the sky. Tayo used to believe that crossing barriers was a good thing, given his excitement to touch the sky. Yet now, just as Tayo does not believe in the power of stories, he also builds barriers between himself and other people by living in isolation.
Tayo goes outside and sits under an elm tree. Tayo’s friend Harley rides up on a black burro, making slow progress as the burro resists Harley’s direction. Harley jokes with Tayo about the burro’s disobedience, as Harley always finds the humor in every situation. Harley asks if Tayo has any beer. Tayo replies that he does not, remembering the first time he, Rocky, and Harley tried beer. Harley used to think beer tasted like poison, but now Harley pursues beer non-stop.
Harley cannot control his burro, showing how Harley is rarely in control of anything in his life. It seems as though Harley simply drifts to where he will find his next beer, as the novel implicitly shows him to be an alcoholic. While Harley plays this addiction for laughs, Tayo’s memory shows the insidious nature of beer – it truly is the poison that Harley originally thought it was.
Tayo is content to sit with Harley in silence, but Harley is restless. Harley jokes about how they have it easy now that they are “war heroes” and don’t have to help with the sheep herding. Tayo laughs, but remembers how Harley was so distracted by chasing his next beer that he recently let 30 sheep be killed by wild animals.
Harley is a veteran like Tayo, but he does not seem to suffer from the same post-war illness. Yet Harley’s addiction to alcohol is actually far more destructive than Tayo’s sickness. Being unable to sit in silence or care for sheep because he is so intent on alcohol, Harley is not at peace with the world and nature, and has given up on caring.
Since the incident with the sheep, Harley’s family tries to keep him away from bars and beer. Yet Harley always finds a way to get his next drink. Harley convinces Tayo to go with him and ride the burro “up the line,” that is to the string of bars along route 66. Tayo puts a gunny sack on the gray mule as a saddle and ties the mule’s lead rope to the burro’s reins. Tayo mounts the mule, feeling like a little kid again and remembering how Uncle Josiah taught him to ride a horse.
Harley will do seemingly anything to get to a bar, not even caring for his own comfort or dignity by riding a bony burro or mule. Though Tayo is not an alcoholic, he is easily swayed into Harley’s quest for a drink. Tayo’s memory of Uncle Josiah suggests both the fluid nature of time in the novel, as past and present blur together, and that Tayo has reverted to childhood. As when he first learned from his Uncle Josiah, Tayo must learn once again how to be a man after he has been destroyed by the war.
Tayo and Harley set off for the closest bar, as the wind blows constantly. The burro tries to drift off to the side of the road to graze, stubbornly resisting Harley’s half-hearted attempts to keep it on course. The burro reminds Tayo of his grandmother. Old Grandma stubbornly holds on to Rocky’s memory, telling everyone how Rocky promised to buy her a kerosene stove with his army pay. After Rocky died, Auntie bought Grandmother a stove with some of Rocky’s insurance money.
Instead of working with the burro’s natural instincts, Harley fights against them. As Harley mostly fails, it seems as though nature is still stronger than human desires. It is humans who must adapt to living in harmony with nature. Old Grandma turns Rocky into a story. Auntie focuses on the material object that Old Grandma wanted, ignoring the fact that buying the stove will not actually solve Old Grandma’s stubborn desire to keep Rocky’s memory alive through story.
Auntie and Old Grandma still talk about Rocky and his plans to go to college and play football, so much so that Tayo feels as if Rocky is still alive and Tayo himself was the one who died in the war. Thinking of Rocky makes Tayo start to cry and he falls off the gray mule. Harley helps Tayo up and pretends that Tayo is just suffering from sunstroke. Tayo blames his fall on the wind, then turns to the side and vomits.
Auntie and Old Grandma keep Rocky alive by speaking about him, showing the power of oral storytelling in this novel, Rocky practically becomes a legendary figure in Tayo’s eyes. The boundary lines between Rocky and Tayo, and death and life, are also blurred as Tayo feels as if he is the dead one. This feeling is worse than actually being dead, and Tayo’s stomach troubles continue to show that he is out of balance with the world and his native legacy.