Ceremony, her first novel, is a very powerful book. After six years fighting in the Philippines and surviving the Bataan Death March as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, the young Native American Tayo returns to the States. Suffering from battle fatigue, he is initially sent to the mental ward of the veterans' hospital in California. He then moves to Laguna Pueblo, where he has been living with his aunt, who is the sister of the mother who has deserted him, and is the mother of his cousin and friend Rocky with whom he left to join the war, but who has not survived. Tayo lives with ghosts, and is still ill.
In war, he and his Native American friends experienced a slim but not insignificant (although sometimes morbidly ironic) kind of equality: although white people weren't cheering them as much as the uniform they wore, they nevertheless 'got the same medals for bravery, the same flag over the coffin'. But there is a return to alienation when the uniform has gone, and at stores Tayo has to wait to be served after the whites, and the 'white lady at the bus depot' is very careful to slide his change over the counter to avoid touching him.*
His friends attempt to medicate themselves with drink and degenerate into alcoholism and violence, but Tayo finds this unsatisfactory, and anyway he is still the victim of a double alienation: from both white and Native American society because he is of mixed blood.
His grandmother tries to get the medicine man Ku'oosh to cure him, but Ku'oosh is too steeped in Indian culture, and is unable to cure contemporary ills that have their roots in white society. So Tayo visits another medicine man – Betonie – who lives on the edge of another reservation, near the white town of Gallup, and who is familiar with both white and Native American cultures.
The ceremony now begins, and although there is no quick fix, what Betonie has taught him will lead him away from his false friends in the 'cold Coors hospital' identifying with the destruction that the whites have brought to Native American civilization. It will lead Tayo towards a greater understanding of his past, of what he is. Towards health.
Ceremony isn't structured in a linear fashion and passages from the past, in the manner of Tayo's thoughts, are juxtaposed to the present. Poems – stories of Native American culture – both frame the novel and punctuate it, serving as ceremonies, weapons against illness, death, evil: the wherewithal for life itself.
*cf. Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable.