A series of three poems open Ceremony. The first poem tells of Ts'its'tsi'nako, thought-woman, the spider, who created the world with her sisters by thinking and naming things. The poem ends with the lines:
"I'm telling you the story she is thinking."
The second poem is entitled "Ceremony" and focuses on the power of stories, which contain, among other things, rituals and ceremony. The third poem, "What she said" simply reads:
"The only cure I know is a good ceremony, that's what she said."
The poems are followed by a blank page with the word "sunrise," after which the narrative begins.
Tayo tosses and turns, slipping between dreams of his home where Laguna and Mexican Spanish are spoken and dreams of his time during World War II in the Philippines, where he is surrounded by the sounds of Japanese. Waking, Tayo thinks about how confused his memories and dreams are. The only way for him to relax is to hold an image of a deer in his mind, but his mind quickly wanders to the Philippines, where in the humid climate, he thought he saw his uncle Josiah among a group of Japanese soldiers he was ordered to shoot. Even when his cousin Rocky turned over the dead bodies of the Japanese soldiers and reasoned the impossibility of the image with him, Tayo was sure his uncle was among the dead.
Tayo gets up and milks his goats. He sits in his kitchen, missing Josiah. There is a severe drought, similar to the one after World War I, in the 1920s. During the last drought, Tayo was a young boy and helped his uncle to carry water for the animals. Now he has few animals and no family. Tayo was gone for six years. He remembers the rain of the jungle in the Philippines. He and a corporal carried Rocky, with a gangrene-infested wound, on a sheet until anenormous flood tore the sheet from their hands and nearly killed them. Then, Tayo prayed against the rain, with a poem about drought. Tayo believes that the six years of drought are the result of his prayer to stop the rain.
In the Veterans' Hospital in Los Angeles where he went after the war, Tayo felt like white smoke: invisible, unconscious, unable to communicate. At first, Tayo can only speak of himself in the third person. He cries so much he makes himself vomit, but he slowly gets well enough to be released from the hospital. At the Los Angeles train depot, Tayo collapses. Awakening to the sounds and sights of a Japanese family, he thinks he is back in the Philippines. A depot man helps him up, explaining that Japanese-Americans are no longer held in internment camps. Tayo vomits again.
On the reservation, Tayo remembers his childhood with Rocky. He thinks about the Indian stories from his childhood which, despite his teachers having told him they were nonsense, he still believes.
Tayo's friend Harley stops by on an old ornery burro (mule) to visit. Harley was also a soldier, at Wake Island, and came back with a Purple Heart. The only change Tayo notices in Harley is his increased drinking. But then Harley alludes to an incident shortly after he returned from the war, and Tayo wonders how unchanged Harley really is. Harley went to help his family move their sheep to the Monta-o, which was less affected by the drought than the surrounding areas. Without any warning, Harley left the sheep, the dog, and his horse. He ended up in jail and half of the animals had been killed. As Tayo listens to Harley laugh about the incident, he realizes that Harley feels nothing. Tayo had his own problems, including a fight in a bar where he almost killed another old friend, Emo. Now both Tayo and Harley have been left in the desert to watch over the deserted ranches while their families care for the livestock in greener pastures. Tayo is happy to be alone; not Harley. Still, Tayo is easily convinced to join Harley on the long ride to the reservation line and the bars. As they ride, Tayo thinks about how his grandmother and Auntie talk about Rocky so much that Tayo feels Rocky was the one who survived the war, while he died, only his body has yet to be buried. Tayo starts to cry, and he feel himself back in the Philippines as he looses consciousness to sunstroke. Harley gets Tayo into the shade to rest.
Ceremony is not divided into chapters; there are fifty-three long indents at the beginnings of paragraphs which indicate a separation into sections, but these sections are not numbered. Poems are interspersed throughout the novel at irregular intervals. The lack of easily identifiable section divisions in the story is a physical, formal (in form) reflection of the themes of interconnection between all things, repetition, and of the unclear lines between dream, myth, memory, and reality. As Silko refuses to conform to the standard presentation of a novel, in chapter form, she refuses to make her story conform exactly to traditional American standards. Similarly, as she seamlessly combines prose and poetry, she ignores standard generic (of genre) divisions. Ceremony is not only a story about Native Americans, it is a Native American story.
The poetic sections of the novel tell traditional Native American stories. The poetic form suggests that they are sung or chanted. These are part poem, part story, and part prayer. The narrator and speaker in these poems shifts between a first person singular and a third person, but these are the stories of the collective. There is not one narrator or one speaker who sings them. While they are clearly set apart from the prose narrative by the shift in form, the poems reflect the events of the rest of the story. In fact, they tell the same story, with different characters, as old Grandma remarks at the end of the novel. The poems also tell of the traditional Native American ceremonies, while the prose narrative must create a new ceremony. As the poems and the prose are woven together, so are the old and new ceremonies. In addition, the entire novel is framed by a poem, which begins with the single word, "sunrise" and continues on the very last page. In this way, the whole story is contained within a poem, so that the prose narrative as well as the poems, are part of a traditional Native American prayer, poem, or story. The poem "Ceremony" thematizes this idea. It also demonstrates the repetitive and interlocking nature of the novel. With the same title as the book, "Ceremony" is a poem within a story, whose subject is stories within poems. The two opening poems also comment on the power of stories to create and to change the world. Ceremony is not just a story about ceremonies, it is a ceremony itself.
As a result of the trauma of fighting in World War II, Tayo's dreams are haunted, and he is troubled by an inability to separate memories from dreams from reality. He is caught in a past moment that keeps on taking over both his sleep and his waking hours. Much of Tayo's distress comes from his confusion of his uncle Josiah with the Japanese soldiers he was killing. This confusion results in part from the similar physical characteristics of Native Americans and Japanese. The physical similarity is most likely due to a common ancestry. Tayo's recognition of this similarity demonstrates not a realization of ancient migratory patterns, but of the interconnectedness of all people. However, he cannot identify it as such. Tayo only feels that he is terribly confused, and must be partially crazy. This feeling has been reinforced by his time spent at a Veteran's Hospital. Although he left the hospital with a stronger awareness of himself and a greater desire to live than he had at the very ending of the war, Tayo's encounter with Harley shows that all of the native Americans who fought in World War II were traumatized in a way that has not been addressed. The men self-medicate with alcohol, which dulls their senses, but also unleashes the sadness, fear, and anger which they still carry.