For Further Study
In Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams (1990), Codi Noline, a young woman unsure of her purpose in life, returns to her hometown of Grace, Arizona, to teach high school and care for her father. As the novel unfolds, Codi gradually becomes aware of important political and environmental issues. She also learns that the detached and cynical individualism that has dominated her life is not the best recipe for happiness. Her exposure to Hispanic and Native American culture shows her the value of the communal way of living, which emphasizes deep and lasting ties to family and to the earth. Although her life is blighted by the tragic death of her sister, Hallie, Codi finally finds peace in the knowledge and acceptance of who she is and where she comes from.
Animal Dreams was Kingsolver's second novel. It won high praise for its convincing portrayal of the complex, interconnected web of human life and relationships, and how this web is shaped by time, memory, and culture. The wide scope of the novel, and the way it manages to weave environmental and political issues into the narrative without sounding preachy, was also praised.
The novel contains many of the elements that characterize Kingsolver's work as a whole: a setting in the American southwest, a female protagonist whose way of living is or becomes more cooperative than competitive (which is intended as a contrast between female and male attitudes); a concern for the environment; an admiration of Native American culture, and opposition to U.S. involvement in the politics of Central America.
Animal Dreams can be placed in the tradition of "eco-feminist" literature, which began in the 1980s and includes work by authors such as Ursula Le Guin, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Alice Walker.
Barbara Kingsolver was born on April 5, 1955, in Annapolis, Maryland, to Virginia and Wendell R. Kingsolver. Her father was a country physician, and Kingsolver grew up in rural Kentucky, where she became aware of the poverty that many people in the area had to endure. As a child, Kingsolver was a voracious reader and wanted to become a writer although she did not believe this to be a realistic goal.
Blessed with musical talent, Kingsolver won a scholarship to study instrumental music at DePauw University in Indiana. It was at DePauw that she became interested in the social and political issues that would later inform her writing. After changing her major from music to biology, which she considered to be a more practical subject for a future career, she graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in 1977. After graduation, she traveled and worked in Europe for two years before returning to the United States. She went to live in Tucson, Arizona, where she still lives today.
Kingsolver then enrolled in a doctoral program in evolutionary biology and ecology at the University of Arizona. She completed a master's degree in 1981, terminated her academic studies, and took a job as a technical writer for the Office of Arid Lands Studies at the University of Arizona.
Pleased with becoming a professional writer, Kingsolver took on some freelance writing work and at the same time began her own fiction and nonfiction. Much of her own writing concerned political causes (such as human rights in Central and Latin America) and environmental issues. Out of her work during this period came her book, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (1989), which was sympathetic to the miners' cause.
Kingsolver's first novel was The Bean Trees (1988), in which a young woman escapes her limited prospects in rural Kentucky by moving to Tucson, taking in refugees from Central America, and becoming socially and politically aware. Critical response to this autobiographical novel was highly favorable.
Over the next few years, Kingsolver established herself as an important writer in a variety of genres. Her short stories were published in Homeland and Other Stories (1989), and this was followed by another novel, Animal Dreams, in 1990. Kingsolver broke new ground again in 1991 when her first volume of poetry, Another America (Otra America), was published. The poems appeared with Spanish translations alongside them. The novel Pigs in Heaven (1993) was a sequel to The Bean Trees, and this was followed by High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never (1995). Her fourth novel, The Poisonwood Bible (1998), set in the Belgian Congo in 1959, was a national bestseller.
Kingsolver was married to Joseph Hoffmann, a chemist, from 1985 until 1992. They have one child, Camille. In 1995, Kingsolver married Stephen Hopp, an ornithologist and animal behaviorist, with whom she has another daughter, Lily.
In the first chapter of Animal Dreams, Dr. Homer Noline gazes on his two young daughters, Cosima and Halimeda, as they sleep curled up close together. It is early November, the Night of All Souls in the Christian liturgical calendar.
This chapter jumps forward in time and is narrated by Codi, the name by which Cosima is known. After a fourteen-year absence she is returning to her hometown of Grace, Arizona, to work as a schoolteacher and care for her sick father. Previously, she had been living with her boyfriend, Carlo, and her sister, Hallie, in Tucson, Arizona. Soon after Hallie left for wartorn Nicaragua to help develop agriculture, Codi decided to move also. But as she walks the streets of Grace, she feels like a stranger.
This chapter is told from the point of view of Doc Homer, the name by which Dr. Homer Noline is known. Doc Homer thinks back to a time when Hallie and Codi were young children and were missing during a storm. They were rescued from a washed-open coyote burrow, nursing seven pups they wanted to save.
In Grace, Codi stays with Emelina, her friend from high school, who has five young boys. Codi recalls the last time she saw Hallie and the close relationship they had always enjoyed. She also catches up on all that has happened in Grace over the previous fourteen years. Although the town is full of memories, she still feels like an outsider. She recalls the day her mother died, when Codi was three years old, and her own loss of a baby to a miscarriage when she was fifteen. The father was Loyd Peregrina, a part-Apache, part-Pueblo high school senior.
At a Labor Day weekend party, Codi meets Loyd, who is now a railroad engineer, and listens to a group of old men talking about how Black Mountain Mining Company is polluting the nearby river.
Codi visits her father for the first time in two years. He is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. They communicate little, and Doc refuses to discuss his illness.
Codi begins teaching biology at the high school and also discovers the Stitch and Bitch Club, a sewing group who are holding a meeting in Emelina's house. Codi receives a letter from Hallie, mailed from southern Mexico. It is full of characteristically detailed observations. Codi and Loyd begin talking, and Loyd reveals that he had a twin brother, Leander, who died at the age of fifteen. He invites Codi to accompany him on a business trip.
Doc Homer lies on his examining table in his office in the hospital basement. He is confused and can no longer distinguish between past and present. He thinks of fifteen-year-old Codi, knowing she is pregnant but having no idea of how to talk to her about it.
Codi's trip with Loyd gets postponed, but Codi discovers that one of his interests is cockfighting. Codi sees Loyd frequently but convinces herself their relationship is only a casual one. She takes her students on a field trip to the river, which she finds to be extremely polluted. Viola tells her of Black Mountain's plan to divert the river, so as not to flout Environmental Protection Agency regulations. But, diverting the river will destroy Grace because there will be no water to nourish the orchards.
Loyd takes Codi on a trip to the Apache reservation and then to Kinishba, an eight-hundred-year-old Pueblo stone dwelling that contains two hundred small rooms—a whole village under one roof.
Doc Homer is again lost in his memories, and his mind slides from the present to the past. He remembers the day Codi suffered a miscarriage. She emerged from the bathroom carrying a bundle wrapped in a black sweater. Doc Homer followed her outside and watched as she disposed of the dead baby. He did not tell her that he had observed her, or even that he knew she was pregnant.
A pregnant student drops out of school, and Codi teaches her students about birth control. After hearing from a local resident about Doc Homer's failing memory, she asks to take care of him, but he insists he is fine. Codi celebrates Halloween by going trick-or-treating with Emelina's children and then joins the whole community to celebrate the Mexican Day of the Dead, in which everyone converges on the cemetery and tends family graves. Codi finds a grave marked Homero Nolina, and wonders whyhis name is so similar to her father's since she believes the family came from Illinois.
Doc Homer is disturbed by a visit from Codi, who asks whether they have relatives in Grace. Doc Homer's mind once again plays tricks on him and drifts back to images of Codi as a child.
Codi speaks to the Stitch and Bitch Club about the pollution of the river, and the women decide to mount a mass demonstration against Black Mountain. Codi receives a distressing letter from Hallie, describing how three girls in Nicaragua were killed by gunfire. Loyd takes Codi to watch cockfights in which his own birds participate, but after Codi protests, he agrees to give up the sport.
In December, Codi travels to Tucson with the Stitch and Bitch Club, who sell their homemade peacock piñatas to raise funds. Codi visits Carlo, who tries to persuade her to move to Colorado with him. She spends Christmas with Loyd on the Navajo reservation, where Loyd shows her an ancient village built into the cliff. In the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico, they bathe in volcanic hot springs, and Loyd takes her to visit his family in a Pueblo village. On Christmas Day, they watch Pueblo dances.
Doc Homer receives a telephone call informing him that Hallie has been kidnapped in Nicaragua. He is confused and for a while does not understand what has happened.
Distraught at Hallie's kidnapping, Codi gives her students an impassioned lecture about preserving the environment. She also confronts Doc Homer about the origins of his family, but he refuses to acknowledge the truth. Meanwhile, the campaign against Black Mountain by the Stitch and Bitch Club draws media attention.
Hearing nothing from Hallie, Codi desperately writes letters to anyone of importance. Sean Ride-heart, an art dealer from Tucson, tells the Stitch and Bitch Club they can save Grace by putting it on the National Register of Historic Places.
Doc Homer's condition deteriorates, but he confesses to Codi the truth about his family. He had covered up his origins because the Nolina family had a bad reputation in the town.
In a dream, Codi learns how to let go of the haunting memory of the child she lost.
Codi is informed that Hallie has been murdered by her kidnappers. Numbed by grief, she decides to leave Grace and rejoin Carlo. She takes a flight to Denver, but the plane has engine trouble and has to return to Tucson. Codi is relieved to get back on the ground. The shock of the flight makes her alter her plans, and she decides to remain in Grace with Loyd.
Codi buries some of Hallie's things, and Doc Homer's mind goes back to her burial of her baby at the riverbed. Then he thinks that Codi is Alice, his dead wife. Although he seems unable to distinguish between Codi and Hallie, he feels a deep love for both.
At least two years have elapsed. Doc Homer has died and is buried with the rest of his family. On All Souls Day in November, Viola takes Codi, who is now pregnant by Loyd, to the place where she watched her dead mother taken away by helicopter, over thirty years ago.
Doña Althea is one of the formidable ladies of the Stitch and Bitch Club. She is old, silver-haired, and tiny, and she always dresses in black. She is also strong-willed. Codi regards her as "fierce and miniature like a frightening breed of small dog." When the Stitch and Bitch Club fights to save the town, Doña Althea becomes their media spokeswoman and is interviewed by CBS.
Carlo was Codi's lover in Tucson, Arizona, before she moved back to Grace. He is an emergency-room doctor, and he met Codi when they were both in medical school. Shy and preferring to avoid company, Carlo never settles long in one place. He and Codi spent a few years together on Crete.
Uda Dell is a widow who sometimes took care of Codi over a period of about ten years until Codi was fourteen. At first, Codi does not remember her. Uda helps Codi explore Doc Homer's attic and shares her memories of Codi as a child. Uda is also fond of Doc Homer and tries to take care of him.
Emelina is an old high school friend of Codi, and Codi stays at her guesthouse when she returns to Grace. Emelina married immediately after her high school graduation and has five young sons. She is a practical and capable woman (she slaughters chickens herself) with an earthy sense of humor. She takes to motherhood easily and manages her large family with loving efficiency. She becomes Codi's confidante.
Juan Teobaldo Domingos
J. T. Domingos is Emelina's husband. When he and Codi were toddlers, they were next door neighbors and played together. They also went to the same high school, where J. T. was the captain of the football team. However, they were not friends. J. T. now works on the railroad and is out of town most of the time.
An active member of the Stitch and Bitch Club, Viola Domingos is J. T.'s mother. She is a widow and is close to Doña Althea. Viola is proud of her Hispanic cultural heritage and wants her son and daughter-in-law to raise their children to speak Spanish and know their own culture. At the end of the novel, Viola takes Codi to the alfalfa field where Codi as a three-year-old witnessed the helicopter taking her dead mother away.
Cosima (or Codi) Noline is the sister of Hal-lie and the daughter of Doc Homer. It is she who narrates most of the story. Codi is tall, just under six feet. She is highly intelligent and well educated, having completed medical school. However, she dropped out of medicine near the end of her first year of residency because she lacked confidence in her abilities. Since that time she has done various research jobs, which she had little interest in, and moved around the country with her lover, Carlo. She also spent a few years on Crete.
When the novel opens, Codi is returning to her hometown of Grace, Arizona, from Tucson, where her most recent job was working the night shift at a convenience store.
Codi is close to her younger sister, Hallie, and wonders why they turned out to be so different in temperament and attitude. Hallie is confident, untroubled by doubt, but Codi feels aimless, not knowing what to do with her life. She is often introspective and indulges in self-criticism. Lacking an inner sense of direction, she goes where the wind blows. In the past, this meant that she went wherever Carlo's work as an emergency-room doctor took him. Codi doesn't believe that she fits in anywhere, and she feels timid about approaching life with any gusto. "I feel small and ridiculous and hemmed in on every side by the need to be safe," she writes in a confessional letter to Hallie.
Codi has no confidence that anyone would enjoy or seek out her company. She feels that she does not deserve love and is incapable of showing any. According to her own analysis, this negative self-image was formed early in her life, in response to the deep losses she suffered. Her mother died when she was three, and Cosima lost a baby to a miscarriage when she was fifteen. This has led her to internalize the belief that "Nothing you love will stay."
- Animal Dreams has been recorded unabridged on ten audiocassettes, with a total playing time of 13.75 hours. The cassettes were narrated by C. J. Critt, and were published in 1990; they are available from Recorded Books, cassette no. 94253.
However, Codi is more competent and well liked than she realizes. She has no difficulty gaining the loyal friendship of Emelina or attracting the romantic interest of handsome Loyd Peregrina. She also turns out to be an excellent high school teacher. By the end of the novel, Codi has found her place in life. Teaching school, living with Loyd and preg-nant, she is content to be part of the community in Grace.
Hallie is the younger sister of Codi and the daughter of Doc Homer. She does not appear directly in the novel but is revealed through Codi's memories of her and her letters from Nicaragua, from which Codi quotes extensively.
Like Codi, Hallie is tall, over six feet. She and Codi are extremely close, although Hallie is Codi's opposite. She is purposeful and knows exactly what she wants to do in life, giving herself totally to causes she believes in. She feels other people's pain as if it was her own and wants to do something to alleviate it. She first becomes aware of the political situation in Central America by taking in refugees while she is living in Tucson. Then she travels to Nicaragua to help the development of agriculture, caring nothing about the danger she will be encountering (there is an armed conflict going on).
Although she has a serious attitude toward life, Hallie possesses a lighter side. She is playful, vivacious, and popular, and she knows how to enjoy herself. "She could moonwalk like Michael Jackson," Codi observes. Codi has a boundless admiration for Hallie. She contrasts Hallie's clarity of mind and purpose with her own indecisiveness. According to Codi, Hallie just charges ahead in life, doing the right thing to save the world.
Hallie vehemently denies that she is doing anything as grandiose as saving the world. She explains her far more modest goal in a letter to Codi:
The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can't say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed.
Hallie has always been lucky. She has walked away from car wrecks and bike wrecks, and refers to herself as "the luckiest person alive." But Hal-lie's luck runs out in Nicaragua, where she is kidnapped by the Nicaraguan rebels, the contras, who eventually shoot her in the head and leave her body by a roadside.
Doc Homer, whose full name is Dr. Homer Noline, is the father of Codi and Hallie. For many years he has been Grace's only physician, but at the age of sixty-six, he is showing signs of the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. He forgets easily, and his mind often cannot distinguish between past and present.
Doc Homer is proud of his independence and self-sufficiency and of the fact that he is like no one else. He lives his life with a careful, well-ordered routine. He has always tended to pursue certain notions to the point of obsession, such as requiring Codi and Hallie as children to wear orthopedic shoes so they would not develop fallen arches.
Emotionally, Doc Homer is withdrawn and does not easily reveal his feelings to people, not even his daughters. One reason for this is the devastating loss he suffered when his wife Alice died a few days after giving birth to Hallie. Driven into himself, Doc Homer has never been able to outwardly show his affection for his daughters, although it is clear from his internal monologues that he loves them deeply. However, he is a difficult man to have a conversation with, even when he is lucid and in full possession of his faculties. If he does not wish to discuss something with Codi, he simply acts as if the subject had not been raised.
His hobby is a kind of eccentric photography in which he creates pictures of things that do not look like what they are—landscapes that look like clouds, for example. On the surface, this seems an odd thing to do, and yet it seems appropriate for Doc Homer because part of his life is based on deception. He has spent a lifetime covering up the fact that he is descended on his father's side from the Nolinas family, which was regarded as trash by the inhabitants of Grace. Although he married a woman from a more respectable family (her family opposed the marriage), he felt he had to escape the stigma of his name, so he joined the army and settled in Illinois with his wife. When he returned to Grace, he changed his name to Noline and pretended he was from Illinois, a myth that his two daughters automatically accepted.
Loyd Peregrina is a mixture of Apache, Pueblo, and Navajo blood. He briefly dated Codi when they were both in high school, where he had a reputation as a ladies' man (he is strikingly handsome) and a heavy drinker. It was Loyd who got Codi pregnant when she was fifteen, although Codi never told him. Loyd remained in Grace and now works on the railroad. He meets Codi again when she returns to Grace. Their relationship begins in a casual fashion, and Codi is wary of becoming involved with him, but eventually their friendship grows into mutual love. Codi gradually learns that Loyd is a far more admirable man than she would have expected him to be from her memories of their earlier relationship. Loyd himself admits that in high school he was a "jerk," and he regrets having hurt a lot of people.
Loyd is an expert in cockfighting and owns a number of fighting birds. He takes Codi to a cockfight but agrees to give up the sport when Codi and his mother ask him to. Loyd is well grounded in Native American myth and culture. He takes Codi to Native American sacred places and explains their significance to her. It is Loyd who is instrumental in giving Codi a sense of the importance of community and an identity rooted in traditional values and cultural heritage.
Loyd had a twin brother, Leander, who was killed in a bar fight at the age of fifteen. Although they were close (like Codi and Hallie), the loss of his brother did not have the long-term devastating effect on Loyd that the loss of her child did for Codi at the same age. Loyd has a loving extended family, including his mother, sisters, aunt and a niece, and he is secure in the beliefs and traditions of his Native American culture. This gives him an emotional balance that Codi lacks.
Amusing and charming, Shawn Rideheart is an art dealer from Tucson who tells the ladies of the Stitch and Bitch Club that they can save their town by placing it on the National Register of Historic Places.
Underlying the plot in Animal Dreams is the notion of a clash between two different cultures, white and Native American. The focus for this is environmental degradation. The ravages of modern industrial society are represented by the Black Mountain Mining Company. Codi thinks of the mine, with its "pile of dead tailings," as "a mountain cannibalizing its own guts and soon to destroy the living trees and home lives of Grace. It was such an American story." A similar process is going on in the Jemez mountains in New Mexico, which are being mined for pumice. Pumice is required for the manufacture of the "distressed," or stone-washed, denim jeans that are very popular with the young. Codi launches into a tirade against the practice in her classroom:
They wash them in a big machine with this special kind of gravel they get out of volcanic mountains. The prettiest mountains you ever saw in your life. But they're fragile, like a big pile of sugar. Levi Strauss or whoever goes in there with bulldozers and chainsaws and cuts down the trees and rips the mountainside to hell, so that all of us lucky Americans can wear jeans that look like somebody threw them in the garbage before we got them.
In contrast to this practice of ripping natural substances out of the ground, making them into something unnatural, and then returning the waste products to the earth in an indigestible form—all in the name of economic progress and profit—Kingsolver presents the very different attitude that Native Americans have toward the earth. At first the difference puzzles Codi. She asks Loyd how it can be that a canyon on Navajo tribal land has remained productive for over a thousand years, but Grace is being destroyed after only a century. The difference, as she later learns, is that Native Americans respect the earth as a living being and seek with humility to maintain the ecological balance that the earth needs. They acknowledge that they do not own the earth but try to be responsible guests. This gives Codi a new perspective on her own culture:
To people who think of themselves as God's house-guests, American enterprise must seem arrogant beyond belief. Or stupid. A nation of amnesiacs, proceeding as if there were no other day but today. Assuming the land could also forget what had been done to it.
Kingsolver is herself an environmentalist, and she commented on this difference between the two cultures in an interview with Lisa See for Publishers Weekly:
We are only as healthy as our food chain and the environment. The Pueblo corn dances say the same things, only spiritually. Whereas in our culture, we think we're it. The Earth was put here as a garden for us to conquer and use. That way of thought was productive for years, but it's beginning to do us in now.
Individualism and Community
The clash between cultures highlights the contrast between individualism and community. The Black Mountain Mining Company relentlessly pur-sues its own interests despite responsibilities it has to the human community that is adversely affected by mining activities. This theme also operates at a much more personal level, in the life of Codi. When she first arrives in Grace, she feels isolated and detached, and this has been the pattern of her life. Since her mother died when she was three, and her father has been emotionally unavailable, she has lacked the warm family support that would nourish her life. After dropping out of a medical career, she wanders from one job to the next, and one location to the next, never feeling that she has a purpose in life. She acknowledges that she is not good at "nesting," at making a home for herself somewhere. At the beginning of the novel, Codi is essentially rootless.
Codi's aimlessness is in marked contrast to the social activism of her sister, Hallie. Hallie feels strongly about righting the wrongs of the world and boldly goes off to Nicaragua to put her ideals into practice. She never doubts herself or the value of what she is doing. She has no difficulty in identifying with something larger than herself.
But the character who most clearly represents the value of communal life as opposed to the isolation of the individual is Loyd. It is Loyd, with his supportive family and his appreciation of the living essence of Native American culture, who helps steer Codi in the right direction. Eventually, she recovers her sense of belonging. Whereas she never had any confidence in her ability to be a doctor, she slowly discovers that she has a gift for teaching. This links her to her community, a link that is also fostered by her work with the Stitch and Bitch Club to save the town. Furthermore, Codi discovers that far from being outsiders from Illinois—as Doc Homer had taught her—her family has a heritage going back to the early settlers of Grace.
All these things combine to give Codi a sense that she is larger than the boundaries of her own small self. This is particularly apparent in chapter twenty-six, "The Fifty Mothers," when all the women of the town come to the funeral that Codi arranges for her murdered sister and share their memories of her. Codi's grief is great, but she learns that even that can be bearable when there are others to lend their support: "Loyd was standing on one side of me, and Emelina on the other, and whenever I thought I might fall or just cease to exist, the pressure of their shoulders held me there." Finally, she acknowledges that all the women present are in effect her relatives. She remembers "each one of these fifty mothers who'd been standing at the edges of my childhood, ready to make whatever contribution was needed at the time."
Topics for Further Study
- Research the history of the Nicaraguan contras during the 1980s. Were the contras the evil force described in Animal Dreams, or were they freedom fighters opposing communist tyranny as many in the United States believed?
- Research the subject of industrial pollution in the United States and the methods that different communities and environmental groups have used to combat it. What methods are people using today? What is most effective? What is being done to cut down on industrial pollution currently?
- Research the early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, and show how they are reflected in the character of Doc Homer.
- Some reviewers have argued that the character Loyd Peregrina is too perfect—he is too good to be true—and this is a flaw in the novel. Do you agree with this verdict? Are the male characters in Animal Dreams presented as convincingly as the female ones?
- Is Doc Homer a sympathetic character, or is he someone the reader is likely to dislike?
- Which sister, Codi or Hallie, appeals to you the most and why?
The novel is set mostly in the fictional town of Grace, Arizona, although some scenes take place in the Santa Rosalia Pueblo, also fictional, in New Mexico. Codi's first sight of Grace on her return gives a good picture of its almost idyllic beauty:
The view from here was orchards: pecan, plum, apple…. The trees filled the whole valley floor to the sides of the canyon. Confetti-colored houses perched on the slopes at its edges with their backs to the canyon wall.
An abundance of wild peacocks strut around the orchards, and the whole town exists under a "shamelessly unpolluted sky." The only flaw in the landscape is a man-made one, the old copper mine: "On the cliff overlooking the valley, the smelter's one brick smokestack pointed obscenely to heaven."
Economically, Grace survives by means of its orchards and the railroad, which provides employment for the town's men. Culturally, it is a mixture of Anglo (white) and Mexican American, with a Native American presence there as well. The Baptist Grocery in Grace's small commercial district is an indication of the former Anglo influence, but the predominant flavor of the Grace to which Codi returns is Hispanic. Spanish is still spoken a lot in people's homes, most of the citizens have Hispanic names, Mexican folk and religious customs such as the Day of the Dead (the Mexican equivalent of All Soul's Day) are celebrated, and the close family structures are matriarchal rather than patriarchal.
Like Grace, the Santa Rosalia Pueblo, where Loyd takes Codi at Christmas, is notable for its natural beauty and also for its antiquity and the sense of the sacred it transmits. This is how Codi describes Spider Rock, for example:
The canyon walls rose straight up on either side of us, ranging from sunset orange to deep rust, mottled with purple. The sandstone had been carved by ice ages and polished by desert eons of sandpaper winds. The place did not so much inspire religion as it seemed to be religion itself.
As they travel further in the canyon, Codi observes that ancient pictures have been carved in the rock, of antelopes, snakes and ducks, and some human figures as well. This human adornment of nature is in marked contrast to the human intervention that has altered the landscape of Grace, producing ugly, polluting mines.
Structure and Point of View
The novel is divided into twenty-eight chapters, most of which are narrated in the first person, by Codi. Each of Codi's chapters is prefaced by her full name, Cosima. The other chapters are told from Doc Homer's point of view, by a third person narrator who has insight into Doc Homer's mind but no one else's.
In Codi's portion of the narration, Kingsolver makes use of flashbacks to Codi's childhood, including significant moments in her relationship with Hallie and Doc Homer. Kingsolver also makes use of Codi's dreams, particularly a recurring one in which Codi suddenly goes blind and seems to lose herself altogether.
Doc Homer's chapters, which are prefaced by his full first name, Homero, are all short, most of them no more than two pages in length. Unlike Codi's chapters, these narrations are told in the present tense, even though many of the events described took place many years in the past. The significance of this narrative technique is that Doc Homer's failing mind cannot tell the difference between past and present. Traumatic events from the past coexist in his mind with things that are happening in the present moment.
Image and Metaphor
In the first chapter, Kingsolver uses a powerful image to set the scene for one of the questions the novel seeks to address, which is, why can two people from the same family, exposed to the same influences as children, become so different as adults? Doc Homer gazes at his two young children, Codi and Hallie, as they lie sleeping. They are completely intertwined, almost as one person. It is not possible to see where one body stops and the other begins. When one breathes, they both move; "Their long hair falls together across the sheet, the colors blending, the curled strands curving gently around the straight." The image illustrates the closeness between the two sisters, while foreshadowing the central question.
The same chapter reveals Kingsolver's use of metaphor to create thematic links between the different elements of her plot. Doc Homer feels that a river separates him from his children, and the term is used metaphorically. Thematically, the river image as a metaphor for separation is connected to the riverbed on which Codi later disposes of her baby, and this is in turn linked to the river that is being polluted by Black Mountain Mining—yet another unnatural occurrence, one that separates the human community from the world of nature.
The United States and Nicaragua in the 1980s
Hallie's impassioned letters to Codi about the political situation in Nicaragua reflect a major foreign policy issue of the times. Throughout the 1980s, U.S. policy toward Nicaragua was in the forefront of public debate.
The origins of the controversy go back to 1979 when the Nicaraguan dictator General Anastasio Somoza was overthrown by an insurgency led by Marxist Sandinista guerrillas. Relations between Nicaragua and the U.S., which had supported Somoza, quickly deteriorated. When President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he forcefully advocated the cause of the Nicaraguan rebels known as the contras. The justification for the policy was to prevent the Sandinistas from promoting communist revolutions throughout Central America. In support of his views, Reagan produced evidence that the Sandinistas were sending arms to leftist rebels in El Salvador.
Reagan's policy ran into stiff opposition from many Democratic lawmakers who feared it would lead to American troops being sent to Nicaragua. In 1984, Congress voted to cut off U.S. aid to the contras. This was in the wake of excesses by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which included the blowing up of Nicaraguan oil depots and the mining of Nicaraguan harbors by Latin American commandos under the direction of CIA agents. The latter actions were declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
Congress voted to restore humanitarian aid to the contras in 1985, and in 1986, Congress approved $100 million in military and other aid. The United States also imposed a trade embargo on Nicaragua in 1985 and urged international financial institutions not to approve loans to the Sandinista government.
The result of the U.S. measures was a slump in the Nicaraguan economy. In 1988, inflation skyrocketed, and unemployment was 21 percent.
Peace talks between the warring parties began in 1987. In 1989, a peace agreement, endorsed by five Central American countries, was signed. Under the plan, the contras would be disbanded in exchange for free elections in Nicaragua. Those elections were held in 1990, and the Sandinistas were defeated by a coalition of opposition groups led by Violeta de Chamorro, who became president. As a result of the peace agreement and the election, U.S.-Nicaraguan relations were normalized.
During the eight-year civil war, the contras were sometimes accused of atrocities. Hallie refers to these atrocities in her letters to Codi, and it is apparent that Hallie vehemently opposes the U.S. policy of supporting the contras. The incident referred to in one of Hallie's letters—in which a helicopter piloted by U.S. National Guardsmen is shot down by the Sandinistas, who take one man prisoner—is loosely based on a real incident that occurred in 1986. At the time when U.S. military aid to the contras was banned, a U.S. cargo plane carrying arms supplies to the contras was shot down. The one survivor of the crash, an American citizen, was charged by Nicaragua with terrorism. He was sentenced to thirty years imprisonment but was later released as part of a prisoner exchange agreement. The CIA denied any involvement in the incident, and just as in the novel, the American government claimed that the helicopter pilot was an ex-mercenary and a drug runner, with no ties to the government.
Hallie, who in the novel is killed by the contras, also has a real life model, a young man named Ben Linder. Linder was a hydroelectric engineer from Portland, Oregon, who traveled to Nicaragua for the same purpose as Hallie, to help the Nicaraguan farmers. He was killed by the contras. When Kingsolver dedicated Animal Dreams to Linder, she was making it clear that her own views on the contras, and U.S. policy in the region, were close to those expressed by Hallie.
During the 1980s, a new subgenre began to emerge in American literature, and it was sometimes known as eco-feminism. Paul Gray, in his review of Animal Dreams in Time, sketched the basic elements of eco-feminist literature:
Women, relying on intuition and one another, mobilize to save the planet, or their immediate neighborhoods, from the ravages—war, pollution, racism, etc.—wrought by white males. This reformation of human nature usually entails the adoption of older, often Native American, ways.
Gray points out that Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home (1985) contains most of the elements of the form.
Eco-feminists believe in the sacredness and interconnectedness of all forms of life. They oppose patriarchal attitudes, which they believe lead to exploitation of the earth's resources without concern for long-term consequences. Many eco-feminists see a link between the way society treats animals and the natural environment and the way it treats women.
Eco-feminist themes are clearly present in Animal Dreams. It is the women of Grace, not the men, who organize to save the town from industrial pollution. (In an amusing scene in which Codi addresses a special meeting of the Stitch and Bitch Club, it is clear that the men are more interested in staying at home and watching the Miss America Pageant on television than in becoming social activists.) The Native American social organization that is presented in such a positive light is matriarchal: "The women are kind of the center of things up here," Loyd says of the Santa Rosalia Pueblo. Hallie's concern for the environment is apparent throughout, and Codi, in addition to her emerging environmental awareness, is horrified by cruelty to animals.
When first published in 1990, Animal Dreams received a highly positive response from reviewers. Many admired the subtle, interlocking complexities of plot and theme, the vividly described southwestern setting, the satisfying development of character, and Kingsolver's compassion and humor. Lisa See, in Publishers Weekly, said that King-solver had "taken all of her previous themes—Native Americans, U.S. involvement in Nicaragua, environmental issues, parental relationships, women's taking charge of their own lives—tossed them into a literary pot and created a perfectly constructed novel."
Paul Gray, in Time, described the novel as "an entertaining distillation of eco-feminist materials." Although he regarded Codi as too "preachy" at times, he also commented that "There is enough fun in this novel, though, to balance its rather hectoring tone."
High praise came from Carolyn Cooke in the Nation:
Animal Dreams … is dense and vivid, and makes ever tighter circles around the question of what it means to be alive, how to live rightly and sweetly even as we feel the confining boundaries of the skin, the closing walls of past and present, with memory like a badly wired lamp, spitting sparks and shorting out.
Cooke especially admired the portrait of Doc Homer, in which "Kingsolver brilliantly delineates the quality of a dissolving but wholly practical mind." Although Cooke suggested that the paradisal symbolism of Grace was "heavy-handed," she added that Kingsolver "redeems herself with her clear and original voice, her smart, plucky women, her eye for the nuances of personality and the depth of her social and moral concerns. King-solver can help you learn how to live."
For Jane Smiley, in the New York Times Book Review, Kingsolver "demonstrates a special gift for the vivid evocation of landscape and of her characters' state of mind." Smiley did comment, however, that Kingsolver was only partially successful in shaping all the issues she covered into a "larger vision." In choosing to concentrate on exploring Codi's despair, rather than the more dramatic plots, such as Hallie's adventures in Nicaragua and the campaign against the Black Mountain mining company,
Ms. Kingsolver … frequently undermines the suspense and the weight of her book. First-person narration can be tricky, and Ms. Kingsolver falls into its trap: Codi comes across too often as a whiner, observant of others but invariably more concerned with her own state of mind.
Rosellen Brown in the Massachusetts Review admired the narrative voice of Codi ("amused and amusing, capable of intricate and engaging detail") and declared that Animal Dreams was "a rich book, generous in its perceptions and judgments," although she faulted Kingsolver's "tendency to idealize her characters," noticeable especially in Loyd Peregrina and other Native American or Hispanic characters. No such caveats were offered by the re-viewer for the Antioch Review, who wrote that "Kingsolver has a wonderful way of blending historical facts and myths (Indian lore) with presentday concerns and insights into how children react to the world around them."
Animal Dreams won a PEN fiction prize and the Edward Abbey Ecofiction Award in 1991. Since then, it has been the subject of two articles in scholarly journals that explore Kingsolver's sense of place and community and her environmental themes. And in 1999, Mary Jean DeMarr explored the themes and characters of the novel, and gave it a brief feminist reading, in her book, Barbara Kingsolver: A Critical Companion.
In its range of concerns, from the need to engage in political issues and to protect the environment, to the healing value of family and community, Animal Dreams is typical of the themes that are important to Kingsolver as a writer. The novel continues to win new readers and critical respect, as Kingsolver's reputation as one of America's most significant contemporary writers continues to grow.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles and reviews about contemporary American fiction. In the following essay, he discusses the search for identity in Kingsolver's novel.
The unifying theme in all the different strands of plot that make up Animal Dreams is Codi Noline's recovery of wholeness in her own psyche and in her relationship with her environment, both human and natural. This takes her on an exploration of the nature of memory and its problematic relationship to truth and self-identity, a theme in which her father, Doc Homer, is deeply involved also. Ultimately, Codi learns that the search for individual identity is by itself not enough to grant her the peace, security, and sense of belonging she craves; she must also understand the relationship between human culture and the natural world.
The framework within which Kingsolver traces this journey is in the form of a circle. The novel begins and ends on All Soul's Day, which takes place in the first week of November; it is the Roman Catholic day of commemoration of the dead. This is significant for Codi because in her life the dead cast a long shadow; the scars left by the early loss of her mother and her miscarriage at the age of fifteen prevent her from living fully in the present. Deceptions engineered by her father about their family origins have had a similarly deleterious effect on Codi's life. In this novel, there are skeletons from the past that need to be confronted and exorcised.
For Codi, however, the very act of remembering the past is fraught with ambiguity. Memory is a minefield. Looking back, the mind distorts, forgets, invents, plays tricks. Codi remembers things that according to others she could not have witnessed, and yet she does not remember other events that are recalled clearly by her sister and by other townsfolk. As she says, "Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth but not its twin." Nonetheless, Codi is compelled to delve into the past to find out whether recalling and understanding it can relieve the acute aimlessness and rootlessness that afflict her. Otherwise, she fears she will never possess a solid sense of her own identity.
Indeed, as Codi describes herself during the course of the novel, it is almost as if she is with the dead herself. Like a specter, she lacks definition and substance. She comments that she cannot remember half of what happened to her before the age of fifteen. She knows little about her origins, other than that her family came from Illinois (and even that piece of information later proves to be only a half-truth). "I guess I'm nothing," she says to Loyd, "The Nothing Tribe." This is in contrast to the surety with which Loyd knows his own background. Similarly, Codi laments in a letter to Hallie, "My life is a pitiful, mechanical thing without a past, like a little wind-up car, ready to run in any direction somebody points me in." The word mechanical is significant; Codi's life lacks conscious, organic connection to its roots in family and community, and to nature itself.
It is clear from the extreme language Codi uses to describe herself that she is in mental disarray; there is an emptiness at her core that leaves her perhaps only one traumatic event away from complete disintegration. Subconsciously, she knows and fears this. She has a recurring nightmare in which she suddenly goes blind, and she realizes midway through the novel that this dream is not about losing her vision but about losing "the whole of myself, whatever that was. What you lose in blindness is the space around you, the place where you are, and without that you might not exist. You could be nowhere at all."
This fear of nonexistence, of being nothing and existing nowhere, is what drives Codi to recover her memories of the past, hoping they will help her establish just who she is. With this in mind, she questions the women of the town who knew her when she was a child, and there are one or two moments of cathartic release when she is almost overwhelmed by memories as they come flooding back.
But to find the vital ingredient that will in part end her alienation from the society in which she was born and raised, Codi must penetrate the distortions that have been erected by her father, Doc Homer. As urgently as Codi needs to delve into the past, Doc Homer has over the years felt compelled to cover it up.
Doc Homer is a curious character. One of his hobbies is photography, but he does not record things simply as they are. He takes a photograph of one thing and then tinkers with it to make it look like something else—clouds are made to look like animals, for example, or a clump of five cacti comes to resemble a human hand. When Codi first visits him, he is working on an elaborate procedure to make a photograph of two old men sitting on a stone wall look like a stone wall with two extra rocks balanced on top. Later, it transpires that this is Doc Homer's way of preserving his memories. He takes a memory from the past and tries to revive it by concocting a "photograph" of something else that reminds him of it. For example, he photographs a shadow of a cactus because it reminds him of an extremely unusual aerial view of a river in a desert he saw many years ago in wartime. So he tries to construct out of the photograph an illusion that will resemble and call up in his mind that particular river.
Codi does not know what the point of this activity is although she acknowledges there is "a great deal of art" involved in the process. It is ironic that Doc Homer tries so hard in this unorthodox fashion to preserve certain images from the past, whilst so earnestly trying to obscure another, more pertinent fact: he is descended from the Nolinas family, which had such a bad reputation in the town. Perhaps, like all of us, Doc Homer wants to preserve the acceptable memories and screen out the unacceptable ones, but it is curious that both approaches involve a falsification. Doc Homer's photographs look like one thing but are in fact something else. It is clear that they are a metaphor for the idea that the personal histories that humans construct for themselves are more related to their own psychic needs than to anything that may have actually happened in their lives.
The novel implies that this may not of itself be a bad thing. In fact, a similar realization forms a vital part of Codi's final act of self-acceptance. She has always been puzzled by the fact that she remembers the moment when her mother, at the time of her death, was taken away by helicopter. The incident took place when Codi was only three, and others tell her that she was not there, so she could not possibly remember it. However, when Viola takes her to the field at the crest of the canyon where the incident happened, Codi remembers it vividly. Viola tells her it does not matter whether she was actually there or not: "No, if you remember something, then it's true…. In the long run, that's what you've got."
This understanding gives Codi comfort and release. Her memory is vindicated and doubt is removed. This is the final incident in the novel, and it takes place, like the first chapter, on All Soul's Day. The wheel has turned full circle. Instead of the fate of her mother being a source of pain to her, Codi now remembers the helicopter, with her mother in it, rising "like a soul," a phrase which suggests ascension to heaven, a religious notion that Codi, who tends to believe that death is final, has not for a moment entertained before.
This, however, is only part of the truth that Codi discovers during the course of the novel. She also learns that to be complete humans must not only understand their personal heritage, they must also align themselves and their communities with the laws, structures, and processes that operate in the natural world. The elusive secret of peace of mind lies in the mysterious congruence between the human and the natural worlds.
This point is made clear when Codi, accompanied by Loyd, examines the ancient dwellings at the Santa Rosalia Pueblo. She observes that although they are the products of human hands, they can barely be distinguished from nature itself:
The walls were shaped to fit the curved hole in the cliff, and the building blocks were cut from the same red rock that served as their foundation. I thought of what Loyd had told me about Pueblo architecture, whose object was to build a structure the earth could embrace. This looked more than embraced. It reminded me of cliff-swallow nests, or mud-dauber nests, or crystal gardens sprung from their own matrix: the perfect constructions of nature.
On an earlier visit to another Pueblo sacred place, Codi makes a similar observation as she looks at the stones that make up the building: "There was something familiar about the way they fit together…. They looked just like cells under a microscope." She remarks that the dwelling does not even look as if it was built: "It looks like something alive that just grew there." Yet within this completely natural-looking structure, an entire human culture flourished.
What Do I Read Next?
- Kingsolver's nonfiction book, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (1989), examines the leadership role played by women during the Phelps Dodge Copper Company labor dispute. The small towns described resemble Grace, and the women are the prototypes of the Stitch and Bitch Club in Animal Dreams.
- The Bean Trees (1988), Kingsolver's first novel, follows Taylor Greer as she sets off from her native Kentucky to find a better, more rewarding life in Tucson, Arizona.
- The Poisonwood Bible (1998) is Kingsolver's fourth novel and a runaway bestseller. Set in 1959 at a time of political upheaval in what was then the Belgian Congo, it follows the story of Baptist minister Nathan Price as he arrives with his family in a remote village to preach the gospel.
- Waste Land: Meditations on a Ravaged Landscape (1997), by David T. Hanson, is a startling collection of aerial-view photographs of landscapes in America contaminated by industrial pollution.
- Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977–1992 (2000), by William M. Leogrande, gives a very detailed account of U.S. foreign policy toward Nicaragua (as well as El Salvador) during the time period covered in Animal Dreams.
- Tracks (1988), by Louise Erdrich, recreates the tensions between white and Native American culture in North Dakota from 1912–1924. Kingsolver names Erdrich as one of her favorite writers.
- Another of Kingsolver's favorite writers is Leslie Marmon Silko. In the vast Almanac of the Dead (1991), Silko focuses on the struggles of the native populations of the American southwest to reclaim the land that the Europeans have appropriated.
- "Careful What You Let in the Door," Kingsolver's essay in her collection High Tide in Tucson (1995), discusses her justification for sometimes including violence in her novels, and includes reference to the kidnapping and murder of Hallie in Animal Dreams.
What these images symbolize is a harmony between human civilization and nature that is the secret of the fuller, more expansive life that often eludes the individual self, preoccupied as it is with trying to alleviate the pain lodged in the vault of memory. It is significant that the patterns discernible in these natural buildings share the same structures as the cellular structure of the human physiology, something that runs far deeper than the transitory content of the individual mind.
There is more than a hint of this search for a harmony with nature that would relieve the human experience of pain in Doc Homer's odd hobby. It is as if in his photographs he is trying to merge the human with the natural—the men, for example, become indistinguishable from the stone wall—or to point out that there are forms in nature that are orderly and have the power to give the soul rest. Memories that may be disturbing can be quieted by being absorbed into images of nature's serene permanence.
When Codi finally understands the threefold secret of living—her own family origins and memories; her place in the community of Grace; and the human as a reflection of the natural—she can at last discover who she really is. And she does not have far to look. She points out early in the novel that her full name, Cosima, means order in the cosmos. Most of her life she has regarded this as a joke since she knows how little it resembles the life she has been leading. But by the end, when she is in a committed relationship with Loyd, pregnant with his baby, productive in her community, and knowing how to live in the embrace of nature, she is truly Cosima, a part of the great harmonious whole, taking simple pleasure in being alive.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Animal Dreams, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
In the following interview, conducted in December 1995, Kingsolver discusses her background and interaction with other cultures and how her experiences and her political beliefs inform her works.
In a chapter in her new book of wide-ranging essays, High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver describes a trip to Phoenix's Heard Museum with her daughter, Camille, who was five years old at the time. One of her hopes for the visit, she writes, is that Camille will shed the notion that Native Americans are "people that lived a long time ago," an idea she picked up from the dominant culture even though it contradicted her own experience with Tohono O'odham and Yaqui playmates. Thanks to the museum's mission of appreciation for modern Native American life as well as history, Camille gleans some understanding of Native American reality outside spaghetti westerns. Indians, she tells her mother as they leave the museum, are "people who love the Earth, and like to sing and dance and make a lot of pretty stuff to use." Then she adds, "And I think they like soda pop. Those guys selling the fry bread were drinking a lot of Cokes."
Barbara Kingsolver's work takes readers on a similar journey. It makes real the daily lives lived by people who are seldom presented with all their smarts and sorrows. Among the people we meet in Kingsolver's novels (all published by HarperCollins) are, in The Bean Trees, working-class white women from Appalachia and Central Americans fleeing death squads; in Animal Dreams, Mexican-American grandmothers fighting to save the river that nourishes their town's orchards, a garden-pest hotline worker who joins the Sandinistas' agricultural efforts in Nicaragua, and a part-Apache train engineer with a penchant for cockfighting; and in Pigs in Heaven, a Cherokee lawyer who tries to resolve a conflict over a child adopted out of the tribe.
Thanks to her gift for creating characters we care about, for giving them voices that situate them firmly in time and place, and for taking them through plots that unfold inside their hearts and minds as well as out in the world, Kingsolver has been nominated three times for the ABBY award, a booksellers' prize that goes to the author they most love to recommend to customers.
She is also the author of Homeland, a collection of short stories (HarperCollins again); Another America/Otra America, a book of poems in English and Spanish (Seal Press); and Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (ILR Press), an oral history of the women in three small to towns who for eighteen months sustained a picket against the Phelps Dodge Copper Corporation despite arrests, evictions, and excoriation from some union bosses and some men in their communities who thought they should stick to making tortillas.
In early December, I spent a day with Barbara Kingsolver in Sabino Canyon on the outskirts of Tucson. Though I had only been in Arizona all of two days, I thought I had figured out the weather—hot during the day and cold at night. It was daytime, so I didn't wear many layers. Well, I didn't know from canyons. I shivered as we rode the Forest Service tram that takes you in. Though she had hoped we would stay in the "v" of the mountains, near the running water that reminds her a tiny bit of the landscape of her childhood in Kentucky, Barbara agreed right away to hike a short distance up the slope to where the sun would reach us faster. We found a suitable rock just off the trail and plopped ourselves down to talk. Nourished by good conversation and Barbara's homemade raisin bread, I warmed up in no time.
[Q:] Some of the essays in your new book read like a kind of Feminine Mystique for a new generation. Were you especially trying to reach women with the information in those essays? I wonder whether they've prompted some heated dining table conversations between women and the men in their lives.
[Kingsolver:] I think so. I've heard about a few. I've heard from women who said, "I gave this to my husband with underlines." But when I'm writing I don't really think, "Who's going to read this?" I don't feel my books are mainly for women. When students ask, "Is this a chick book?" I say, "Moby Dick is a whale book, but I don't think only whales should read it."
You know, John Updike writes about penises and lusting after women, and he's really one of the most male writers that I read. His point of view is so deeply male. And when he's writing, does he think, "Oh, women aren't going to be able to relate to this?" I don't think it crosses his mind. So there's a role model for me, right?
I do think we can learn a much from reading the perspectives of people we are not. I can learn a lot from John Updike. I'm never going to have a penis in my whole life, so I can read John Updike and I can get some clue. I mean, that's sort of reductionist, but that male ego that's his focus, that's the eye of his storm, is very interesting. It's kind of heady to read it and get a glimpse of what it would be like to live in the eye of that storm instead of dancing around it all the time saying, "Are you OK? Are you OK?"
I grew up learning about women by reading men and becoming convinced at a pretty early age that they were getting a lot of it wrong. I felt usurped by Lady Chatterley's Lover. But a lot of people did it right, too. Look at Anna Karenina; look at Emma Bovary. So I will never say men have no right to represent women. That would be absurd. What I will say is I think our first responsibility, and also our first treasure as writers, is to represent ourselves. So women are always dead center in my novels. And my novels are about the things women most think about, like keeping our children fed, and how to manage on not very much income. I think it's important to do that, because it's not traditionally been the main stuff of literature. And it needs to be.
A lot of what I also do is tell people, "Look, you're noble. The things you do in your life, from day to day to day, which you have probably never thought of as the stuff of literature, are heroic. And if it's not you, it's your mother, or your neighbor, or your sister. And think about that. Think how wondrous that is." I think it really might be the main thing I do. And that's crossing a new street. It's looking at yourself and looking at heroism in a new way. Forget about Power Rangers, Power Mongers, Power Bombs, Power Suits, for just one minute of your life. All those icons we associate with power are hard to leave behind. It's hard to build a new iconography of heroism, but that's kind of my bailiwick. I owe that to the people I grew up with.
Do you mean your family or your community?
Both. Just to see people survive. Survival itself, in certain circumstances, is heroic. To live through mean times without becoming mean-spirited is heroic. I saw a lot of that.
In the new book, you explore our anti-child policies on the political level, and imply we also have some anti-child practices on the family level.
Kingsolver: The "terrible twos" is an excellent example. I asked all my Latino friends, "How do you translate terrible twos?" "What?" they said. "There's no terrible twos." They didn't even know what I was talking about. Not only is it not in their language, it's not in their thinking. To define indi-viduation from the parent as terrible is an anti-child mindset. Now, I'm not saying it's not difficult to have a two-year-old, but it's a cultural difficulty. We expect our two-year-olds to fit smoothly into adult schedules.
I think the reason that my friend Carmen was baffled when I said "terrible twos" is that the children in her household don't have to trench a clock. They're with her or there's other people in the household. There's this troupe of kids coming in and out, and always adults to take care of them. They don't have to get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, and get strapped into the car seat by 7 o'clock, which is a schedule that would make any two-year-old cranky. Think about if you had to crawl around and play with blocks all day. You'd be cranky; you'd be a terrible whatever-you-are.
And that's not the fault of the parents. Obviously many, many mothers have no choice but to bundle their kids off to daycare, so I'm not blaming them.
What I'm saying is our culture doesn't make allowances for kids; it doesn't give parental leave. Children are an aberration in late capitalism. They're also a liability, because they're not productive. So that's why capitalism treats them like toxic waste.
Where did you get the desire to learn about different cultures?
I went to school with African Americans and whites. It was a segregated town. When I went to first grade, it was an all-white school. Second grade, the kids who had gone to school in the CME church came down to our school. I remember thinking. "They must be so scared," and wanting to ask, but being afraid. Marilyn and Karen were the two African-American kids in my class. I wanted to be friends with them and I didn't know how. I was a little bit scared, not because my parents said, "Stay away," nothing like that. Just that I knew that they came from a different world, and I knew that they were outnumbered.
It impressed me, because I was also an outcast. I think one of the great pluses is that I grew up as a social outsider. And that had to do with being really skinny and really tall, and physically not blending in, which is so important in pre-adolescence and adolescence—it's sort of the main thing.
But also my family was different. My parents just expected me to do things like read books—big, good books—and one day go to college. Nobody else I knew had that sort of expectation. Nobody in my class was going to college. Everybody kind of had the plan. They'd get married and they'd have kids and they'd stay right there. There was something in my training that was telling me, "You're going to go away."
And then you lived for a while in Africa as a kid?
Yes, my dad was a physician, and he wanted to go where he could be extremely useful. So we ended up living in St. Lucia for a while in a convent hospital, and we lived in Central Africa. The people in our village had not seen white kids. I had really long hair that I could sit on, and people didn't think it was hair, because hair doesn't look like that, and they'd try to pull it off. My mom would explain to me, "They're not trying to hurt you. They just think you're wearing something weird on your head and they're trying to get you to quit showing off."
So you were an outsider?
Very much. I got a real extreme look at what it's like to be a minority. It was an enormous adventure that let me know at the age of seven that there's a great big old world out there that I don't know anything about, that I'm going to see, and that I'm going to know if I can.
Was your connection to small-town life one of the things that led you to write Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, about the small towns of Morenci, Ajo, and Clifton?
Yes, even though I didn't grow up in a mining county. Nicholas County is not mining, it's agricultural. It's a tobacco town, so it's deeply de-pressed. Times have been tough there for as long as I've known about, and I think they're tougher still now that tobacco doesn't have the economic base it did. So, there are all these divisions. There was black and white. There was merchant and farmer. That was a very clear distinction in my school. The popular kids—the ones with new clothes every year—were the merchants' kids, the ones whose parents owned the dime store or the men's clothing store, or were the county attorney. And then all the other kids were farm kids, and they didn't get to wash their hair every night because they didn't necessarily have hot water. They had to walk through mud to get to the school bus, so they had mud on their shoes.
I was in that group, not because we were farmers but because we lived in the country, and my parents didn't believe in new clothes. They didn't value spending lots of money on superficial things, which of course really irritated me when I was fourteen. But I somehow lived through that and learned to appreciate it.
So in high school I learned about class, and I didn't even know the words. I never read Marx until I was about eighteen, but the first time I read Grundrisse and Capital I said. "I know this stuff. I grew up with this stuff." Kentucky is such a laboratory of class consciousness because you have really oppressed workers shoulder to shoulder with big capital, which is not something you see necessarily in other parts of the country. Maybe the rust belt, maybe the auto belt, though I still don't know if it's as clear as mining bosses and the way they sort of own their workers wholesale. So it's very clear whose side everyone's on. And add to that, Nicholas County is right in between, it's sandwiched.
You see the wealth of Lexington?
It's just one county away. Nicholas County holds a really interesting geographic position between the wealth of Lexington and the poverty of Appalachia, and people define themselves depending on which way they're facing. In our county we didn't have a swimming pool, not in the whole county. And we would go to Lexington once in a while, and pass through these horse farms. And there was a horse farm where—I swear this was true—the horses had a swimming pool. It was for therapy or something. I remember driving by that every time and smashing our faces against the glass of the window and hating those horses for being so rich. It was so unfair.
One thing that comes through so much in your writing is that people, like those you grew up with in Nicholas County, can understand power. I guess some liberal people would say they know that, but they don't really believe it at a gut level.
That's really wrong. That's a huge underestimation. I think certainly in Kentucky people understand class and power relations. And that's why Kentucky—and Arizona, too—has a history of radical class action, and radical labor organizing. And that's of course what drew me to the strike.
My first national publication was in The Progressive and it was about the strike. I started going down there with a friend of mine, Jill Fein. We were activists and organizers and we went there in solidarity with the strikers. I figured I'd write about it, but I didn't at first have an assignment. I loved The Progressive, so I wrote a query. We wrote the article together and they published it and it was an enormous thrill when it arrived. Seeing it in print was even more important than the check. There it was, with the photograph we'd taken of the women on the picket line. I remember just standing by the mailbox holding it in my hand and thinking, "All over the country people are reading about this." That's the power of being able to get the word out. After bonegrinding years as an activist, a door opened. I got some sense of the possibilities and of the power of this kind of writing. It was really a turning point for me.
Some people criticize your work as being too political. They try to erect a huge wall between art and politics. There's this idea that political art is bad, and that a divider between the two can actually exist. Where does this idea come from?
I'm not sure. My personal theory is it has a lot to do with McCarthyism. Because if you go back before the 1950s you find great political writers like Steinbeck, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Henry Thoreau. And then that stopped; things just sort of ground to a halt in the 1950s.
I don't know whether it's cause or effect. I don't know whether it was because of McCarthy-ism, or whether there was some evil humus in this country from which sprang Joe McCarthy and people who supported him and this idea that art and politics should separate themselves. For whatever reason, it's with us now and we haven't recovered from that time.
What can we do about it?
It's being done to us. Artists are losing the minuscule amount of support that we had. The NEA, I heard Christopher Reeve say when he was in town years ago, gives out each year less money than the money for military band uniforms. So, there wasn't an enormous amount of public or federal support for artists to begin with, and it's dwindling. And there's a hue and cry, and artists are looking around and saying, "Why doesn't the public support us?"
Well, I have a clue about that. Look to some of the poorest countries in Latin America. They revere their poets. Their poets do not starve. They elect their poets to public office. Their poets are talking about important stuff. Their poets have their finger on the pulse of the human-rights situation, the core of economic oppression, where it's going and where it's coming from. They write about power relations and the common good. They write about all of this stuff that in the United States many artists avert their faces from as being too political. Well, if we write and paint and film things that people understand to be vital to their lives, we'll get public support. Any artistic commission that has Jesse Helms on it is scary. Censorship of any kind is scary. But I don't think we're really talking about censorship here. I think we're taking about a responsiveness of artists to their public that's sort of waning.
It's waning, but it has the potential to come back?
I think if artists can speak of things that matter, then they will be supported. I feel like I say stuff that people really don't want to hear. I write about child abuse, and about sexism and racism and illegal immigration laws, and I think, "Nobody's going to read about this," and yet, they do. I think that you can say difficult things, but do it artfully, and you'll be heard.
And the critics may say, "Oh, this is too political," but people are reading the books.
The gatekeepers of art are the ones who are saying this is too political. I don't hear that from many people. One letter in 100, or even less, will say. "I don't think you should be writing about this stuff."
I think we also have in this country a rare phenomenon in which people are very uneducated about art. I think the average African in Africa, let's say the average citizen of Cameroon, understands more about the art of Cameroon than the average Tucsonian understands about the art of Tucson. Understanding and appreciating art is something you learn from other people who do it, and historically it's been part of oral tradition. You appreciate stories because you sit around in groups where people tell them. You appreciate dance because you participate. You grow up seeing other people moved to tears by the events, and you learn what that's about.
Do you think the people who criticize your work are people who already know about the issues and have decided they're on the other side? Or are they people who have so much of their personal and professional identities invested in the idea that they don't take stands that they feel threatened by the fact that your characters do?
Both. Usually when people say, "You're too political," what they mean is, "I don't agree with you." In High Tide in Tucson, I wrote about that anecdote at the mall, where the managers decided that the people passing out yellow ribbons and We Kick Butt bumper stickers were not political, and the people who were passing out anti-war propaganda were political. That's come to be a significant definition of the word political in this country, and it's something I don't agree with. The people who have panned my work as being political are people who are not on my side, so I feel kind of proud of that.
Do you think the popularity of your fiction speaks to people's hunger for the acknowledgment of the political in their lives, in addition to the fact that they're drawn in by the great stories and great characters?
Yes. I don't think it's necessarily things people would define as political, although sometimes it is, explicitly. I hear from activists who say, "We've been trying and trying to tell people about Nicaragua and finally what a relief to pick up a book that does it, a real book that people are reading."
You've said a novel can move people in a way a newspaper article can't, because it gets in their heart and because they can't switch to the sports pages. But your new book is nonfiction. Did you want to speak in your own voice instead of through your characters?
I've been writing essays all along, but to write a book of them that all added up to something was really wonderful. This is a really scary thing to say, but it has worried me at times that my work is so popular. Sometimes I think, "Are they just reading the love story and didn't notice the part about Guatemala?" I think people do, on some level, understand the politics of my fiction. Even if only to be awakened to the possibility that the government is doing something not right in Central America and maybe they'll be more open to reading stuff that's more explicitly about that subject. Or sort of an attitude about the environment, or an attitude about women that comes through. You can hear on the left sometimes an elitism of unpopularity. I don't know how many times I've heard people say, "Well, I write, but my work will never be popular because it's so political," and I think, "Well, am I chopped liver? Are you saying that I sold out, or what?"
I felt that I did at this point in my life have a chance to be more direct. Everything in High Tide in Tucson I think I've said before behind the mask of fiction, but this time I stepped out from behind the mask and said, "I, Barbara Kingsolver, believe this." And it sold more in the first four months than all six of my other books combined in their first four months.
So you're probably reaching people who haven't heard about these issues from your perspective before.
I have to think so. I can't get over that I get to do this. It also comes with a certain responsibility. You know you get handed in your life this chance to go all over the country and talk and talk and talk, and answer and answer and answer questions, and go on McNeil/Lehrer and national shows. I would much rather not do that. I would much rather stay home and bake bread and write another book. That's what I do. That's what I love. And I do have my limits. I'll do it for a few months after a book comes out, and try to make the most of that time.
The reason that I do it at all is that I can still remember how recently it was that I was cranking out leaflets about the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Plant, or whatever was the crisis of the week in Tucson, Arizona. And I don't mean to demean these crises; they are all very real.
It's very hard to criticize this country, our domestic or our foreign policy, or our attitude, or our Americanism. And so, given the chance to do that, given this strange moment that I have, little old socialist me, to go talk to David Gergen and be in everybody's living room, I have to do it. And I have to do it right. I have to say the important stuff, not just smile and nod and say, "Oh, yes, I have written another book."
I don't imagine you have time to crank the mimeographs anymore.
No, and it wouldn't be a good use of my time. But I'm still involved locally. It used to be I was the one who would organize the events. Now I go to them. Or I'll go and read a poem. They put my name on the list to draw a different crowd. I find that I can be an effective activist in very different ways, but I feel like I still believe exactly the same things I did when I was twenty.
It seems to me that as disparate as they are, all the essays in the new book fit together. What's the unifying theme?
I didn't title the book, Barbara the Marxist Takes on Life, but that's what it is. Let's face it. I steered clear of the M word, because people are so ignorant. Even though we're a secular state, we're deeply religious about the religion of America. We rely on so many things on faith, without having to have any evidence. Like this belief about how anyone can make it in America if you're smart and you work hard. Well, for how many generations now has that been untrue? In some families, a lot. And in almost all families, my generation is not as well off as our parents, even though we worked just as hard, and more of us got more of an education than they did. It's staggering to me to read statistics of how many people in this country live in poverty: 20 percent of kids, right? Yet turn on the television and you still see rich people idolized. Popular culture reflects a population that still identifies with the ruling class.
You weave your scientific training into your writing, which is pretty unusual.
There's this whole realm of natural history metaphors and symbols you can use if you know about them that gives a kind of freshness to your writing, because most writers haven't studied science. People think it's sort of funny that I went to graduate school as a biologist and then became a novelist, but the process is so similar. What I learned is how to formulate or identify a new question that hasn't been asked before, and then to set about solving it, to do original research to find the way to an answer. And that's what I do when I write a book. It's very similar. I think I might be a lot more process-oriented than a lot of writers are. I've never talked with another writer about process who does it exactly the same way I do it. It used to make me certain I was doing it wrong. Now I just figure it's as good as any way. It works for me.
In the essays you let on that there have been days when you didn't think you could keep going, when you questioned your abilities as a writer.
I still have them. Beginning a book is really hard. I'm trying to begin one now and I just keep throwing stuff away and thinking, "Can I do this? I don't think I'm smart enough." But it has to be hard. You have to have a reverence for the undertaking. And I think reverence implies a certain lack of self-esteem, doesn't it?
If you're reverent towards something, you feel …
Lowly. You feel daunted and unworthy. But in this age of glorifying the individual and self-esteem, I think there's something healthy about being daunted. Cockiness doesn't lend itself to good writing. It really doesn't.
How was your recent book tour?
This book tour just took me from city to city to city, into hotel rooms out of whose windows I would look and see the same skyline. One of the things that was psychologically and emotionally tiring was that it was all city, and I was surrounded continually by people who took their city so seriously. I don't mean just their city, like, "Oh, this is Pittsburgh." But people who look around at the city and say, "This is what's real." For me, this is what's real. [As she said this, she gestured emphatically to the saguaro-studded canyon rising all around us.] We're just a blink in the eye of this. We haven't been around very long, and we're probably not going to persist. And it's sort of laughable that we take all of our stuff so seriously. We've had two hundred-year floods here in the last ten years, and both times the city was completely cut off, for days and days. You couldn't go anywhere. It was roaring water. And some things happened that were deeply reinforcing on the human level. For the first day you're still trying to get to work, or get to your appointments, and then slowly you give it up, and you realize that this whole schedule—all these things in our date book—are just little scratches on the surface of this old Earth, and she doesn't much care.
How do we build more awareness of that?
I think urban life is a big part of the problem. If people could just get out and look. And to just sit still and be. Ed Abbey, who was my neighbor, said something that continues to impress me in new ways. I told him I'd been to Zion, and I said, "It's enough to make you religious." And he said, "Those mountains don't inspire religion. They are religion."
In your new book, High Tide in Tucson, in the essay, "The Spaces Between," you write, "I'm drawn like a kid to mud into the sticky terrain of cultural difference." You say, "I want to know, and to write, about the places where disparate points of view rub together—the spaces between. Not just between man and woman but also North and South; white and not-white; communal and individual; spiritual and carnal."
The reason I'm attracted so much to those places and those moments is you can learn so much. You go through the world on some kind of search, and you take so much for granted. And when you run up against somebody else who's moving right beside you but looking for completely different stuff, it can stop you in your tracks, and you can start thinking, "Why am I looking for this?"
So few of us examine our motives and our mythology, the things that we believe in without question. Like humans are more important than any other species. Most people with your background and mine go through their whole lives without questioning that. I am more important than a Kirt-land's warbler. Don't even think about it. And, so when you run up against somebody who says. "Of course the Kirtland's warbler is just as important as I am," that can throw you for a loop.
In Pigs in Heaven I wanted to choose a high-profile event in which a Native American has been adopted out of the tribe and in which that adoption is questioned and challenged. Because it brings into conflict two completely different ways of defining good, of defining value. The one is that the good is whatever is in the best interest of the child; the other is that the good is whatever is in the best interest of the tribe, the group, the community. What I really wanted to do in that book was not necessarily write about Indians. I wanted to introduce my readers to this completely different unit of good and have them believe in it by the end, have them accept in their hearts that that could be just as true as the other.
Your fiction, you've made clear, is not autobiographical, but the essays …
Are. It used to be people thought they knew all about me because they thought I was my characters. Now they do. I didn't really reveal anything that intimate in that book. I included a lot of details about where I live and so forth, only as kind of a springboard to issues or ideas. For example, I wrote about divorce. I didn't really write about my divorce. It seems like I did, but I didn't.
That it happened, yes.
That was sort of part of the public record already, anyway. Also, we moved right before the book came out, so people think they know all about my house, but they don't.
Including details about your life made the book more accessible?
That's the idea. It was so much like writing fiction. You use the same techniques. You create characters and you have a plot. All of the essays really are little stories that mean something, and what they end up being about is not the events but some larger ideas. It just happens that I used real people or real events or incidents in my life as the starting points. You can't just put the ideas there. You have to put clothes on them and make them walk around. I keep coming back to the term creative nonfiction to describe this book, because it really was more creative writing than journalism. You can look at the same event fifty different ways, so the story I chose to tell from a particular event was the creative part.
The choosing how to tell it?
And, I suppose before that, deciding what it means. What can you make of someone telling you, "Love it or leave it, b—h?" That can be at the starting point of a lot of different stories.
In that same essay you came back and said that that guy could think critically.
I speculate that if I asked him, "Do you think patriotism means turning your back on evidence that your country has done immoral acts?" I think he would say, "No." Then he'd say, "Prove it." I think "my country right or wrong" is not such a common slogan as "my country always right," and "by God I want to believe that, and so don't mess with me, don't confuse me with the facts."
But it's suspect to be a writer whose purpose in part is to change the world.
Oh, yeah. And it's funny that I still shock people when they say, "Why do you write?" and I say, "Well, to change the world." It's like heresy. It's like absolute heresy for an artist to say that. That's why I say it. Seven or eight years ago I couldn't.
I thought it, but I couldn't admit it because I was afraid of not being taken seriously. Now I'm pretty confident of being taken seriously. Shocking but true. And so I feel I have an obligation to tell truths like that. You like what I write? Well, get this: I'm a pinko and I want to change the world.
Source: Robin Epstein, "An Interview with Barbara King-solver," in Progressive, Vol. 12, No. 9, February 1996, pp. 33-37.
Brown, Rosellen, Review, in Massachusetts Review, Spring 1991, p. 138.
Cooke, Carolyn, Review, in Nation, Vol. 251, No. 18, November 26, 1990, p. 653.
Gray, Paul, Review, in Time, Vol. 136, No. 13, September 24, 1990, p. 87.
Review, in Antioch Review, Fall 1990, p. 546.
See, Lisa, "Barbara Kingsolver: Her Fiction Features Ordinary People Heroically Committed to Political Issues," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 237, No. 35, August 31, 1990, p. 46.
Smiley, Jane, Review, in New York Times Book Review, September 2, 1990, p. 2.
Andrews, Terry L., "Animal Dreams," in Magill's Literary Annual, Salem Press, 1991, pp. 38-42.
This detailed and appreciative review brings out, among other things, the fairy tale aspects of the novel. Andrews writes that Codi is a "kind of unwitting Sleeping Beauty."
Barbara Kingsolver, in Signature Series' Contemporary Southern Writers, produced by the Annenberg/CPB Projects company, 1997.
According to reviewer Jeannette E. Riley, this one-hour video presents "a comprehensive discussion of Kingsolver's influences, experiences, political beliefs, and dreams for the future." It also includes Kingsolver reading from her work, including Animal Dreams.
Beattie, L. Elisabeth, ed., "Barbara Kingsolver," in Conversations with Kentucky Writers, University of Kentucky Press, 1996, pp. 151-71.
In a wide-ranging interview, Kingsolver says that she begins every novel with an important question that intrigues her and works her way toward the answer.
Berry, Donna, "An Interview with Barbara Kingsolver," in Women Writers Speak Out, Rutgers University Press, 1993, pp. 143-69.
In this interview, Kingsolver talks about a wide range of topics and also reveals that of all her characters Codi in Animal Dreams is the least like her: "she's so detached; she's so wounded and she's so cynical." Hallie, on the other hand, "is me."
De Marr, Mary Jean, Barbara Kingsolver: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 1999.
This comprehensive and clearly written analysis of Kingsolver's work, with a chapter on each of her four novels, is suitable for beginners as well as those with prior knowledge of Kingsolver.
Epstein, Robin, "An Interview with Barbara Kingsolver," in Progressive, Vol. 12, No. 9, February 1996, pp. 33-37.
In this interview, Kingsolver talks about her background, her politics, the relationship between politics and art, her nonfiction work, and many other topics.
Fleischner, Jennifer, A Reader's Guide to the Fiction of Barbara Kingsolver, Harper, 1994.
This is an informative and clearly written guide to Kingsolver's first three novels and her short stories.
Meadows, Bonnie J., "Serendipity and the Southwest: A Conversation with Barbara Kingsolver," in Bloomsbury Review, November-December, 1990, p. 3.
Kingsolver explains that in Animal Dreams she "wanted to write about the way that loss of memory is the loss of self, both for a culture and an individual."
Newman, Vicky, "Compelling Ties: Landscape, Community, and Sense of Place," in Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 70, No. 4, Summer 1995, pp. 105-18.
Newman explores some of the main themes in Animal Dreams, including the idea of community and the role of autobiography in establishing personal identity.
Ryan, Maureen, "Barbara Kingsolver's Lowfat Fiction," in Journal of America Culture, Vol. 18, No. 4, Winter 1995, pp. 77-82.
Examining Kingsolver's first three novels, Ryan finds much to praise, particularly the fact that King-solver writes traditional realistic fiction, but she also argues that Kingsolver's work is ultimately unsatisfying.