Always Coming Home is a multimedia novel, including with the text a tape of songs and poetry from the novel’s world. Set in Northern California, this novel recounts the history of several peoples in the distant future. In Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (1987), Le Guin explains how writing “May’s Lion,” a story in that collection, helped her to find a way from the Napa Valley of her childhood to the imaginary future of the Na Valley in Always Coming Home.
Le Guin writes in her introduction to the novel that these peoples may not exist and that their future might not take place. The people are, however, present in the book, if not in the real world. She discusses the difficulty of translating this story from the language of the Kesh, comparing her novel to Laozi’s Dao De Jing—a book translated into Chinese “at every cycle of Cathay, though it is not available in the original and was written by someone who may not have existed.”
The Kesh have a peaceful, matrilineal society. Their opposites are the aggressive, patrilineal Condors. The history of these peoples is told by Stone Telling, a Kesh woman whose mother was a Kesh but whose father was a Condor. Stone Telling has different names, depending on her stage in life: North Owl, Ayatyu, and Woman Coming Home.
Le Guin’s message is that Western civilization’s paternalistic aggressiveness needs to be tamed by taking a more maternalistic approach to social structure. Without peace, there may be no future. Her title, Always Coming Home, reflects one of her Taoist themes—to go is to return. All Stone Telling’s journeys lead to her return home.
Always Coming Home was viewed by feminist reviewers as a statement that Le Guin had moved toward more woman-centered writing. Here and in Tehanu and most of her work after 1985, Le Guin emphasizes a feminine point of view, but she shows little interest in excluding men or masculine viewpoints from her fiction. As always, she emphasizes balance, cooperation, and mutuality as key values for cultural health and individual happiness.
The tribes of Kesh, a country in what is now California, live a fairly rustic existence, but they have access to a variety of technological apparatuses. One apparatus, an interplanetary computer called The Exchange, provides information to anyone who knows its programming language, TOK. Additionally, the tribes have battery-powered flashlights and motorized boats, and tribal supplies are carried by train from town to town.
The Valley People live in a virtual utopia, holding sacred seasonal ceremonies and existing in cooperation with the land. The Condor People, a warlike group that once had been nomadic, live in a central city and worship a single deity, the Condor. Where Valley women are completely free and equal, Condor women live in cloistered harems and are not permitted to learn how to write. Where Valley People share communal leadership, the Condor answer to one man and hold slaves who were not born to Condor families. Where the Valley People are rural, the Condor People are urban and consider the Valley folk rustic.
One story emerges as central to understanding the differences between Valley and Condor folk. Blue Owl of the Blue Clay Tribe in the Sinshan Valley lives with her mother and grandmother, thinking she is “half a person” because she does not know her father. When she is nine years old, her father, Terter Abhao, a Condor Person from the north whose name means “kills,” arrives with his army to spend time in the valley. After he leaves, Blue Owl’s mother, Willow, who had thought he had come to stay, changes her own name back to her childhood name of Towhee and withdraws from the family. In Valley culture, this reclaiming of an old name is considered going against nature and liable to be dangerous to the changed person. Thus, when Terter...
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