This is a book about a people who “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now.” Such a circuitous periphrasis in verb tenses begins Always Coming Home and, like that title, sounds the thematic note of the whole work: spiral, nonlinear; forward-moving but backward-leaning; beginnings and endings together; future and past at one. Chronology, history, and context have little meaning in the conventional sense to the Kesh people and culture of the book, but, paradoxically, the Kesh are firmly grounded in a sense of themselves as a culture, with myths, legends, ritual, story.
The experience of reading the book itself is also nonlinear. Readers are encouraged to sample, circle, taste, jump about; this is possible because poems, stories, kinship diagrams, and rituals are interspersed with sections of the main narrative and with meditations by the narrator, Pandora, a time traveler between our culture and that of the Kesh. Each time one returns to Stone Telling’s story from a round of drama, dance, or maps, one has moved up the spiral closer to the Kesh. Each time the “Back of the Book” is consulted, the material on games, musical instruments, costumes, or medicine presents more that is familiar and brings the reader back to the narration at a place higher up. Surprisingly, the novel comes with a cassette tape; each time its songs and poems are played, they are less strange. Thus, descriptions of the river and the valley, of scrub oak, Madrone, and golden dry grasses, of deer, rabbits, and coyote, of healing springs and volcanic mountains all situate one in the present. Yet, the presentness is both past and future, totally different from our own.
Ursula K. Le Guin has done what any good novelist does; she has created a new world for the reader to become a part of, a rich context of sight, sound, daily life, surroundings, colors. All of these are carefully described by the narrator of the main portion, Stone Telling. Le Guin, however, has interspersed this “novella” with so much more—poems, drawings, kinship diagrams, stories, maps, dances, music, recipes, clothing, alphabet, even a dictionary of the Kesh language—and so, the reader is surrounded by the Kesh culture, and his senses are taken over by the Weltanschauung of these people. It is almost as if Le Guin were controlling the reader’s vision and imagination in ways that writers have never done before.
Le Guin is always circumspect, but the Kesh are grounded in specifics. The Valley of the book is the Napa Valley; the Na River is the Napa River. It is an important wine-growing region, located just north of San Francisco Bay. The story is set far in the future, and readers are given hints of some kind of holocaust that has taken place; areas made unlivable by radioactivity, many genetic defects in humans and animals (born sevai), cities on the coast now underwater. It is likely that with the Greenhouse Effect, or a nuclear explosion, the atmosphere has heated up, melting the polar ice cap and raising the level of the oceans, thus flooding coastal cities, California’s Central Valley, and the low desert area east of the Sierra Nevada. San Francisco Bay has become huge, “the Inland Sea,” and the Coastal Range a long peninsula. These details, though, are not in the book and, in a way, are totally peripheral to the Kesh and their story.
Pandora is the alter ego of Le Guin and is the reporter of this material about the Kesh. She describes herself as an “archaeologist of the future” who works to help the reader find what is left of a society which has yet to be born. Throughout, she worries about her role as translator, and she inserts short meditations, usually symbolic. For example, near the center of the book, the scrub oak is described and dissected, becoming at once a symbol for time and the Kesh people: not able to be counted, its roots going deeper than its height, a “messy” plant not good for anything, which not many will look at or for, but essential and ubiquitous.
Kesh society has the characteristics of a feminist Utopia, and the themes of feminism, ecology, appropriate technology, and bioregionalism inform the novel. The Kesh people are matrilineal, matrilocal, nonviolent, and cooperative; their society functions without prejudicial sex roles, so that one cannot tell, from name or role or language, the sex of a particular character. Women, however, often seem to do more important work than men, and since lineage and place are reckoned through the mother, girls and women are more prominent than boys and men. Stone Telling’s father’s people, the Condor, or Dayao, are just the opposite in every way. Condors are rigidly stratified according to sex; the women are regarded as property, as “dirt people.” When the warlike Condor soldiers ride into the Na Valley, the Kesh say, “Why are these Condor people all men? Where are the Condor women? Are they ginkgos? Let them marry each other and breed whatever they like.”
The main character of the central narrative, Stone Telling, is born of a Kesh woman and a Condor man. Her sojourn into her father’s country and her horror at the sexist, violent, hierarchical, and nonnatural way of life there forms much of the conflict of the plot. Stone Telling (born North Owl, renamed Ayatyu by her father, which means well-born woman) deserts her mother’s land as an adolescent to follow her father but soon begins to long for home. Finally she escapes and, with her toddler daughter, Quail, makes the long journey back, now calling herself Woman Coming Home. As an old woman, Stone Telling recounts the whole of her life.
Kesh society is a gentle one, its people living in harmony with the land. They are not only pastoralists-agriculturalists and gatherers but also hunters (although it is mostly young boys who practice this sport). In every case of killing for use, be it butchering or picking tomatoes, a short ritual of forgiveness is spoken. The spirits of the natural world permeate the life of the Kesh, and all to them is sacred. In the Kesh language, both animals and plants are also called people, so that the language reflects the fact that humans share the particular ecosystem with the “plant and animal people.”
Although a sophisticated futuristic technology exists, including computers (called the City of Mind) that control the planet, for the...