With Animal Dreams, her fourth book in three years, Barbara Kingsolver adds further luster to her rising reputation as a prolific and talented Southwestern writer who deserves much wider attention. This 1990 Kingsolver novel develops social issues and universal themes that are familiar from her earlier books, but that are now woven into a more ambitious literary design. In her first novel, The Bean Trees (1988), Kingsolver’s concern over United States involvement in Central America found narrative expression in a story of working- class Americans aiding Guatemalan refugees. In Animal Dreams, the narrative includes letters sent from Nicaragua, where the protagonist’s sister is promoting agricultural reform and is threatened by American-backed Contras. Like Kingsolver’s short-story collection Homeland (1989) and her nonfictional work Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (1989), Animal Dreams deals with universal themes of family ties and life passages in the context of struggles by Hispanics, Native Americans, and poor whites for cultural and economic survival. Yet even as Barbara Kingsolver is sharpening the reader’s awareness of these weighty issues and themes and weaving them through a complex narrative structure, she never ceases to entertain as a humorous and engrossing storyteller, a gifted creator of heartfelt characters, and a witty and poetic stylist.
Animal Dreams entertains and enlightens by drawing on a number of diverse genres: fairy tale, psychological mystery, political and ecological fable. Considered as fairy tale, the novel presents the story of a young woman who sees herself as an ugly duckling, out of place in her hometown of Grace, Arizona. In the course of the novel, Codi Noline comes to feel the power of the transforming “grace” that the locale has for her. When thirty-two-year-old Codi returns to Grace after a fourteen- year absence, her sense of alienation is even stronger than it was when she grew up there—in spite of her awareness of the special beauty of the place. As imagined by Kingsolver and described by Codi, the town of Grace has many wonders: “red granite canyon walls, orchards of sturdy old fruit trees past their prime, a shamelessly unpolluted sky” and “confetti-colored houses perched on the slopes” of the canyon. The guesthouse that she rents adjacent to the home of her high school friend Emelina Domingos seems equally enchanted, with a red enamel “fairytale bed” where Codi wishes she “could fall down and sleep a hundred years.
Ironically, Codi is already a kind of unwitting Sleeping Beauty. Marvelously alert to the beauty of the environment and the happiness of the people of Grace, she is strangely “asleep”—even actively resistant—to the idea that she has been and could again be an integral part of this world. What she remembers of her childhood is that her widowed father Doc Homer Noline tried to rear her and her sister Hallie to be superior to the other children of Grace, but that he only succeeded in making them social outcasts. Remembering herself growing up as too tall, socially inept, and forced to wear ugly orthopedic shoes, Codi now sees herself as even more alienated by reason of her fourteen-year absence, her failure to attain her M.D., and her “apologetic punk” style of dress, complete with “Billy Idol haircut.”
Despite the efforts of Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming figures, Codi continues to act as “the Opposite of a homemaker—[a] home ignorer” (in Emelina’s words) and to believe that she will only sojourn in Grace for a year. Emelina tries to act as Codi’s Fairy Godmother (Codi sees her as “my guardian angel”) by bringing Codi into the Domingos’ family life, reintroducing her into the social circles of Grace, and steering her toward Loyd Peregrina, a Pueblo Indian train engineer who is the town’s prize bachelor. Codi ’5 initial discomfort with Loyd is understandable, for a brief love affair with him in high school had left her pregnant, and though she never told him of her pregnancy, Codi still harbors resentment against him. Nevertheless, Loyd fulfills his function as the Prince Charming of the story by courting Codi with gentle sincerity and patience. He tries to reawaken her to her own beauty and ability to love, and he introduces her to the scenic and cultural wonders that are part of his American Indian heritage. Trips by Loyd and Codi to a pueblo ruin, to Canyon de Chelly, and to Loyd’s family pueblo make a strong impression on Codi and convince her of Loyd’s sincere matrimonial intentions. He even gives up cock-fighting—a sport he had pursued as a traditional inheritance from his father—partly because he sympathizes with Codi’s abhorrence of it. Yet though she comes to cherish Loyd as a lover and becomes more involved in Grace as a successful high school teacher and community activist, Codi still resists the idea that she should stay. Periodically she considers reuniting in Tucson with Carlo, a doctor and her former lover of ten years, who offers her a stable though emotionally shallow relationship.
Why is Codi so resistant to the many appeals of Grace? The full answer lies in a darker realm of a psychological mystery and involves Codi, her father, and the social history of the Grace community itself Codi believes that she is resistant to Grace and to love because she remembers experiencing so little love—apart from her close relationship with her sister Hallie—when she lived there during the first eighteen years of her life. Codi defines those years primarily in terms of loss: the loss of her mother soon after the birth of Hallie, when Codi was four, and the secret loss of her child because of a miscarriage. Most of all, Codi bitterly resents Doc Homer for his sternly prohibitive and emotionally cold...
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