Gardens in the Dunes

by Leslie Marmon Silko

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Gardens in the Dunes, by Leslie Marmon Silko is an ambitious novel. It tackles a clash of civilizations, human depredation of the natural world, the hypocrisy of religion, and the cultural imperatives of imperialism. Whether it treats these themes adequately, you should judge for yourself. Read the book, and check out the excellent study guide available on this website.

Indigo personifies Native American civilizations in their struggle against white domination at the end of the Nineteenth Century. The vicissitudes of her life are meant to be emblematic not of the actual course of events, though a massacre and forced removal from her ancestral land figure in the story. Instead, they're supposed to make us reflect on how one way of life can destroy another even when one people are well-meaning and another people just want to be left alone.

The personification of white civilization in the book isn't Hattie. It's Edward. He knows better. He knows what's good for the world, and he's determined to see it done. He has no doubts, no shame, and no qualms about smashing obstacles he finds in his path, even if those are people, ancient traditions, or fragile ecosystems. Hattie, though she's presented as a main character, is just thematic baggage. She's carried along on this conflict between progress and preservation, and she's basically destroyed by it. But she doesn't have agency in it. She's central to the plot, but she isn't necessary to the story, which seems odd until you realize that she doesn't do very much except get victimized or become anxious.

Edward is also the vehicle for the supporting themes, all of which could be packaged under the label "evil white imperialism." He comes out of Victorian England at the height of the British Empire's power, to make his mark. It's important to recognize that botanists of that era were idolized as intrepid explorers, which many actually were, risking life and limb to bring new bits of the natural world "home" to metropolitan English civilization. If he were an accountant or an engineer or a journalist, his character wouldn't pack the same punch. The Victorian botanist epitomized what Edward Said described as the symbiosis of "culture and imperialism" in his book of that title. I highly recommend you read it. You'll get all the intellectual background you need to thoroughly deconstruct Silko's novel.

An important part of that analysis would be a recognition of just how hypocritical religion, and particularly Christianity, is when it comes to "saving" the world. It's a chicken-and-egg question as to which came first, imperialism or evangelization. Really, they are interdependent. The message in the novel is transparent, that Christian values are all right if you're white, but when they're applied to non-white cultures, or when they're used to dominate marginalized groups in white societies, they're pernicious.

All of this is in Gardens in the Dunes, but you'll have to work for it. Read up on the historical background and some radical critiques of colonialism, and you'll be much better placed to understand the themes and the plot.

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