Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502

Like many of Barbara Kingsolver’s stories, “Homeland” deals with the power of family resistence and endurance, with cultural survival, and with the sacredness of nature. From the beginning, Great Mam’s tribe resists the efforts of the United States government to move them west, away from their homeland. Although Great Mam has no choice but to move because she must marry outside her tribe, she retains her cultural heritage inside her head. Through the Native American oral tradition, she passes down her knowledge to her great-granddaughter, Gloria. Great Mam honors her Native American background and feels no shame about her marriage, which was never sanctioned by a Christian church. However, Gloria’s mother, the Baptist, who wears white gloves and polishes her scuffed purse with white shoe polish, worries all the while what the neighbors might think. Despite her shame regarding her family roots, Florence Ann is a good mother, caring all the while for her family. Similarly, Gloria’s father’s love and deep concern for Great Mam prompts the family trip to her homeland in Tennessee.

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Kingsolver demonstrates that narrative, particularly the oral form, plays a major role in the preservation of cultural identity. The only remnant that the family finds of Great Mam’s homeland in the midst of the tacky souvenir shops is a mangy, one-eyed buffalo. Great-grandmother seems to float above this gruesome evidence of her people’s demise and speeds up Gloria’s cultural education. Thus, Great Mam’s heritage survives in the knowledge she imparts to her great-granddaughter.

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In many of her works, Kingsolver, a highly acclaimed novelist, views nature as sacred, and her characters demonstrate great concern with its preservation. Her work has been described as eco-feminism because female characters are usually her choice to praise and preserve nature. Great Mam is described as an old pine. When the family finds it difficult to buy meat, she tells Florence Ann, who feels ashamed of her Native American background, that people can live on vegetables. She herself eats her beans with reverence, realizing how each one nourishes her body.

When Gloria picks morning glories for Great Mam, the old lady counters the child’s act of kindness and passes along her tribal knowledge by heightening Gloria’s awareness with another point of view. Great Mam cannot reconcile killing plants just to make room for a garden. Flowers, she believes, are to be enjoyed by everyone and should not be picked. Indeed, she explains to young Gloria that flowers are the young girl’s cousins and that she has committed a sin by killing them. Flowers should grow where they wish and be allowed to die naturally, so that they can set seeds for future generations.

At the end of the story, when Florence Ann cuts cultivated gladiolas with a serrated bread knife, puts them in a jar, and places them on Great Mam’s grave, Gloria remembers Great Mam’s lesson and notices how the cut flowers immediately begin to shrivel up with thirst.

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