Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Animal Dream

Animal Dreams is a 1990 novel by Barbara Kingsolver. A woman named Cosima "Codi" Noline returns to her hometown of Grace, Arizona to help her aging father, who is slowly losing his struggle with Alzheimer's disease. She takes a biology teacher position at the local high school and lives with her old high school friend, Emelina. Animal Dreams features Kingsolver's trademark—alternating perspectives throughout the novel. Most chapters are told from the perspective of Codi, while others are told from her father, Homer's, perspective. The book was dedicated to Ben Linder, who was killed by the Contras on April 28, 1987.

The novel features some Hispanic and Native American themes. Codi's sister, Halimeda "Hallie", moves to Nicaragua to teach local people more sustainable farming techniques and dies after being captured by the Contras. Another political theme in the novel is the small town's fight against the Black Mountain Mining Company, which pollutes the river water and nearly destroys the citizens' orchard trees, Grace's primary economic livelihood.

In addition to political themes like these, many of Kingsolver's novels also feature images and themes from biology. Animal Dreams is rich with natural imagery and the study of the created world. And, as with most Kingsolver novels, this one is laced with genial humor.

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Have American novelists, especially younger ones, abandoned a larger political and cultural vision in favor of narrow domesticity? Or have critics who make these charges failed to see a new vision emerging in the place of outmoded forms? Barbara Kingsolver's second novel, "Animal Dreams," reveals how complex any answer to these questions can be, and how difficult it is for a novelist to forge a compelling political vision in our new world, where so many systems of social organization have turned out to be either ineffectual or bankrupt.

Ms. Kingsolver's main characters are sisters, Codi and Hallie Noline. Although these two are extremely close, they decide to go separate ways - Hallie to Nicaragua, to give poor farmers the benefit of her agricultural expertise, and Codi back to their hometown, where their widower father, Doc Homer, appears to have the first symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Codi, who narrates the story, does not imagine that she will actually be able to help her father, partly because of the hopelessness of the disease and partly because of the old man's self-sufficient and emotionally remote habits. More than anything else, her journey is a gesture, made to relieve her general sense of uselessness. Of the life she is leaving, she writes: "My career track had run straight down into the weedy lots on the rough side of town. . . . For the last six months in Tucson I'd worked night shift at 7-Eleven, selling beer and Alka-Seltzer to people who would have been better off home in bed."

Codi has as much admiration for her sister's intentions as she fails to have for her own, an admiration that Ms. Kingsolver herself seems to share. Nevertheless, Hallie the adventurer, the character most writers of earlier generations would have followed, is the offstage character. She enters the novel only through Codi's memories and through her letters, which are occasionally quoted at length. Nor does Codi spend much time with Doc Homer. She is far more interested in figuring out whether or not she is really at home in her hometown.

Grace, Ariz., is not without some of the attributes of paradise: the weather is perfect, the population (predominantly Hispanic and Native American) supports itself through agriculture, tending groves of pecan, plum, pear and apple trees. Sacred Navajo and Pueblo lands lie nearby. The putative ancestors of the town's inhabitants are right out of a fairy tale - nine beautiful sisters who came from Spain, bringing peacocks whose descendants now run wild in the orchards. But this paradise is also a threatened place: the owners of a worked-out copper mine have polluted the town's river with sulfuric acid and, rather than paying to clean it up, have decided instead to divert the water, which will destroy the orchards.

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