A Culture Clash
Underlying the plot in Animal Dreams is the notion of a clash between two different cultures, white and Native American. The focus for this is environmental degradation. The ravages of modern industrial society are represented by the Black Mountain Mining Company. Codi thinks of the mine, with its “pile of dead tailings,” as “a mountain cannibalizing its own guts and soon to destroy the living trees and home lives of Grace. It was such an American story.” A similar process is going on in the Jemez mountains in New Mexico, which are being mined for pumice. Pumice is required for the manufacture of the “distressed,” or stone-washed, denim jeans that are very popular with the young. Codi launches into a tirade against the practice in her classroom: They wash them in a big machine with this special kind of gravel they get out of volcanic mountains. The prettiest mountains you ever saw in your life. But they’re fragile, like a big pile of sugar. Levi Strauss or whoever goes in there with bulldozers and chainsaws and cuts down the trees and rips the mountainside to hell, so that all of us lucky Americans can wear jeans that look like somebody threw them in the garbage before we got them.
In contrast to this practice of ripping natural substances out of the ground, making them into something unnatural, and then returning the waste products to the earth in an indigestible form-all in the name of economic progress and profit-Kingsolver presents the very different attitude that Native Americans have toward the earth. At first the difference puzzles Codi. She asks Loyd how it can be that a canyon on Navajo tribal land has remained productive for over a thousand years, but Grace is being destroyed after only a century. The difference, as she later learns, is that Native Americans respect the earth as a living being and seek with humility to maintain the ecological balance that the earth needs. They acknowledge that they do not own the earth but try to be responsible guests. This gives Codi a new perspective on her own culture: To people who think of themselves as God’s houseguests, American enterprise must seem arrogant beyond belief. Or stupid. A nation of amnesiacs, proceeding as if there were no other day but today. Assuming the land could also forget what had been done to it.
Kingsolver is herself an environmentalist, and she commented on this difference between the two cultures in an interview with Lisa See for Publishers Weekly: We are only as healthy as our food chain and the environment. The Pueblo corn dances say the same things, only spiritually. Whereas in our culture, we think we’re it. The Earth was put here as a garden for us to conquer and use. That way of thought was productive for years, but it’s beginning to do us in now.
B Individualism and Community
The clash between cultures highlights the contrast between individualism and community. The company Black Mountain Mining relentlessly pursues its own interests despite responsibilities it has to the human community that is adversely affected by mining activities. This theme also operates at a much more personal level, in the life of Codi. When she first arrives in Grace, she feels isolated and detached, and this has been the pattern of her life. Since her mother died when she was three, and her father has been emotionally unavailable, she has lacked the warm family support that would nourish her life. After dropping out of a medical career, she wanders from one job to the next, and one location to the next, never feeling that she has a purpose in life. She acknowledges that she is not good at “nesting,” at making a home for herself somewhere. At the beginning of the novel, Codi is essentially rootless.
Codi’s aimlessness is in marked contrast to the social activism of her sister, Hallie. Hallie feels strongly about righting the wrongs of the world and boldly goes off to Nicaragua to put her ideals into practice. She never doubts herself or the value of what she is doing. She has no difficulty in identifying with something larger than herself.
But the character who most clearly represents the value of communal life as opposed to the isolation of the individual is Loyd. It is Loyd, with his supportive family and his appreciation of the living essence of Native American culture, who helps steer Codi in the right direction. Eventually, she recovers her sense of belonging. Whereas she never had any confidence in her ability to be a doctor, she slowly discovers that she has a gift for teaching. This links her to her community, a link that is also fostered by her work with the Stitch and Bitch Club to save the town. Furthermore, Codi discovers that far from being outsiders from Illinois-as Doc Homer had taught her-her family has a heritage going back to the early settlers of Grace.
All these things combine to give Codi a sense that she is larger than the boundaries of her own small self. This is particularly apparent in chapter 26, “The Fifty Mothers,” when all the women of the town come to the funeral that Codi arranges for her murdered sister and share their memories of her. Codi’s grief is great, but she learns that even that can be bearable when there are others to lend their support: “Loyd was standing on one side of me, and Emelina on the other, and whenever I thought I might fall or just cease to exist, the pressure of their shoulders held me there.” Finally, she acknowledges that all the women present are in effect her relatives. She remembers “each one of these fifty mothers who’d been standing at the edges of my childhood, ready to make whatever contribution was needed at the time.”