In Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams (1990), Codi Noline, a young woman unsure of her purpose in life, returns to her hometown of Grace, Arizona, to teach high school and care for her father. As the novel unfolds, Codi gradually becomes aware of important political and environmental issues. She also learns that the detached and cynical individualism that has dominated her life is not the best recipe for happiness. Her exposure to Hispanic and Native American culture shows her the value of the communal way of living, which emphasizes deep and lasting ties to family and to the earth. Although her life is blighted by the tragic death of her sister, Hallie, Codi finally finds peace in the knowledge and acceptance of who she is and where she comes from.
Barbara Kingsolver was born on April 5, 1955, in Annapolis, Maryland, to Virginia and Wendell R. Kingsolver. Her father was a country physician, and Kingsolver grew up in rural Kentucky, where she became aware of the poverty that many people in the area had to endure. As a child, Kingsolver was a voracious reader and wanted to become a writer although she did not believe this to be a realistic goal.
A Chapter 1
In the first chapter of Animal Dreams, Dr. Homer Noline gazes on his two young daughters, Cosima and Halimeda, as they sleep curled up close together. It is early November, the Night of All Souls in the Christian liturgical calendar.
A Dona Althea
Dona Althea is one of the formidable ladies of the Stitch and Bitch Club. She is old, silver-haired, and tiny, and she always dresses in black. She is also strong-willed. Codi regards her as “fierce and miniature like a frightening breed of small dog.” When the Stitch and Bitch Club fights to save the town, Dona Althea becomes their media spokeswoman and is interviewed by CBS.
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.
The novel is set mostly in the fictional town of Grace, Arizona, although some scenes take place in the Santa Rosalia Pueblo, also fictional, in New Mexico. Codi’s first sight of Grace on her return gives a good picture of its almost idyllic beauty: The view from here was orchards: pecan, plum, apple. . . . The trees filled the whole valley floor to the sides of the canyon. Confetti-colored houses perched on the slopes at its edges with their backs to the canyon wall.
A The United States and Nicaragua in the 1980s
Hallie’s impassioned letters to Codi about the political situation in Nicaragua reflect a major foreign policy issue of the times. Throughout the 1980s, U.S. policy toward Nicaragua was in the forefront of public debate.
-Research the history of the Nicaraguan contras during the 1980s. Were the contras the evil force described in Animal Dreams, or were they freedom fighters opposing communist tyranny as many in the United States believed?
Kingsolver’s nonfiction book, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (1989), examines the leadership role played by women during the Phelps Dodge Copper Company labor dispute. The small towns described resemble Grace, and the women are the prototypes of the Stitch and Bitch Club in Animal Dreams.