An outstanding athletic team can win even when it doesn’t play its best game. Apparently the same can be said of an outstanding novelist. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Animal Dreams is not her best work, but it is stunning nevertheless. Like a rich mine, her novels keep turning up nuggets of pure gold. In this novel, we follow a young woman in search of her self and her place in the world. Her mother died whence was three and her father was cold and remote, lost in his work and unable to give his daughter and her sister any real affection. So the sisters form a tight bond, but when the younger one goes off to teach people in Central America how to improve their farming practices, the heroine is left alone to find her way. She ends up with a dashing young Indian named Loyd who takes her to his Pueblo village at Christmas time to witness a celebration of the season — not Christmas, but a spiritual celebration of thanks that has many parallels with the Christian custom as it was once celebrated (before Big Business took over the show). The two have the following conversation, which, as I say, is pure gold. Loyd is explaining the celebration:
“We’re on our own. The spirits have been good enough to let us live here [on this earth] and use the utilities, and we’re saying: We know how nice you’re being. We appreciate the rain, we appreciate the sun, we appreciate the deer we took. Sorry if we messed up anything. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble and we’ll try to be good guests.”
“Like a note you’d send somebody after you’ve stayed in their home?”
“Exactly like that. . .
“It’s a good idea. . . especially since we’re still here sleeping on God’s couch. We’re permanent house guests.”
“Yep, we are. Better remember how to put everything back how we found it.”
It was a new angle on religion for me. I felt a little embarrassed for my blunt interrogation. And the more I thought about it, even more embarrassed for my bluntly utilitarian culture. “The way they tell it to us Anglos, God put the earth here for us to use, westward-ho. Like a special playground.”
“Well that explains a lot. . . . But where do you go when you’ve pissed in every corner of your playground?”
“. . . . To people who think of themselves as God’s house guests 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.”
Admittedly, the novel is somewhat didactic. Kingsolver has something to say and dammit! she’s going to say it. But it is important, even if it smacks a bit of romantic blindness to the shortcomings of native people and holds them up as paragons of virtue. We must admit that they, being human, also have faults. They have their petty jealousies, squabbles, and even wars. At the same time, the native people have always been much closer to the earth than we are and it’s a good idea to take a long, hard look at our own culture from the perspective of other people; Kingsolver is very good at that. In the end, what our culture has done to this planet, and continues to do today, is indeed embarrassing. And stupid.
Hugh, this more than once you have mentioned this author. I need to follow your lead and give it a taste. Keith
I will mention her again! Barney says he has read some of her novels as well.
Thanks for writing this, Hugh. In some Christian denominations, the idea of “stewardship” of the earth is at least talked about — much like the scene you showed here: this is God’s house, and we’re merely staying in it for a time, so we need to take care of it and be thankful for the use of it. But talking about it, and living it out are two different things, of course. The natives depicted here take it so much closer to heart than most Christians I know, even those who at least listen to the stewardship concept. You’ve written before: we need to listen to our poets (meaning poets, novelists, short-story writers). Here’s another time where we need to listen.
Indeed we do. And Kingsolver is one of the best. Thanks for putting me on to her!
Great piece, Hugh. Isn’t it wonderful to discover a writer who speaks to us on a new plain? I always have enjoyed Kingsolver’s work, though it isn’t always an easy read. Which is good for us.
Thanks for sharing this piece about stewards of the earth. So true, no matter how few of us may follow it.
She’s a jewel all right!