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.