Leslie Marmon Silko, Gardens in the Dunes
(Simon & Schuster, 1999)
When the summer doldrums hit, I turn to contemporary fiction, which reads faster than the 19th century stuff I favor the rest of the year. So after I finished a late 19th century Spanish novel last week, I poked around the home fiction collection and came across Gardens in the Dunes. It was a good choice for the season.
Gardens in the Dunes takes place in the first years of the 20th century, in settings including the American Southwest, Long Island, Brazil, England, Italy, and the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean. It follows the intersecting lives and travels of four main characters.
Indigo, the principal protagonist, is a young girl of around eleven. A member of an indigenous clan called the Sand Lizard People, Indigo lives with her mother, her older half-sibling Sister Salt, and Grandmother Fleet in the American southwest. Sometimes they live in a spring-fed place (the dunes of the title) where they grow a variety of vegetables (including the traditional corn, beans and squash) as well as datura and sunflowers. This place appears to be the ancestral home of the Sand Lizard People, although by the time Indigo's story begins, nothing remains of the other clan members except for deserted dugout houses and the plantings. At other times, when the number of displaced native people staying in the dunes increases so that the food supply can no longer sustain them, Indigo and her family travel north to the town of Needles, where the mother works as a laundress, Sister Salt sells baskets to tourists at the railroad depot, and Grandmother Fleet and Indigo forage in the trash heaps at the edge of town. This arrangement ends quite abruptly when the white soldiers and Indian policemen arrive in Needles to break up a large gathering of Native people participating in a Ghost Dance ceremony.
Sister Salt is a few years older than Indigo; in fact, she enters puberty fairly early in the story. After the Ghost Dance raid on Needles, she and Indigo and Grandmother Fleet make it safely back to the dunes. A few months later, Sister Salt and Indigo travel back toward Needles in an effort to find their mother and are captured by Indian policeman. Because of the difference in their ages, the girls are separated and sent to different "schools." The next time the narrative picks up the thread of Sister Salt's life, she is working at the site of a dam construction project on the Colorado River near the town of Parker. A bit of Google research reveals that the Colorado River forms the boundary between Arizona and California, that Parker is on the Arizona side of the river, while Needles is north and on the California side of the river.
The other two main characters are a recently married white couple, Edward Palmer and his wife, Hattie. When Indigo escapes from the Indian school in Riverside, California, she ends up on the Palmer's citrus ranch where Hattie discovers and befriends her. The Palmers both have ties to Oyster Bay, Long Island, where they met. Hattie is in her late twenties and suffers from various "female complaints" -- some physical and some psychological -- that appear to be related to her intellectual pursuits. In a flashback, we learn that she earned an undergraduate degree from Vassar and went on to attend classes at the Harvard Divinity School, where she proposed to write a master's thesis on the role of female principle in the early Christian church, as depicted in certain Coptic and Gnostic texts. Her committee rejected her proposal outright, labeling it "heretical."
Edward is quite a bit older than Hattie. He earns a living, more or less, by traveling to exotic places and bringing back specimens (primarily plants, but other artifacts, as well) to sell to wealthy collectors. In a flashback, we learn that one of his recent expeditions, up the Pará River in Brazil in search of orchids, was both a financial and a physical disaster. He returned from that trip with a tarnished reputation and a badly injured leg. He also returned with a monkey that becomes a part of Indigo's story, and a vague curse that plays itself out over the course of their travels together.
Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that Indigo longs to be reunited with her family, but instead travels across the United States, the Atlantic Ocean, and part of Europe with the Palmers before finally returning to the southwest. During her journey, she visits numerous gardens and collects seeds and corms that she carefully carries back with her, fully intending to introduce the new plants to the gardens in the dunes. Silko offers this collecting behavior in contrast to that of Edward Palmer and his sister Susan, who both participate in far more destructive forms of plant harvesting and relocation. During this same journey, Hattie seems to gain more insight into the underlying theme of her proposed thesis, which is the role of the mother goddess in world religions, as she encounters various symbols of the goddess and experiences several ecstatic episodes.
I greatly enjoyed the elaborate descriptions of the gardens and the goddess imagery in this book. In these parts, the story shines. Overall, though, I found the plot utterly exhausting. The characters are always "on the road." In fact, it is evident that they found this itinerary exhausting, too -- in many scenes, one or another character is resting, taking a hot bath, using an opiate to counter pain or anxiety, crying or pouting or sulking. Small wonder that tempers frayed, relationships deteriorated, and people made VERY unwise choices!!
The book is also beset with a number of inconsistencies and lacunae that an editor should have caught before the manuscript went to press. For example, Silko took some interesting liberties with history. It's a bit of a challenge to figure out exactly when the action in the story takes place, but hints like William McKinley's consideration of Teddy Roosevelt as a running mate and Utah's recent statehood suggest shortly after 1897. But if that is the case, she is off by a few years on the Ghost Dance movement, which peaked in the early 1890s. California citrus growers began cultivating citron in the 1880s, so Edward's scheme to bring cuttings back from Corsica would also be off by a few years. Although Silko never actually names the dam that is under construction, its location on the Colorado River near the Parker Reservation and her mention of the Chemehuevi, Mojave and Havasupai people living in the area suggest that it must be the Parker Dam, which wasn't built until the 1930s.
Likewise in Edward's flashback about the Pará River trip, Silko uses scientific names and detailed physical descriptions for all the orchids Edward is collecting to take back to the United States, but nowhere in the story does she mention the species or any significant details about the appearance of the highly intelligent monkey that becomes Edward's and later Indigo's companion, even though that information would be helpful to the reader in visualizing him. A tertiary character (the dam construction site supervisor) is named variously Wylie or Wiley, depending on the page of the text where he's mentioned. The word "deity" is misspelled "diety." Edward's ruse for collecting citron cuttings in Corsica shifts without explanation from painting to photographing the groves. Am I being picky? Sure -- these relatively small problems detract from an otherwise entertaining read and could have easily been remedied.
Leslie Marmon Silko is a Laguna Pueblo who lives in Tucson. According to her official Web site and other Web-based sources, she spent part of her career teaching English and creative writing at the University of Arizona. She has written two other novels, Ceremony, published in 1988, and Almanac of the Dead, published in 1992, as well as short stories and essays. Her work is often assigned reading in college English, comparative literature, and creative writing classes. Garden in the Dunes is her most recent novel. Although it's now five years old, it appears to be readily available in hard cover and paperback editions.