Although the copper mine that had given the little town of Grace, Arizona, its main reason for existing petered out years ago, the little town soldiers on. Men who were once miners now work for the railroad instead; and their mothers, wives, or daughters manage the family homes and tend to the pecan orchards down by the river. The town's teens still sneak cigarettes on the river bank and dream of moving to Phoenix, to LA, to New York -- dreams made all the more vivid for this generation by glittering MTV that streams through their satellite dishes. The children's grandmothers cling to the ways of their grandmothers: the Gracela sisters who had emigrated a hundred years ago from distant Spain. Those eight mail-order brides, ordered with a volume discount, brought only their clothes, their Bibles, and the forefathers of the peacock flock that roosts to this day among the pecan trees.
Into this quiet, sunbaked desert village now strides a six-foot tall redhead sporting a Billy Idol haircut and a pair of silver-toed cowboy boots. One day after high-school graduation fourteen years ago, Cosima "Codi" Noline hopped aboard a westbound Greyhound and slapped the dust of Grace from the seat of her faded jeans for the last time.
Or so she thought.
Now Codi has reluctantly returned to the town of her birth, under contract to teach biology at her old high school for one year. In reality, however, she's come home to watch over her father, the town doctor, as he slips gradually into that long, dark night of Alzheimer's. Codi's life since that fall from Grace comprises a long list of failures. Prior to this contract, the med-school dropout's most recent job was night "manager" at a convenience store. A ten-year relationship with her doctor lover had slowly deteriorated to the point of just going through the motions and sadly, neither one seems to care much.
Even as Codi's current Greyhound bus grinds across the desert from Tucson, her only sister Hallie is headed in the opposite direction: south, to where she plans to teach agriculture to peasants in war-torn Nicaragua. Hallie seems determined to make something out of her life by leaving; can Codi accomplish the same feat by coming home?
Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams plays the three Nolines, father Homer and his motherless daughters, like a composer with a symphony. Against the major themes of Codi's daily life -- teaching duties at the school, re-acquainting herself with half-remembered friends and neighbors, discreetly watching over her father and re-igniting an old flame -- Kingsolver adds the counterpoint of Homer's decline in a minor key; carefully unveiling his failing memory. A view of Codi-today brings to him not thoughts of the grown-up daughter who stands before him, but instead detailed and vivid flashbacks of four- or nine- or fifteen-year-old Codi; for Homer's disease means that he remembers her childhood far better than she. Hallie, the younger daughter, is represented by a recurring theme played out in her letters home: alternating among notes of poignancy, humor, anger, and sorrow. And through everything there run the major undertones of the reappearance of Loyd Peregrina, Codi's first lover, whom she had not seen in half a lifetime.
As with any Kingsolver tale, the strongest characterizations in Animal Dreams are reserved for the women. Whether in Grace, in a Pueblo high on the Colorado Plateau, or in downtown Tucson; strength lies in the wisdom and pride of the mothers and grandmothers. Such strength is especially appealing to Codi, who knows neither mother nor grandmother. The men of Grace are interested only in keeping their jobs, in watching the Broncos on television, and in tossing back a few of an evening at the local Cantina. These things are all of far more interest to them than saving Grace.
Kingsolver likewise touches on another of her recurrent themes -- the environment -- when Codi's senior biology class field trip to the river finds its waters bereft of microscopic life, mass extinction due to a pH below that of battery acid. The death of the river will mean the death of the orchards, and the death of Grace's way of life. The women ignore their menfolks' warlike grumblings (knowing they'll soon die away in apathy) and attack the town's problem head-on with the resources at hand: pride, heritage, persistence, and hard work.
More than anything else, Animal Dreams is the story of a woman who programmed herself to fail; a woman who can't free herself of this programming until she recovers the lost details of her childhood. In her return to Grace, Codi sets herself on the road that leads both back to the child she once was and to the woman she can someday be. From the examples set by the grandmothers of Grace, Codi recovers what has been missing from her life, dormant since the death of her mother when she was just three.