Homeless Story of J: Part 7
The answer is simple. The solution impossible.
I found a copy of Animal Dreams in the library trash the other day. Apparently this 90’s book by Barbara Kingsolver is old and expendable. To dispel any uncertainty, a bright red “DISCARDED” is stamped on the inside covers and the spine.
It’s a pretty good book about a wounded young woman, Codi, trying to find her identity across all dimensions: family, spirituality, love, community, ethos. Her sister Hallie, who never appears except through letters from Nicaragua, is Codi’s stand-in conscience (though Codi’s hunky Apache lover Lloyd is outrightly sagacious in his native wisdom).
The most stirring and emotional statements in the book are in Hallie’s letters, buried deep in the text. Kingsolver had to hide and mitigate these gems to avoid looking didactic. Lecturing your readers is the quickest way to lose them.
Codi seems stunned and uncertain when her sister, who went to Nicaragua to teach good farming practices, gets mad at her for being indecisive and wimpy. Hallie, after all, is witness to abduction, torture and arson as thugs burn down schools and medical buildings. These thugs are the contras, the counter-revolutionary army backed by Ronald Reagan in the good ol’ USA.
Historically, let me add, Congress got sick of Reagan spending money to destroy Nicaragua’s populist regime and forbid it. But Reagan went behind their back, set up his own private intelligence network (remember Ollie North?) and sold missiles to Iran to fund it.
Anyway, Hallie witnesses firsthand the US-backed assault on a young democracy. She teaches the peasants the best way to plow, but the contras destroy the tractors. In her letters, she gets fed up with her whiny sister, and responds to her claims that she (Hallie) is perfect and inimitable:
I’m not here to save anybody or anything. It’s not some perfect ideal we’re working toward ...What keeps you going isn’t some fine destination but just the road you’re on, and the fact you know how to drive. You keep your eyes open, you see this damned-to-hell world you got born into, and you ask yourself, “What life can I live that will let me breathe in & out and love somebody or something and not run off screaming into the woods?”
In another letter, Hallie tries to wake Codi up, bluntly explaining her philosophy:
The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope ...What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed.
It’s sad that Kingsolver had to conceal these nuggets deep in a novel whose protagonist comes across as a bit too self-absorbed. Codi’s mother died when she was young, her father was strict and emotionally distant, and she had a miscarriage she never told anyone about--but on the other hand, she’s spent most of her adult life traipsing around having sex, almost finishing medical school only to drop out, having more sex, travelling the world with a doctor, having sex, and returning to her hometown, where she is immediately embraced by a wonderful family and special community, and having sex with an Apache adonis who is absolutely flawless in his attention, patience, kindness, and love for her.
None of this fazes her too deeply, though, as she is hostage to old demons. In her defense, much of her life (prior to the novel's present) is spent helping the rural poor as a medical assistant.
At one point, she saves the life of her neighbor's infant child, who is choking on a nut, but then shrugs it off, and dismisses the idea that she should go back and finish medical school.
At the climax, Codi almost flees to Colorado with her ex-doctor boyfriend (good for lust and company), but the death of Hallie as a martyr in Nicaragua spurs her to accept her Apache lover and the community of her childhood.
Codi has some deep moments in the book, for example when she reflects, “We live our whole lives around disguised animal thoughts.” And when she draws connections between the nature of our dreams and how we live (“it’s what you do that makes your soul”).
However, the most important dream thought is reserved for a letter from Hallie:
I still have American dreams. I mean literally. I see microwave ovens and exercise machines and grocery-store shelves with thirty brands of shampoo. And I look at those things oddly, in my dream. I stand and I think, “What is all this for? What is the hunger that drives this need? I think it’s fear.”
Hallie knows that the answer has one pure root: elementary kindness. She knows that we need to stop fretting about which shampoo to buy.
And she dies because most of us are not even as noble as Codi, who doesn't change until a family death and a pure love combine to overcome her psychic scars.
The answer is simple. But the Codi's of the world, and the sub-Codi's, have no easy way to get there.