Barbara Kingsolver’s Anti-Western:
“Unraveling the Myths” in Animal Dreams

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2003, Volume 2, Issue 2

Naomi Jacobs
University of Maine

Best-selling and award-winning author Barbara Kingsolver is often discussed as a regional writer of the new West, as well as a representative of “ecofeminist” fiction.  I will argue here that Kingsolver’s 1990 Animal Dreams should be understood not merely as an ecofeminist tale set in the Southwest, but as an appropriation and reinvention of the narrative conventions and moral assumptions of the popular Western—a myth that, as Richard Slotkin argues in Gunfighter Nation, deeply informs American political culture and public policy.  Kingsolver sees one of her tasks as a writer to be “unraveling” such sacred myths (PBS interview).  Animal Dreams was written in the aftermath of the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who himself had acted in film westerns and was known as “Le Cowboy” in France.  Reagan’s support for Contra rebels in Nicaragua figures in the book’s major subplot, as does the corporate irresponsibility encouraged by Reagan-era weakening of environmental regulations.  A critique of a myth that underlies both militarist public policy and corporate depredations on the environment, Animal Dreams unravels the Western’s conventional approach to heroism, to violence and death, and to community. 

Kingsolver’s project participates in a broad movement to reconsider this most resonant American form (see Cawelti, Morris, Siegel, Stillman, Comer).  Examples include the anti-western novels of Berger or Doctorow, the more nostalgic fiction of Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy, and films such as the Ballad of Little Jo and Unforgiven.  All question the western narrative of righteous violence.  Many critics have examined how this narrative has glorified an ideal of masculine toughness, solitude, and independence, often set in opposition to the realm of home, family, and women that the hero purportedly defends (see Ben-Zvi, Graulich, Mitchell, Tompkins).  According to Langdon Elsbree, in the Western, “The complex networks of family, ethnic and national affiliations, and local and regional ties . . . tend to be envisioned as wastelands, menacing gothic presences, or the nets and traps that fetter us” (47).

Thus, in the paradigmatic forms of the Western, the primary female roles  “are those of the resourceful, submissive helpmate (who sometimes becomes the entrapping civilizer), the victim, and the bad woman” (Underwood, “Western Women” 96).  Indeed, the qualities assigned to women--fear, weakness, vulnerability, emotion, and sexuality itself--are the very qualities the hero must suppress in order to carry out his role, and individual women represent “obstacles to [his] freedom” (Graulich 187).  In West of Everything, Jane Tompkins has defined the form as a “narrative of male violence” (32) that arose in reaction to women’s dominance of moral high ground in the nineteenth century.  The genre, developed against the sentimental novels attributing moral authority to women, was characterized by the sacralization of violence, the suppression of feeling, and the “deauthorization of women” (42).  Its protagonist is typically a laconic stranger who comes upon a town threatened by a hostile force such as Indians, outlaws, or the more abstract danger of rapacious banks or railroads.  Through violence, the hero rousts the forces of evil, re-establishes order, and rides away to pursue his lonely fate.  “Victory,” writes Tompkins, “ . . . means becoming insensate” (214); the hero must sacrifice his capacity to feel in order to carry out the actions necessary to protect others from harm.  This emotional austerity is underscored by scenes in which animals (especially cattle or horses) are brutalized and by the constant presence of death, emblematized in the memento mori of bones in the desert sand or the rough cross marking a lonely grave. 

Whatever the limitations of Tompkins’ generalizations about a complex genre (Mitchell), she does identify many aspects of the Western that Kingsolver will systematically revise.  Retaining the genre’s narrative drive, many of its stock figures and situations, and indeed its popular accessibility, Kingsolver reverses its emotional trajectory and refutes its ideology.  In her feminized Western, a solitary protagonist does “ride into town” and help to save the town from a corporate enemy.  But she does so only as catalyst for a group of women who triumph through collective, nonviolent action.  The heroine’s personal task is to become sensate, to conquer her desire to ride off into the sunset, and to join the community. 1 The novel de-sacralizes violence and re-authorizes connection and nurturance as essential bases for heroism.  Unraveling this sacred myth of American culture, Kingsolver weaves its threads into a new myth of individual wholeness, gender equality and social harmony.

Unmaking Western Heroism

The first appearance of Kingsolver’s heroine explicitly evokes the opening of many Western films.  A tall, solitary figure wearing denim and boots enters the deserted main street of a small town where there “were iron rings mortared into the block wall of the courthouse where a person could tie a horse” (11).  This is Cosima Noline.  Her given name means “Order in the Cosmos.”  But she has gone by the nickname “Codi” since a third-grade fad for Buffalo Bill Cody, thus aligning herself with the gunslinging version of the West.  Her family name suggests the anonymous “no name” heroes of that same tradition; she believes she has “no line” of extended family connection.  Returning home to tend to an ailing father, Codi has signed a contract to teach high school biology for one year only.  However, with her punk haircut and purple cowboy boots, she is hardly the “schoolmarm from the East” who will domesticate the hero. 

Rather, she is the hero who needs to be domesticated.  Codi has always felt herself an outsider.  Furthermore, like an archetypal Western hero, she regards love and connection as dangers to avoid.  Except for a close connection to her sister, Codi’s emotional life has been distant and cautious.  Her one long-term relationship was founded upon a “no strings” agreement (105).  A friend calls her a “home ignorer” (77), and Codi describes herself as having “no mission beyond personal survival” (107); she fully intends to maintain the “invulnerability of the transient” (147).  Her practice has been to “just buckle up your tough old heart and hit the road” (310).  Such language evokes, however parodically, the ethos of the Western hero, for whom an anonymous mobility is the basis of power and freedom.

But Kingsolver recasts these conventional heroic attributes as forms of cowardice and sources of weakness.  This Lone Ranger is aimless and despairing for lack of community and a past denied.  Where a Buffalo Bill Cody gains power with each notch on his gun, the life Codi has “taken,” a child secretly miscarried and buried when she was fifteen, has numbed her emotionally.  Rather than steeling her for heroic action, this avoidance of emotion incapacitates her.  Adopting a defensive fatalism, believing that “mountains don’t move” (36), she has turned over the “moral advantage” to her sister (52) by systematically forgetting childhood incidents in which she herself had taken the lead in protecting life, and constructing Hallie--who worked with the sanctuary movement aiding political refugees and is now an agricultural advisor in Nicaragua--as the brave and compassionate one.    

Codi’s solitude is neither freely chosen nor gladly held.  She has taken on her father’s “slavish self-sufficiency,” his central ethic of “being like no one else, being alone” (69).  Whenever she becomes involved with other people, she protects herself by assuming that these connections are temporary.  She considers her lover Loyd, for instance, “a trap I could still walk out of” (236).  She realizes that her desire for mobility has its source in fear of loss, saying, “I was running, forgetting what lay behind and always looking ahead for the perfect home, where trains never wrecked and hearts never broke, where no one you loved ever died” (236).  Yet despite her self-knowledge, Codi does again try to flee after her father’s death.  Only the near-crash of her departure flight brings her back to Grace, to Loyd, and to a future as a “thoroughly inclusive, relational, and mythic heroic Self” (Poland 196).  Where the classic Western hero re-establishes the social order through violence and then departs, order is reimposed on this cosmos when Codi takes her place in the constellation of community and family, firmly rooted in her past and holding her own future within herself in the child she carries.

Complicating the Native “Sidekick”

Perhaps most important in bringing Codi back into the community is Loyd Peregrina, her Native boyfriend and, unknown to him, the father of the child she lost.  Relationships between Europeans and Natives bear heavy symbolic freight in canonical American literature, as well as in popular Westerns.  Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel considered Cooper’s, Melville’s and Twain’s pairings of a white man with a loyal man of color--precursors to the Lone Ranger and Tonto--to be expressive of a European longing for reconciliation with those races it had subjugated.  According to Deming, the loyal Indian woman played a similarly compensatory role in early literary depictions of marriages between European men and Native women, representing “the beneficent aspect of the bountiful garden . . . [she is] merely one of the natural resources to be exploited” (97).  The Pocahantas/Sacajawea figure, who loves and assists her conqueror, allows Europeans to imagine that conquest as welcomed.  In early literature by men, such alliances were portrayed in a less positive light when genders were reversed: the emphasis then became the need to defend the female bearer of white culture against rape or corruption at the hands of a “savage dark man” (Deming 93). 

By contrast, notes Person, some early American women writers imagined interracial love stories in which an “Indian male, reverential and loving rather than possessive and authoritarian, offers a romantic contrast” to the “arbitrary authority of Puritan society” (683).  Codi’s lover Loyd is, to a certain extent, a figure in this tradition, with her father playing the role of that arbitrary authority.  Codi grows up starved for the intimacy that she finds with Loyd, whose heritage combines the land-based values of Pueblo culture with a matriarchal egalitarianism. 

White women writers’ representations of the loyal, loving Native man are hardly unproblematic.  According to Georgi-Findlay, Indian men are “aestheticized and feminized” in narratives by army wives, missionary women, and female settlers of the frontier period.  She argues that “rhetorically domesticating the Indian man . . . maintains racial inequality” (xv).  While it is true that Kingsolver romanticizes Loyd, in his patience and devotion he joins the company of many too-good-to-be-true white boyfriends in Kingsolver’s work.  Furthermore, clearly more powerful and mature than Codi, he is no savage innocent.  And like Codi, he must grow and change.

As is appropriate for the lover of a heroine who comes to understand the interrelationship between the survival of the natural environment and the survival of the community, Loyd is associated with both wild nature and domesticity.  His family name, Peregrina, evokes the wild falcon that always returns to its original nesting grounds.  His constant companion is a coyote/dog cross, again a mix of the wild and the domesticated. Loyd thus represents a different sort of wildness than does Codi or her namesake Buffalo Bill, whose fame was based upon wholesale slaughter of buffalo.  Yet Loyd’s affiliation with nature is complex.  He works on the railroad--rides the Iron Horse, as his Apache ancestors might have ridden the horses of the plains; in this he is associated both with mobility and with modernity.  His mobile home, an apparatus of mobility and product of industrialization, is overgrown with vines and flowers, fixed in place by the powers of nature.  He is thoroughly modernized, no purveyor of shamanism or wearer of turquoise jewelry.  Still, his love for home allies him with the Native values described by McAllister, who writes that “for the Indian mind, everything centers upon home; home defines, home creates the individual…if [a man] chooses to deny the home, he denies by implication everything, he joins the spirit of denial, the witches working” (158).  Before Loyd and Grace, Codi has been just such a home denier--like her ironically named father Homer, who denied his relation to the otherwise-extinct Nolina family but nevertheless, like a homing pigeon, returned to his place of origin.

Of course, the dangers of generalizing about “the Indian mind” as McAllister does above are considerable.  Kingsolver avoids these dangers to some extent by recasting claims about race into ones about culture.  Loyd’s heritage incorporates contradictory values.  On his mother’s side, he is Pueblo; on his father’s side, Navajo and Apache.  When visiting his mother, he replaces his cowboy boots with moccasins, recalling how when he and his brother would return from summers on the Navajo reservation wearing cowboy boots and cowboy hats his mother would “grab our hats and swat us with them and say, ‘Ahh!  You look like Navajos!’”  (226).   She later makes a similar comment about Loyd’s ponytail.  Clearly conscious of the signifying effects of his clothing and hair; Loyd is equally self-conscious about his alignment with a particular set of Native values and with a style of manhood opposed to that of the Apache warrior who is equivalent and enemy of the gun-toting Western hero.  The “Pueblo are homebodies, and the Navajo and Apache are wanderers,” he explains, and he himself is Pueblo (213).

Loyd’s upbringing has been influenced largely by his mother and aunts rather than his absent father, and he speaks consistently for values of home and family.  It is he who attempts to persuade Codi to give up her wandering ways, and it is he who challenges the fear that motivates her, saying,  “You’re scared to claim anything you love” (220).  Thus, Codi and Loyd unsettle not only the power dynamic of the hero/sidekick relationship but the gender polarities of the classic Western, “The rigidly ‘masculine’ that fears dependence, craves separateness, and rejects the quotidian; the distrusted ‘feminine’ that cherishes intimacy, accepts vulnerability, and finds meaning in daily custom and routine” (Elsbree 34-35).  Where Codi wants a temporary connection, Loyd wants “more than sex” (182), and he objects that Codi doesn’t take him seriously as a partner: “you think I’m a TV Indian.  Tonto Schwarzenegger, dumb but cute” (181).  Ultimately, Loyd educates Codi to look beyond stereotypes that would relegate him to the sidekick role.

In two central scenes, he takes her to Pueblo locations evocative of a settled domesticity.  The first is an abandoned  “Kinishba” (127), where Codi learns of the ancient community life in its two hundred interconnected rooms.  The architecture grows organically from the land; its premise is, “Don’t be some kind of a big hero.  No Washington Monuments.  Just build something nice that Mother Earth will want to hold in her arms” (129).  Such an account of Native closeness to Mother Earth teeters on the edge of caricature.  But Kingsolver does not attribute these qualities exclusively to Native culture; the Mexican-American town of Grace has a similar architectural integrity and sense of common life.  Neither resembles the tumbleweed-strewn, barren main streets of a film Western, where community spirit embodies itself in vigilante posses that disband once the threat to the town has been overcome.  Furthermore, these communal models of home life strongly contrast with the isolated nuclear family portrayed as Edenic in works like The Virginian or Riders of the Purple Sage.  Wister’s Virginian and Molly, like Grey’s Lassiter and Jane, find their greatest happiness “alone together” in the wilderness.  By contrast, Loyd and Codi’s first lovemaking, although in a secluded outdoor setting, occurs in the company of the ghosts of his ancestors, for the Kinishba’s “walls are graveyards” (128).  The fruition of their love will similarly unfold within the embrace of community.  

Codi encounters the living version of the Kinishba when Loyd takes her to meet his mothers and aunts.  The setting exemplifies the rich multicultural mix that Krista Comer has critiqued as “Southwestern kitsch” (151).  Chili pepper lights adorn windows and turquoise jewelry the arms of the women.  Country music plays, and the Spanish, Pueblo, and English languages coexist as easily as traditional foods share the table with Jell-O.  Although some uncles and male cousins are present, this is clearly a matriarchal world; yet it is one in which a man like Loyd can feel fully at home.  True, this utopian scene is quite at odds with the uncomfortable co-existence of cultures portrayed in the Southwest of Rudolfo Anaya or Leslie Marmon Silko (see Dasenbrock), but perhaps a more instructive juxtaposition is with the frequently degrading caricatures of Natives and Mexicans found in many classic Westerns (see Appleford).  Dismantling one set of myths, Kingsolver begins to construct another, based in an optimistic vision of a cooperative and sustainable multicultural community in which men and women work together toward common goals.

De-authorizing Violence

Regeneration through violence (see Slotkin) is a classic Western trope, and Tompkins sees violence against animals as central to the Western’s construction of masculine mastery.  This is another generic convention that Kingsolver explicitly unravels.  Loyd’s heritage from his Apache father is his skill at cockfighting, and he takes Codi to see a fight that Kingsolver sets up to evoke a Western shoot-out.  The birds’ steel spurs call to mind the spurs on a cowboy’s boots, and the birds are “primed, like cocked pistols” (187) when they face off before an audience of men in cowboy hats.  The fight is brutal and bloody.  Codi is deeply disturbed by the scene, and says so.  Loyd argues that the birds are bred for fighting; he admires the skill of the handlers and the bond between man and bird.  But Codi rejects the artificiality of this combat in which “a death was required” (188), understanding that the birds would stop fighting if not forced to continue to the death (187).  The sport’s cruelty calls up for Codi her sister’s account of three Nicaraguan girls killed by government gunfire while picking fruit.  Weeping, she thinks, “For the first time I really believed in my heart . . .  [t]hat someone could look down, aim a sight, pull a trigger.  Feel nothing.  Forget” (191). 

Violence in the classic Western serves justice; it eliminates those who deserve to die, so that peaceful community life can resume.  A heroine like Molly of The Virginian comes to accept her lover’s use of violence in a righteous cause.  But Kingsolver’s heroine persuades her lover to renounce it.  Her passionate objections show that she is becoming sensate, regaining a powerful connection to animals and to the nurturance of life, as well as a sense of herself as moral agent.  Similarly, Loyd’s relinquishment of the sport consolidates his life-affirming values; in giving up the one thing his father gave him, he wholly joins the side of the Mother.  Here Codi and Loyd help each other to move toward a consistently life-affirming consciousness.

Kingsolver’s critique of violence is extended to the level of national policy by the fate of Codi’s sister Hallie.  Like the young American engineer Ben Linder, to whom the book is dedicated, Hallie is killed by Contra guerrillas, the group Ronald Reagan called  “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.”  No element of ritual justice grants dignity to this instance of gunfighter mentality, no squaring off of a Good Guy and a Bad Guy—with the Good Guy sure to win.  Instead, we have the quiet horror of a scene in which unarmed civilians have been shot in the name of a political goal and left to rot in the sun like the bleaching carcasses of cattle that litter the desert in so many film Westerns.  We can imagine no formulation of right and wrong, of white hats and black hats, that could justify such slaughter, and no regeneration that could result from it.  In Kingsolver’s anti-western, only villains devoid of sacral authorization deal death by gunfire.

Ordinary Heroism and Collective Endeavor

One of Kingsolver’s most marked departures from the Western paradigm is her characterization of heroism.  While the Western hero is an extraordinary individual who answers to no one, Kingsolver has said that “most real heroes or heroines are people who thought of themselves as ordinary until a crisis arrived at the front yard” (Pence 20).  In the town of Grace, such heroism is embodied by the Stitch and Bitch Club, a group of women who meet regularly to sew and talk, and who ultimately take it upon themselves to save the town. 

Organized women’s action has a long tradition in the West.  Female reform organizations arrived with the settlers; according to Underwood, their concern was with human welfare, as against the “male” concern for profit and property.  Women in groups established schools, hospitals, and other social services.  In Western novels and films, such organizations are often trivialized or demonized, “used. . . to establish the malevolence of women’s desire to control” or to show “the pernicious nature of public-minded women” (Underwood, “Civilizers” 8).  Social order is restored through violent confrontation between the hero and the villains who prey upon defenseless settlers.  But Kingsolver’s thoroughly modern villain cannot be defeated by violence.  A mining company named Black Mountain (black hats come to mind) has poisoned the town’s river and received EPA approval to “address” the problem, not by cleaning up the pollution, but by damming and diverting the river so that it will no longer receive the runoff.  To do so would kill the community, which depends upon irrigated orchards for its economic survival. 

In a familiar Western scene, townsmen gather to plan a response to some danger.  Often this action involves forming a posse, arming themselves--over the women’s objections--and riding forth to battle their enemies.  When this collective action fails, the lone hero brings about the final solution by killing the leader of the opposition.  In an echo of filmic tradition, the men of Grace “had a town meeting” (111), but the best solution they could propose was a lawsuit likely to require years to complete.  The men assume that it will not be possible to stop the company, which they call “the Mountain” (162).  A Stitch and Bitch doyenne objects to this usage, which “makes it sound like something natural you can’t ever move” (162).  Another woman complains, “These men…think the trees can die and we can just go somewhere else, and as long as we fry up the bacon for them in the same old pan, they think…that it would be home” (179).  In a challenge to the Western paradigm of the placeless hero, these women’s heroic actions will arise out of affiliation with home.  For Kingsolver, only love for a place and its people gives ordinary human beings the courage to move mountains.

When the women ride forth in a chartered bus to defeat their enemies, they do constitute a kind of posse, armed not with guns but with wit, ingenuity, and the collective wisdom of the town.  Their weapons are peacock-feather pinatas, products of the town’s peculiar cultural heritage.  Selling these on the streets of Tucson, they bring attention to their cause and to their town, which along with its orchards is named to the National Register of Historic Places and protected accordingly.  Their efforts ultimately bring about the withdrawal of Black Mountain and the removal of the dam. 2

Through the club’s optimism and resourcefulness, the town is saved by its own collective traditions.  A more tragic version of such ordinary heroism is seen in Hallie.  Like Codi, she is a wanderer; but while Codi wanders to escape commitment, Hallie seeks coherence of work, life, and self.  Like Kingsolver’s “ordinary heroes” who cook up revolution in their kitchens, Hallie’s heroism grows simply from love for her work, the place where she works, and the people she works with.  She dies as one of a group of people working together and is buried in Nicaragua as she had wished, wanting even in death to nourish a place she loves. 


Almost every classic Western includes a skeleton (animal or human), a corpse, or a grave.  Images of the lonely, anonymous grave or the ghastly remains of some unknown traveler establish the harshness of the landscape and the absence of effective community.  Bones and graves are also a constant presence in Animal Dreams, 3 but here they represent the persistence of human connection.  The novel begins, pivots upon, and ends with celebrations at the town cemetery; these chapters mark Codi’s movement from childhood to full adulthood, from isolation in an endangered nuclear family to incorporation in a thriving extended one.

The first chapter, “The Night of All Souls,” shows the origin of Codi’s later alienation.  Codi’s father is watching his two small daughters sleeping, “curled together like animals”(3) after a day in the cemetery celebrating the Mexican Day of the Dead.  The scene establishes the close bond between the sisters as well as their distance from their father, who “won’t risk going in to stand over the bed the way he once had” (4).  The recently-widowed Homer decides that he will no longer allow the children to take part in the annual festivities, thinking, “There are too many skeletons down there” (4).  Just as he had cut himself off from his own history by changing his name and denying his membership in the maligned Nolina clan, he attempts to cut off his daughters from their connection to the town.  His inchoate purpose seems to be to protect them from further loss by assuring that they have less to lose.  Instead he will leave Codi with an aching sense of difference and disconnection.  Yes, she still has “much to lose” (4) in the deaths of her child, her sister, and her father.  But the course of the novel will return her to the fullness of connection to community and family. 

Precisely in the middle of the novel occurs the chapter titled, “The Day of the Dead,” in which we see Codi longing for a more intimate connection to the town.  Again attending the celebration in which the citizens of Grace decorate graves and picnic there, she envies these families in which “you would never stop being loved” (163).  Watching “Golden children [run] wild over a field of dead great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers,” Codi wishes she belonged “to one of these living, celebrated families, lush as plants, with bones in the ground for roots” (165).  The metaphor of families as plants and bones as roots collapses distinctions between organic and inorganic, living and dead.  This lovingly-tended cemetery demonstrates the ability of the land and the community to nourish life over generations; the living families still draw sustenance from the loved ones they have “planted” in the ground, just as they gain their livings from orchards planted by those same ancestors.  These graves are not warning signs to unwary travelers, grim reminders of mortality.  Instead, they are a sign of ongoing community.

In the final chapter, “Day of All Souls,” a pregnant Codi now knows that she is not only a Nolina but also a descendant of the Gracela sisters who were the town’s founding mothers.  With not one but two families to celebrate, Codi joins the traditional picnic, honoring the Nolina graves as those of her own family.  By this time, she has also honored the untended bones of her own buried child and has mourned that loss.  Although unable to bury her sister’s bones, she has carried out a burial ceremony of objects associated with Hallie, understanding that “there are no human remains” (333) other than what of a person remains in the memories of those who loved her. 

The Western focuses on certain kinds of death: dramatic, violent, and retributive.  The climactic shoot-out re-establishes the moral order; no one mourns the loser, and no one will tend his grave.  Having yet again triumphed over death, the hero is apotheosized in a blaze of glory against the setting sun.  Because he rides away, he never has to die.  By contrast, Animal Dreams concerns itself with nothing so much as mortality.  Its deaths are the sorrowful, sometimes senseless, deaths of those who are loved and who continue to hold a place in the community after death.  The novel too ends with a kind of apotheosis, as Codi remembers having watched a helicopter leave with her mother’s body.  Recalling her mother as “a small white bundle with nothing left,” like the bundle of goods she buried to commemorate Hallie, Codi understands that “this isn’t a tragedy we’re watching, really.  Just a finished life” (342).  In the final image, the helicopter “hangs above us, empty and bright, and then it rises like a soul” (342).  For a book with so much death in it, this is a remarkably joyful conclusion.  Although the last of her immediate family, Codi has found a community of place and kinship that transcends time, and the power of a love undefeated by death.  In a true state of “grace,” it seems, death can be accepted as part of life.


Kingsolver’s skillful deployment of conventional plots and motifs of the Western no doubt had something to do with the popular success of this critically acclaimed novel.  It also serves her progressive politics; she has consciously chosen a conservative aesthetic to widen her audience.  She has said,  “I have a serious commitment to accessibility. . . .  I want to write books that anybody can read. . . I want to challenge people who like literature . . . without closing any doors to people who are less educated” (Contemporary Authors Interview 288).  In this novel, she has used a popular form to dismantle the ideology for which that form has spoken.  According to Kingsolver, “The artist’s maverick responsibility is sometimes to sugarcoat the bitter pill and slip it down our gullet, telling us what we didn’t think we wanted to know” (“Jabberwocky” 228).  In Animal Dreams, familiar themes and tropes from a popular genre provide the sugarcoating for a radical challenge to American ideologies of macho individualism and justifiable aggression.


1. Cawelti notes that in the “romantic” type of western (1900-1930s), such as Wister’s Virginian, the hero is integrated into the community at the conclusion; it is in the later “classic” western (late 1930s-1950s) where he rides off into the sunset.  However, like a hero of the classic western, the Virginian, when acting as a hero, does so alone, and he never entirely reconciles himself to his town life.

click here to return to your place in the article

2. It must be admitted that this victory comes far too easily.  Its fairytale quality is intensified by the appearance of a sort of fairy godfather, an art dealer who takes an interest in their plight, and without whose resources and connections the outcome might have been quite different.  We must suspect that at least some of his clients have been enriched by just the sort of corporate profiteering exemplified by Black Mountain.

click here to return to your place in the article

3. See also chapter 2, “Hallie’s Bones”; chapter 9, “Bones in God’s Backyard”; chapter 12, “Animal Dreams,” where Loyd explains to Codi that the ancient people mortared a dead baby’s bones into the walls or under the floor of the dwelling “so it would still be near the family” (128); chapter 27, “Human Remains.”  Kingsolver also incorporates many passing references to bones, skulls, corpses, and skeletons; for instance, after Hallie’s death, Codi becomes aware of her own skull under her skin and says, “I was a skeleton with flesh and clothes and thoughts” (302).  Or, “Hallie was the skeleton in the civic closet” (314).

click here to return to your place in the article

Works Cited

Appleford, Robert.  “Coming Out from Behind the Rocks: Constructs of the Indian in Recent U.S. and Canadian Cinema.”  American Indian Culture and Research Journal 19.1 (Winter 1995): 92-119.

“Barbara Kingsolver.”  Contemporary Authors 134 (1992).  Ed. Susan M. Trosky.  284-289.

“Barbara Kingsolver.”  Signature Interviews. PBS. 1997.

Ben-Zvi, Linda.  “‘Home Sweet Home’: Deconstructing the Masculine Myth of the Frontier in Modern American Drama.” The Frontier Experience and the American Dream: Essays on American Literature. Ed. David Mogen, Mark Busby, and Paul Bryant. College Station: Texas A & M UP. 217-225.

Cawelti, John G.  “What Rough Beast--New Westerns?”  ANQ 9.3 (Summer 1996): 4-16.

Comer, Krista.  Landscapes of the New West: Gender and Geography in Contemporary Women’s Writing.  Chapel Hill and London: U of North Carolina P, 1999.

Dasenbrock, Reed Way.  “Forms of Biculturalism in Southwestern Literature: The Work of Rudolfo Anaya and Leslie Marmon Silko.” Genre 21.3 (Fall 1988): 307-319.

Deming, Caren J.  “Miscegenation in Popular Western History and Fiction.” Women and Western American Literature. Ed. Helen Winter Stauffer and Susan J. Rosowski. Troy, NY: Whitston, 1982. 90-99.

Elsbree, Langdon.  “Our Pursuit of Loneliness: An Alternative to the Paradigm.” The Frontier Experience and the American Dream: Essays on American Literature. Ed. David Mogen, Mark Busby, and Paul Bryant. College Station: Texas A & M UP. 31-49.

Fiedler, Leslie A.  Love and Death in the American Novel.  New York: Criterion, 1960.

Georgi-Findlay, Brigitte.  The Frontiers of Women’s Writing: Women’s Narratives and the Rhetoric of Westward Expansion.  Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1996.

Graulich, Melody.  “‘O Beautiful for Spacious Guys’: An Essay on the ‘Legitimate Inclinations of the Sexes’.” The Frontier Experience and the American Dream: Essays on American Literature. Ed. David Mogen, Mark Busby, and Paul Bryant. College Station: Texas A & M UP. 186-201.

Kingsolver, Barbara.  Animal Dreams. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.

---.  “Jabberwocky.”  High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never.  New York: HarperCollins, 1995.  222-235.

McAllister, Mick.  “Homeward Bound: Wilderness and Frontier in American Indian Literature.” The Frontier Experience and the American Dream: Essays on American Literature. Ed. David Mogen, Mark Busby, and Paul Bryant. College Station: Texas A & M UP. 149-158.

Mitchell, Lee Clark.  Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film.  Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Morris, Gregory L.  Talking Up a Storm: Voices of the New West.  U of Nebraska P, 1994.

Pence, Amy.  “An Interview with Barbara Kingsolver.”  Poets & Writers Magazine 21.4 (July/August 1993): 14-19.

Person, Leland S., Jr.  “The American Eve: Miscegenation and a Feminist Frontier Fiction.”  American Quarterly 37.5 (Winter 1985): 668-685.

Poland, Tim.  “‘A Relative to All That Is’: The Eco-Hero in Western American Literature.”  Western American Literature 26.3 (Nov. 1991): 195-208.

Siegel, Mark.  “Contemporary Trends in Western American Fiction.” A Literary History of the American West. Ed. J. Golden Taylor et al. Fort Worth: Texas Christian UP, 1987. 1182-1201.

Slotkin, Richard.  Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America.  New York: Atheneum, 1992.

---.  Regeneration through Violence.  Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1973.

Stillman, Deanne.  “Again, That Hankering.”  New York Times 22 August 1993, sec. 2: 1+. 

Tompkins, Jane.  West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns.  New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Underwood, June O.  “The Civilizers: Women’s Organizations and Western American Literature.” Women and Western American Literature. Ed. Helen Winter Stauffer and Susan J. Rosowski. Troy, NY: Whitston, 1982. 3-16.

Underwood, June O.  “Western Women and True Womanhood: Culture and Symbol in History and Literature.”  Great Plains Quarterly 5.2 (spring 1985): 93-106.

Back to Top

© 2003 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture