Books appear in our lives at the exact moment they are supposed to. Sometimes, they may need to acclimate to your bookshelf for a few years before they’re ready to be read; but I have come to know this absolute truth: books are vehicles of fate and they appear in our lives to provide aid, knowledge, and support when we need answers most.
Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver was the last assignment of my literature class of my senior year of high school. It arrived in my life exactly when I needed it and has continued to be my preferred place of reflection and comfort. I have carried it in my backpack when I go hiking, I hid it in my purse during my friend’s wedding, it has joined me on many commutes, probably every vacation, and is most likely the object I would run into my burning house for.
To some degree, my love for this novel is a bit of a mystery to me. Certainly, it is beautifully written, the themes are captivating, the protagonist is interesting, and I the plot hits all the marks my heart desires. Yet, when I first learned that my class and I would be reading Animal Dreams, one of my peers pinched her face and, with a bit of force, snarled “I hate this book. It is the absolute worst.” In knowing nothing about what I was about to read, I was ready to believe her and prepared to trudge my way through something either mundane or tremendously unpleasant.
Later I was quite surprised by her words. For when I read this book that first time, I felt as if Barbara Kingsolver had custom written Animal Dreams for me. There are so many sentences and phrases that, to this day, spark something deep within me that provides a sense of self I otherwise rarely understand.
I read this book and it’s as though I can read the constellation of my heart and mind; I can see myself and my inner workings in a way that I nearly never can. I need no horoscope, palm reader, or psychic, to tell me who I am or what I am made of. My personal map is laid out in front of me, and each time I read it, I get closer to decoding the hidden messages that will reveal to me who I am and who I am meant to become.
It is odd to describe, and I know that for many others, this may just be another book that passes them by. Clearly it did not hit the mark for my classmate and I suppose it doesn’t for many others.
I’ve become very protective of this book, making sure to never let friends of family members see me read it. I have this odd feeling that if I should share it with someone, they would learn far more about me than I am willing to expose. Whatsmore, if they should dislike it, then they cannot see who I am or may not like those parts I typically keep hidden. To lend this book to someone I know, would be the ultimate vulnerability exercise and I have yet to know a person I trust enough to test such an experiment.
There is odd safety in the fact that I do not know any of you who are reading this.
About the book:
Animal Dreams follows Codi Noline back to her hometown of Grace, Arizona as she attempts to take stock of her life, confront her past, find order, and decide upon what future she wants. While disjointed by the people she had left behind and confused by elusive memories and ambiguous emotions, Codi resigns herself to give Grace one year to care for her ailing father and to realign the direction of her life.
Her story carries the perfect storm of themes that grab at my heart: an environmental catastrophe, Native American storytelling and legends, exploration of self, finding love, and healing the fractures that derail a person’s life. There is not a corner of this tale that I do not love. I can dip my toe into any part of this pool and feel the warm tug of welcome.
Reaction at age 18:
As I aforementioned, this book came to me at the end of my high school career. Like many others I was simultaneously struck with excitement for my future and latched to the nostalgia of my high school experience. An odd combination of wanting to both hold on and let go.
My senior year had been my most academically successful and was in most ways, the best year I had experienced while enrolled. However, there was a substantial dark cloud that had dropped down and saturated those good feelings and left me feeling utterly confused and uncertain about the person I was supposed to be. I cannot explain my reaction to Animal Dreams without first explaining the overall turmoil that had been plaguing my senior year.
For those of you who have been following along this reading challenge, you know that I no longer have a relationship with my mother due to, in part, her challenges with Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorder (NPD & BPD). However, at age 18, I was still very much in the throes of her storm and had nearly no notion that it would ever end – nor did I understand that I wanted it to.
My step-father very abruptly passed away in the middle of my junior year from alcoholism. His death was a rampage on the lives he left behind and commenced a battle between my mother and his family that left no person satisfied or healed. The probate case alone was a chaotic mess that both parties were too stubborn and pugnacious to let go of. All felt that they were entitled to something, when all any truly craved was the love and approval from a man who could never fully give either.
It was a battle, but that war felt feeble in comparison to the weight I shouldered as I tried to withstand my mother’s mental decline and rapacious breakdowns.
I understood her sadness in the loss of her husband, for surely anyone would have been devastated by the unexpected loss of their spouse. But at some point my job shifted from one of comforting and consoling, to that of pulling her away from suicidal threats and enduring verbal attacks on the failings she perceived of my character.
I was largely alone at this point as my sisters had moved in with my father, and I was drowning under the weight of her turmoil and my own need to do well enough to get into college. I was carrying both of our futures when my health caved in about halfway through my senior year.
On one particular Friday morning, I nearly collapsed during an all-school meeting due to severe stomach pains, dizziness, and nausea. The school nurse and my advisor had to each take an arm and carefully help me walk across campus to the infirmary. In what has since become one of the most meaningful memories of my life, my teachers swarmed in to give me the support I had never known I was worthy of receiving.
I unrolled all of my troubles onto the school nurse who, in response, called my dad and told him to – more or less – man up, come get me, and be the parent I had far too long needed. To my surprise, he did.
My mother had long instilled in me a narrative around my dad of his not wanting me. It was something I had come to perceive as fact. So when he came to my aid, that tall tale began to loose it’s certainty.
My relief and faith in my dad’s support was real, but short lasting. It was not long before I was once more swept up in my mother’s tide and voluntarily blind to the reality of her lies and manipulations. My temporary moment of clarity was snuffed out, but residual residue continued to drape across my head and I wasn’t sure which parent carried the honest narrative.
This is about when Animal Dreams came into my life.
Fortunately, I do not have to dig into my memory to pull out my initial reaction to Animal Dreams, I have the essay I wrote to give me the exact feelings and sentiments this novel inspired.
Sadly, the truth I thought I had uncovered was simply more of the propagated lies I’d been taught to believe. My present self hurts for my past self and the pain I would endure for ignoring the truth I had temporarily seen when my dad came to get me.
The protagonist of Animal Dreams, Codi, struggles throughout the novel with memories that occured before the age of 15. She sees strangers in the faces of people who helped raise her, mistakenly perceives her sister as the leading lady of many childhood happenings, and has substantial events completely erased from her recollection. In short, she struggles to see her home in the place she grew up and cannot see the reality of who she is and what makes up her character.
Even though it wasn’t quite memory loss I struggled with, I deeply connected with this aspect of Codi’s story. I had been told too many contrasting narratives of my life, my family, my parents, and how and why those things fell apart. And when I re-wrapped myself up in the story of my mother’s telling, I thought I was seeing the clarity I had craved. Sadly, I also felt that Codi’s story was confirming that notion.
I’ve held onto my essay mostly because I earned an ‘A’ for it, after 4 years of trying to achieve that coveted grade from my favorite and most challenging teacher. But I hate to re-read it now because I know how dearly I later paid for ignoring the truth for my mother’s mercurial happiness.
It also pains me to see that I did not adhere to the Oxford Comma. It’s horrifying.
Back then I wrote, “Throughout my young eighteen years, I have found it impossible to set my feet on the ground and feel a sense of belonging because in my life, I have never been able to sit still in one place long enough to make an attachment.”
In some ways I still knew that I was missing something and thankfully, I continued to come back to Animal Dreams intrigued by my connection to its story, hoping that that it would show me what I needed to see.
Reaction at age 27:
It has been nearly 10 years since that first reading of Animal Dreams. This spring we will celebrate our tin-iversary!
My life is substantially different from what it was back in 2009, and yet I continue to face confusion with my family’s story and remain unsure of who I fully am and what I wish to dedicate my life to.
Since I graduated college in the spring of 2013, I have fallen into the jobs I’ve had due to two ingredients: luck and my desire to save the world. As it were, passion and ambiguity have not been the best guideposts for career success and satisfaction. My love of the environment led me to a position at a climate organization with fantastic connections and the world’s worst cultural dynamic. When I jumped that ship, I blindly landed at my most recent job which focused on immigration and criminal justice reform. And while that job allowed me to feel like I was doing my duty to support my fellow man, it burned the bejeezus out of me and has left me in this current state of career ambivalence.
I feel like I’m just waiting for an answer to jump me.
In the onset of this book, Codi is no better. “Along the way I’d landed a few presentable jobs, but in between I tended to drift, like a well-meaning visitor on this planet waiting for instructions.” I almost cried when I read this sentence. I underlined it at some point, so I must have been struck by it sometime earlier, but this time it had an extra punch. I am craving understanding and direction and cannot seem to find the compass within myself.
My memories, either as a result of the brain fog from my health issues or simply because of past suppression, are distorted, missing, or vague. I feel as though there are vast parts of me that I’ve lost along the way, and cannot find when I go looking for them. I see so much of myself in Codi’s character and in her own challenges to discern where her memories have gone and where truth resides.
This is largely why I began this reading challenge. I want to see if I can trace my way back to those lost pieces of myself and see if they will give me the internal clarity I seek.
Who we are and what we want should be obvious. I know what foods I want to eat, I know what places I’d like to travel to, I know what beliefs I hold resolute, I know my favorite color. So why has it been so utterly difficult to know myself, to see my life clearly, and know what it is I want to do?
What I can say now, is that saving the world is preposterous and not an attainable point to steer my life towards.
Codi’s sister Hallie, poignantly writes:
“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. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. (299)”
What do I hope for?
I don’t want to save the world, I want to help people to see themselves with kindness and honesty. I want to help them bring their best selves forward and to every table they approach. I want to spread kindness as though it were infectious.
Many, many books have passed through my hands and I have no doubt that many, many more will come my way. As I look over at the pile of books left to read for this reading challenge, I know that I will return to so many of the stories that have touched my heart and have opened my mind. Yet, for some reason Animal Dreams has been the book to stand out among all the others.
Codi’s story grabbed my heart the first time I read it back when I was first entering adulthood. I thought that I had obtained the clarity I needed to set my life purposefully. Yet, in these 10 years, I have faltered and presently find myself more lost than I have ever been. So many roads I have traveled down, that I am no longer certain of where I am and don’t know which memories to trace or which directions to take in order to find my way.
Yet this book always seems to leave me with a little more understanding of those answers I seek and what I hope for.
Hallie says it so clearly:
“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. That’s about it” (299).
What do you hope for?
For the next book of my reading challenge, I’ll be reading A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, a book I read for the same class that lead me to Animal Dreams.
For those interested in following along, below is the schedule of books that I’ll be reading and reflecting upon. If any of these books are your favorite, please pop by and share your experience!
February 21: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley – originally read at age 17
February 24: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – originally read at age 16
February 27: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko – originally read at age 15
March 4: The Odyssey by Homer – originally read at age 14
March 11: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – originally read at age 13
March 14: A Time for Dancing by Davida Wills Hurwin – originally read at around age 11/12
March 17: Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip – originally read at around age 11/12
March 20: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – originally read at around age 10/11
March 23: Squire by Tamora Pierce – originally read at around age 10
March 25: Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – originally read at around age 10
March 27: Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne – originally read at around age 8
March 29: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen – read to me at around age 5/6
Thank you for sticking with me on this journey!
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