Study Guide

Homer "Doc" Noline in Animal Dreams

By Barbara Kingsolver

Homer "Doc" Noline

Doc Homer has lived his whole life hiding from a bad reputation. He and his family were the black sheep of the Gracela clan, so his wife Althea's parents hated his guts and tried to keep her away from him. Doc showed them all, though, by moving away to Illinois, joining the Army, and becoming a doctor. So far, it's a classic story of a local boy making good on his dreams.

Except then Doc does something weird. He moves home—but instead of rubbing his success in everyone's faces, he erases his identity. He changes his name to the more English-sounding Homer Noline, starts calling his wife Alice instead of Althea, and pretends that they're from Illinois originally and are just transplants to Gracela Canyon. Weirder still, everyone in Grace goes along with it, and Doc's two daughters grow up surrounded by distant cousins, thinking that they're transplants from the Midwest.

Yup, it's weird.

So Doc is a pretty twisted guy to begin with, and he's twisted up even more by tragedy when his wife dies after the birth of their second daughter, Hallie. It's clear from the opening pages of the book—which are told from Doc's perspective—that he loved her intensely, and he loves his daughters, too. Yet Doc's way of taking care of the people he loves? Well, it's not a shining example of parental excellence.

He doesn't really ever tell his daughters that he loves them. He tells them that "hugs are for puppy dogs and you are housebroken," and in fact he doesn't even ever really touch them—except to measure their feet for the orthopedic shoes that are basically Doc's version of religion.

When Codi gets pregnant at fifteen, Doc can't figure out how to tell her he knows, so he just…doesn't. He's got such a chip on his shoulder about his own upbringing in Grace, that he tries to raise his girls to think that they're different and better than everyone around them. He's actually totally straightforward about this, even when Codi is thirty he wants her to know that he still believes she's superior to everybody else.

And just to prove it to himself, Doc starts an ethnographic study on the people of his own town. As Codi puts it, "What could be more arrogant than to come back and do a scientific study on your own townspeople?" (22.82).

In the parlance of modern psychological science, Doc is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. Except instead of Cocoa Puffs, what he's into is an inferiority complex and a profound love for the bones of the human foot.

What's Up, Doc?

The organization of Doc's mind is crumbling under the influence undiagnosed Alzheimer's, but we still learn a lot about him from in that crumbling mind. It turns out that Doc's really not a bad guy. Doc is motivated by a deep desire to rewrite history. That's what makes him change his own origin story, and that's what compels him to his hobby—a charming pastime in which he takes pictures of things and develops them so they look like other things. He actually seems to believe that if you change your story about something that's happened, you can actually change what happened.

Doc's obsession with changing the past has led to some bad results for his oldest daughter Codi. Maybe it's the result of all that modelling of forgetfulness, but Codi literally can't remember anything that happened to her before her traumatic pregnancy at fifteen. To top it off, Doc's obsession with ordering—and re-ordering—his life has always been more important to him than showing affection of any kind. As he tells us, "It is senseless to love anything" as much as he loves his daughters (3.9).

Yeah, that quote tells us a lot about Doc. He thinks of himself as a reasonable man, so he tries to hide this irrational love of his children. He's pretty good at that: his daughter Codi tells us that since childhood, she and her sister, Hallie, have believed Doc doesn't love them at all. In fact, they used to test Doc by playing a game in which they'd try to get an adult in a crowded room to prove he or she loved them by fixing their hair ribbon. Doc never passed the test.

So Doctor Love he ain't. Yet at the same time, his daughters' history is so important to Doc that he saves and catalogues everything in their lives, from their artwork to their yearly pairs of orthopedic shoes. He's built a kind of museum of his family's life in the attic of their house, and when Codi discovers it, she is finally able to put together some of the truths about her own life.

Throughout Animal Dreams, Doc Homer is on the road to redemption. That journey is motivated not by his own needs—Codi initiates all the big conversations in their relationship—but by Codi's need to understand her own past. By the end, she forces him to confront some hard truths, and ultimately, he'll do the one thing he couldn't do for his daughters in their childhood: show how much he loves them.

Yeah, Doc's got a lot of work to do in Animal Dreams.He'll get to it just as soon as he's done transforming this picture of Burt Reynolds lying on a bear rug into a picture of a cactus. We'd all like to change that memory...