Study Guide

Animal Dreams Heroism

By Barbara Kingsolver

Heroism

Trish fiddled with her bra strap. "Hallie always would just up and do anything under the blue sky," she said.

"You're right," I told Trish. "I wish I were that brave. I'd be scared to death to be where she is."

"Well, you know, we can't all be the hero," she said, jutting her lower jaw to blow smoke up toward the olive branches. (7.50)

Kingsolver seems to allow herself one stereotype per book. Here, everyone, meet Trish, the chain-smoking ex-cheerleader who's still the worst.

Emelina looked up with enormous eyes, as if I were one of the saints in the wall. Our Lady of Blocked Windpipes. She wiped tears off her chin with the back of her hand.

"It's no big deal," I said.

It really wasn't. I'd just done what I knew how to do. (11.100-102)

Because it would have really super sucked if Codi had just sat back and been like, nah, only lame people who wear saddle shoes administer the baby Heimlich.

"My husband used to be a crane operator when the mine was running," shouted a woman in the back row. "He would know how to fix up them bulldozers from hell to breakfast."

"My husband was a dynamite man," volunteered another woman. "That would be quicker."

"Excuse me, but your husbands won't put Chinese arithmetic past no bulldozers," said Viola. Mrs. Crane Operator and Mrs. Dynamite seemed unperturbed, but Viola added thoughtfully,

"No offense. Mine would be just as lazy, except he's dead."

"Mrs. Galvez nodded. "Well, that's the truth. My husband says the same thing, "The lawyers will fix it up, honey.' If the men were any use they'd be here tonight instead of home watching the football game." (16.42-5)

Basically, Viola is using some colorfully racist American idiom to suggest that their husbands' male privilege makes it impossible for them to recognize the stakes in this fight. Part of what's interesting here is Kingsolver's support for violent action against the mine's property—even if it's not what they eventually do. There's also some tractor disabling going on down in Nicaragua—but there, it's the U.S.-backed bad guys doing it.

"I would have the wrong haircut. Everybody would remind me that I don't quite belong. 'Oh, honey,' they'd say, 'you're still here? I heard you were on your way to Rio de Janeiro to have tea with Princess Grace.' And I'd say, 'No, I've grown up to be the new Doc Homer. I've moved into his house and I'm taking over his practice so I can save the town.'"

"Save us from what, Great White Mother?"

"Oh, s***, you guys can all just go to hell." I laughed, since the other choice was to cry. (16.95-7)

This is probably the most explicit conversation around race that Loyd and Codi have. What does whiteness have to do with either Hallie's or Codi's relationships to the things they're trying to "save"?

Hallie, [...] I feel small and ridiculous and hemmed in on every side by the need to be safe. All I want is to be like you, to be brave, to walk into a country of chickens and land mines and call that home, and have it be home. How do you just charge ahead, always doing the right thing, even if you have to do it alone with people staring? I would have so many doubts—what if you lose that war? What then? If I had an ounce of your bravery, I'd be set for life. You get up and look the world in the eye, shoo the livestock away from the windowsill, and decide what portion of the world needs to be saved today. You are like God. I get tired. Carlo says, "Let's go to Denver," and what the heck, "I'm ready to throw down the banner of the Stitch and B**** Club and the republic for which is stands. Ready to go live in Denver and walk my dog. (17.94)

It's true that this is one of the whinier letters any person, fictional or real, has ever composed and actually sent. Even so, it brings up a pretty interesting point about "saving" things: is that what heroism is about? Animal Dreams ultimately takes a different tack: here, it's not about winning; it's about fighting.

I am like God, Codi? Like GOD? Give me a break. If I get another letter that mentions SAVING THE WORLD, I am sending you, by return mail, a letter bomb. Codi, please. I've got things to do.

You say you're not a moral person. What a copout. Sometime, when I wasn't looking, something happened to make you think you were bad. What, did Miss Colder give you a bad mark on your report card? You think you're no good, so you can't do good things. Jesus, Codi, how long are you going to keep limping around on that crutch? It's the other way around, it's what you do that makes you who you are. (18.223-4)

Codi, you have been schooled. And you totally deserved it. You treat Hallie like she's a separate kind of human being. We suspect that Codi does stuff like this because she's afraid to hold herself to Hallie's standard—she doesn't think she can live up to it.

I wondered whether Doc Homer had a whole other life in his head, in which he dispensed kind, fatherly advice. This gulf—between what Doc Homer believed himself to be and what he was—brought out the worst in me, or the most blunt. (21.53)

Unfortunately, Codi's assessment is pretty accurate: Doc does have an alternate life and memory where he was the hero in his daughter's lives.

At first the Stitch and B**** was divided in its opinion of [Sean] Rideheart. [...] But for once the Doña judged wrong. His intentions were noble, and ultimately providential. When the club assembled in March for its monthly meeting [...] Mr. Rideheart was the guest speaker. He was supposed to lecture on folk art, which he did, but mostly he talked about Grace. He told these women what they had always known: that their town had a spirit and disposition completely apart from its economic identity as an outpost of the Black mountain Mining Company. [...] Mr. Rideheart suggested that he had never known of a place quite like Gracela Canyon, and that it could, and should be declared a historic preserve. (22.43-4)

With a name like Rideheart, how can he be anything other than a knight in shining armor? He kind of is, riding in out of nowhere to help the ladies fix their dam problem. Is Rideheart a deus ex machina? Or is he another version of the everyday heroes of Animal Dreams?

I couldn't resist getting sidetracked by one [box] marked "ARTWORK, H. 3-6." The subjects of Hallie's crayon drawings were mainly the two of us, stick sisters holding hands, or else just me, my orangeish hair radiating from my head like a storm of solar flares. There was not one figure anywhere representing Doc Homer. I wondered if he'd noticed. But he must have. He was the one who'd picked up each drawing, rescued it from destruction, and finally labeled the box. The invisible archivist of our lives. (22.78)

Doc is a heroic doctor, if the rubric for heroism is giving your life over to what you're good at and care about day by day. In the end, the book also seems to determine that despite his faults, he was also a heroic father.

"She wanted to save the world."

"No, Pop, that's not true. She wanted to save herself. Just like we all do.

He looks at the tall, living daughter his wife has suddenly become. He is no longer angry about these changes. "Save herself from what?"

"From despair. From the feeling of being useless. I've about decided that's the main thing that separates happy people from other people: the feeling that you're a practical item, with a use, like a sweater or a socket wrench." (27.35-8)

Get in touch with your inner wrench, people. That's all we have to say.

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