Study Guide

Animal Dreams Vocation

By Barbara Kingsolver

Vocation

Carlo and I med in medical school, [...] Along the way I'd landed a few presentable jobs, but in between I tended to drift, like a well-meaning visitor to this planet awaiting instructions. My career track had run straight down into the weedy lots on the rough side of town. It's the truth. For the last six months in Tucson I'd worked night shift at a 7-Eleven, selling beer and Alka-Seltzer to people who would have been better off home in bed. There wasn't a whole lot farther I could go. (2.12)

Medical school to gas station attendant is a pretty stiff drop in social capital, if not in pay. The real heart of this quote, though, is in the line about being a well-meaning visitor awaiting instructions. Codi is always looking for someone to tell her what it is she's here on earth for.

She'd expected (or feared) a little formality but they put her to work the day she arrived, wearing her one and only dress. "I'm in seventh heaven," she wrote, and I could see her hiking up that dress and striding across the plowed rows, leading a battery of stunned men. "This cotton's been getting sprayed to death and still eaten up with weevils. Cultivation practices are pitiful. I know exactly what to do. I think we'll get productivity up about 100 percent from last year. Can you imagine? You'd think it was Christmas, everybody's already talking about how the collective could use this prosperity: they could get a secondary-school teacher in here full-time, or a good adult-ed program." (12.9)

Hallie is basically the Joan of Arc of cotton cultivation. This is a pretty good illustration of exactly how it should feel to do what you love and be good at it—so take notes.

"Carlo's an emergency-room surgeon. A man that decides which way to sew a thumb back on would have a good hold on life, wouldn't you think? I just assumed it would rub off."

"Gross," Emelina remarked.

"I think it was the eyebrows. You know how he has those kind of arched, Italian eyebrows?"

"No, I never got to meet him. He was always at the hospital."

That was true. He was shy. He could face new flesh wounds each day at work, but he avoided actual people. "Well, he had this look," I said. "He always seemed right on the verge of saying something that would change your life. [...]"

"But he never did?"

"Nope. It was just his eyebrows."

[...]

Carlo had beautiful hands and a legendary sense of direction [...] The man had a compass in his cerebral cortex. And for all that, he'd still in the long run declined to be the guiding star I needed. (6.48-55)

Carlo himself seems well adjusted to his career—he's the kind of guy who never really finishes unpacking his suitcase before he moves on to the next place. Note, though, that he's associated with stars and the heavens. Considering that Animal Dreams repeatedly rejects the idea of heaven in favor of earth, it's probably a sign that his arched eyebrows aren't enough.

"Codi, you could be a doctor if you wanted to do that. You learned the skills. Don't try to put the blame on something abstract like your nerve—you have to take responsibility. Is it something you want, or not?"

"I don't know."

He didn't move.

[...]

"It's not," I finally said, for the first time.

"No?"

"No. I thought it would be an impressive thing to do. But I don't think it was a plan that really grew out of my life. I can't remember ever thinking it would be all that delightful to look down people's throats and into their nasty infected ears and their gall bladders."

"You're entitled to that opinion," he said. "That the human body is a temple of nastiness." (14.106-7)

This is an important exchange, first because we learn that Codi doesn't really want to be a doctor. So maybe knowing how to drive a particular road isn't all that matters, because you also have to want to be there? We also learn that Doc feels medicine really is his vocation—he doesn't believe that people are nasty. That broadens Doc's character a little, and this is the scene when he begins to be less of a villain and more of a not very-good-at-feelings type of dad.

"Well. But you are real good at your job," I said.

"I'm getting there."

"I guess I never knew there was so much too it."

He set down his cup and crossed his arms. "Pretty good for an Injun boy, huh?" (23.144-148)

On the one hand, this is another little sliver of Codi and Loyd's subtle, ongoing, unfinished conversation about race. On the other hand, it's a breakthrough for Codi—she's realizing maybe for the first time that there are other difficult jobs in the world besides being a doctor.

I spotted Loyd through the crowd. Everybody wanted to talk to him, cutting in like suitors at a dance. He was quite at home here, and relaxed: an important man who's beyond self-importance. (16.22)

Kingsolver makes sure we know that Loyd is really talented as a "handler" of fighting birds. Is it just part of his overall mystique? We don't think so. It's important in this novel to chose your work wisely. You have to choose not just what you're good at doing, but also what you believe in.

Emelina [...] was wonderful to watch. I guess I'd never really seen good mothering up close. (14.111)

Codi's pronouncements on watching Emelina be a mom are never very long, but they're important. Amid all these doctors and teachers and engineers and farmers, Kingsolver makes sure to give a shout-out to the people whose vocation is parenting, and Emelina is definitely one of those people.

I spent one whole morning watching a man walk up the beach selling shrimp door to door. He had a pole over his shoulders, with the bucket of shrimp hung on one side and on the other side a plastic jug of water. Every time he sold a kilo of shrimp he'd pour out that much water and drink it, to balance the load. I watched him all the way down the bay and though, I want to be like that. Not like the man selling shrimp. Like his machine. To give myself over to utility, with no waste. (9.73)

This shrimp guy ends up being something of a beacon for both Noline girls—Hallie lives in an agrarian community using her skills and trying not to break her one plate, and Codi aspires to be a wrench.

There had been a ridiculous photo in the local paper: the company president and a couple of managers at a ground-breaking ceremony, wearing ties, stepping delicately on shovels with their wing-tip shoes. These men had driven down from Phoenix for the morning, and they would drive right back. They all had broad salesmen's smiles. They presented the dam as some kind of community-improvement project[.] (14.130)

Bad shoes, bad smiles, bad politics, and they can't even shovel properly. Mining executives are the least manly of the men in this novel.

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