Straight talk: memory is totally the central theme of Animal Dreams. Basically, Codi has a memory problem: she's got a mental block on her childhood that starts with the memory of her miscarried child. Doc is also concerned with memory: he's obsessed with changing history. Both of them have trouble dealing with violent things that have happened in the past—and that are happening in the present. One way to deal with trauma is to forget about it, right?
In Animal Dreams, memory is both a personal and a political issue.
In Animal Dreams, vision, memory, and identity are all connected.
At the beginning of Animal Dreams, Codi Noline tells us in no uncertain terms that she's no hero—especially not compared to her sister Hallie. Hallie herself, of course, pretty much hates the whole idea of heroism, and whenever people talk about it in this book, they tend to claim that heroes are somehow different from other people. Part of Codi's journey seems to be claiming some heroism for herself—not as something that makes her better than everyone else, but as a normal part of life.
Animal Dreams rejects the idea of heroism in favor of collective action. At the same time, the novel demonstrates how each person must act individually as part of a whole in order to get things done.
In Animal Dreams, the idea of wanting to be a hero is a distraction from what is actually important in life, which is doing what you're good at and what's important to you, day after day.
Home is what Codi Noline is looking for in life.
Well, she thinks she's looking, anyway. Her friend Emelina accuses her of being a "home ignorer" because, among other things, her walls are so bare—but it's a pretty apt description of Codi's personality, too. In fact, Animal Dreams is basically the story of Codi learning not to ignore the fact that she has a home both in Grace and in her own identity. By the end, we're pretty sure she's ready to hang a few pictures on the walls, but it sure takes her a while to get there.
In Animal Dreams, the idea of nesting, or making a home somewhere, is connected symbolically to birds. For Codi, peacocks represent home, while for Loyd, it's fighting cocks that do the representin'. As the narrative progresses, however, Loyd leaves his birds behind. Ultimately, while nesting is important, Animal Dreams places primary importance on living a life you can be proud of, not just a life that's like the one your parents lived before you.
Codi has actually a home her whole life in Grace; it's only by the end of the novel that she realizes she's been ignoring it for years.
Ah, the age old question: what will I be when I grow up? For Loyd Peregrina, learning to be something, even if it's just a dude who sorts pecans, is the essential ingredient that turns him from a boy into a man. At thirty-something, Codi Noline still hasn't found that magic job. She's been everything from a gas station attendant to a medical researcher, and she's still not quite grown up. Figuring out what she wants to do for a living, as it turns out, is going to be a pretty essential part of Codi's journey in Animal Dreams. As she learns, you've got to figure out what you want to do every day if you want to figure out who you are.
Writing from Mexico, Hallie describes a guy with a bucket of shrimp to sell who keeps his load balanced by drinking a kilo of water every time he sells a kilo of shrimp. Throughout the rest of the novel, however, balance and efficiency aren't so much the goal of work as a kind of organic connection to your labor. Although Animal Dreams seems to say that it doesn't matter what you do as long as you do it well, in the end it's also essential that what you do reflects who you are.
Animal Dreams ends up envisioning life as well lived as long as you are able to do work you believe in, day by day. With this rubric, Hallie has lived a good life, and the novel ultimately concludes that her death, while sad for Codi, isn't a tragedy.
There are a few sentences from Animal Dreams that will probably stay with us for the rest of our lives. "'Collie's a cock mechanic,' Loyd said" is one of them (16.113). Obviously, that's because this sentence expresses so neatly the ways that animals are tied to an idea of vocation throughout the novel. Animals can't help doing what they do—and dreaming about it—every day. That's what Hallie and Loyd want to be like, but Codi has to learn to work toward a life in which, like Jack the dog, she does what she's good at and knows how to do—and feels that it's enough.
Codi's identification with animals illustrates her fundamental difference from her plant-loving sister, Hallie.
In Animal Dreams, it seems as if the problem with humans is that they're constantly trying to deny the fact that they are animals like all others.
At first, Animal Dreams sets up a neat dichotomy: Codi equals animals, and Hallie equals plants. Over the course of the novel, though, this analogy doesn't quite hold up. We see Codi gathering flowers and giving slug advice to people, and it seems as if she'll eventually be taking care of the garden at Doc's house. Animals and plants are symbolic of different things about the two sisters, but it turns out they're not the opposites that Codi has often imagined them to be. Instead, animals and plants, like the sisters, are interdependent.
Plants in Animal Dreams stand in for the earth's capacity to heal from the violence of pollution.
Over the course of the book, Codi's struggle to deal with the memories of her miscarriage are healed through her efforts to save the fruit trees themselves.
At some point in Animal Dreams, Codi says that before moving to Grace, she didn't know there could be so many shades of brown. Well, folks, this should come as no surprise, given that dirt plays a pretty big role in this novel. We've got graves, dead cropland, orchard soil, riverbeds—there's dirt everywhere here. That dirt, by the way, is usually being poisoned, salted, filled with human remains, or in other ways made barren—sort of like Codi's identity for most of the novel.
Things change, but it sure does take a while, and it isn't easy.
In Animal Dreams, land is like the human mind in that it remembers and in a sense lives with the effects of violence.
In Animal Dreams, identity is ultimately based on place.
Folks, there's a boatload of violence in Animal Dreams—although except for the chicken killing and cockfights in White River, most of it doesn't take place directly on screen. In fact, we think that's basically the point. Violence doesn't often happening right in front of you, where you can intervene directly. A lot of it is hidden, like the way Loyd's father's upbringing made him a lousy father, or the way the mine poisoning the river, or the way Hallie is shot in Nicaragua.
But just because the violence in Animal Dreams doesn't draw attention to itself, as it does in some narratives (we're looking at you, Game of Thrones), that doesn't mean it isn't affecting everything all the time. That might be the point of Codi's problem with cockfighting: violence is everywhere already, so why make more of it?
Animal Dreams connects the problem of violence to the problem of memory. It's hard to eradicate violence because it's so difficult to remember that we participate in it.
Violence against animals and the earth in Animal Dreams is analogous to violence against other human beings.