Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko

2019 is becoming my year of reading Silko, this now is the second novel I’ve read after Ceremony and I loved it as much, in some ways perhaps more, given the journey it takes the reader on. It follows on from two other books I read, reviews linked here, her excellent memoir The Turquoise Ledge and a slim collection of letters between Silko and the Pulitzer prize winning poet James Wright, The Delicacy and Strength of Lace.

While Ceremony was the coming of age of a young man set over a short period of time, Garden in the Dunes is more of a historical novel, set in the late 1800’s, tracing the lives of two native American sisters, Indigo and Sister Salt and at various times, their Grandmother and the newlywed white woman Hattie who provides refuge for Indigo for a period of time after she escapes the boarding school she has been imprisoned within.

Hattie and her husband Edward take Indigo with them to Europe for the summer, where she experiences differences in their way of life, but also finds something in the old world that she connects with. Archeological art in Bath, sculptures in a garden in Lucca from pre-Christian Europe create a link with American Indian symbolism through Indigo’s observations and experiences.

Along the way, as she had learned in the dunes, she collects seeds (the old ways) and flower bulbs (a new interest) for replanting when she returns home. She represents the connection to the past and also the future, learning new skills that will improve, add to their lifestyle.

Silko traces the transcultural histories and significances of sacred snakes and their feminine symbolism, unsurprising given her own close relationship to those that dwell beneath her own home in Tuscon. The final scene in the novel is fittingly given over to the return of a snake, a lasting metaphoric image of generational continuance and survival.

The novel rests in numerous locations where the girls live and must adapt, but their spiritual home and the place they always wish to return to, the place where their Sand Lizard people come from are the gardens in the dunes, inland from the river, where there is a natural spring and if enough rain, plentiful opportunity to grow what they need to survive.

Sister Salt remembers everything. The morning the soldiers  and the Indian police came to arrest the Messiah, Grandma Fleet told Sister Salt to run. Run! Run get your little sister! You girls go back to the old gardens! Sister Salt was big and strong. She carried Indigo piggyback whenever her little sister got tired. Indigo doesn’t remember much about that morning except for the shouts and screams.

When the girls are with their Grandmother and return to the gardens they have a purpose, they learn when and how to plant, to prepare food, to stock it, to identify edible plants, they are natural foragers. When they are removed from their natural home, they have to find other ways to survive.

Sherman Institute, Riverside, California

At times it has been necessary to flee, when there is insufficient rain or when pursued by authorities, who effectively kidnap Indian children, separating them from their families and way of life to put them into institutions, forcing another form of education on them, removing their connection to their culture.

The authorities judged Sister Salt to be too much older than the others to be sent away to Indian boarding school. There was hope the little ones might be educated away from their blankets. But this one? Chances were she’d be a troublemaker and might urge the young ones to attempt escape. Orders were for Sister Salt to remain in custody of the Indian agency at Parker while Indigo was sent to the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California.

American Indian Girls in a state run Laundry

Sister Salt is sent to work in an Indian laundry in the vicinity of water dam projects of the Southwest; she and twin sisters she befriends decide to set up their own laundry service, living near one of the dam construction sites, becoming knowledgeable of the needs of the men working there, finding protection and collaboration with the chef Big Candy, the girls surviving together, supporting each other.

Throughout the novel, the men are involved in moneymaking projects, whether it’s Edward collecting orchid samples, his companions seeking rubber plant specimens, the men at the dam with their side interests in illegal gambling, brewing beer and the laundry.

The dam project diverted water to Los Angeles and made Indian lands less productive, initially it provided employment, but slowly the people realise what it is taking away from them, their land, their homes, their riverside livelihoods. Those with profit making motives have little or no concern for the destruction and loss caused in their wake. But they too risk falling victim to their own kind, Silko doesn’t miss the opportunity to make them suffer the consequences of their own greed.

Most native tribes did not adhere to the European view of land as property. For most Indians, land was communal, and its resources were to be protected and shared. This was in direct contradiction to European notions of land as individual property.

Ancient Minoan Snake Goddess

It’s far-reaching in its geographic span and themes, which through adept storytelling are repeated via the behaviours of characters. Women stick together, collaborate, survive and when not separated from each other, begin to thrive, though they remain wary of those from other tribes or cultures. Exploitation, greed and corruption are everywhere, interfering in the way people try to live their lives, imposing their ways, trying to keep people(s) separate or making them conform to a perceived way of being.

Indigo never loses the essence of who she is, despite being groomed and dressed like a white American to accompany Hattie and her prospector/explorer husband and being taken far away to Europe, her heart is like a magnet, she never ceases thinking of her intention to find her sister and mother.

Fortunately, Hattie is a sensitive and intelligent woman, who though the child brings out a maternal response and desire, promises to help her find them when they return. Hattie’s father was a free thinker who encouraged her higher education giving her access to libraries of friends to pursue her studies. She is sympathetic to their ways, but will also confront barriers when trying to cross over in her efforts to support them.

It’s a brilliant depiction of so many issues around origins and identity and the ways people survive and thrive, in particular women. We witness their attempts, how they are thwarted, see them compromise and discover that being with other women provides them with a force, even when they are from different tribes or cultures, sometimes that is a necessary element to their survival, to learn from other women, from other experiences, to share what they know.

Despite being a relatively long read (477 pages), it felt like it could have gone on, some threads leave the reader wondering what happened next, endings come about a little quickly. It could easily have been more than one book.

The final page and the closing sentences are beautifully given over to nature, to a demonstration that though we may grieve at what is passing, nature will always ensure that new life prevails, that something will survive from the ruin. That hope can manifest, though it may not be what we expect.

“Nearly all human cultures plant gardens, and the garden itself has ancient religious connections. For a long time, I’ve been interested in pre-Christian European beliefs, and the pagan devotions to sacred groves of trees and sacred springs. My German translator gave me a fascinating book on the archaeology of Old Europe, and in it I discovered ancient artifacts that showed that the Old European cultures once revered snakes, just as we Pueblo Indian people still do. So I decided to take all these elements – orchids, gladiolus, ancient gardens, Victorian gardens, Native American gardens, Old European figures of Snake-bird Goddesses – and write a novel about two young sisters at the turn of the century.” – Leslie Marmon Silko, Gardens in the Dunes (1999)

“I suppose at the core of my writing is the attempt to identify what it is to be a half- breed or mixed-blooded person; what it is to grow up neither white nor fully traditional Indian. It is for this reason that I hesitate to say that I am representative of Indian poets or Indian people. I am only one human being, one Laguna woman.”  – Leslie Marmon Silko, Laguna Woman (1974)

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Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Having recently read Leslie Marmon Silko’s memoir The Turquoise Ledge (2010), I know well how deeply connected she is to the Arizona desert, its landscape, wildlife and climate. To read in the preface to her most well-known and celebrated novel Ceremony, that in 1979 she moved with her husband and two sons to Alaska, I’m not surprised she had difficulty coping, a deeply rooted woman out of place. The lack of sunlight caused her a terrible lethargy and depression. Once she began writing this novel, the depression lifted.

The novel was my refuge, my magic vehicle back to the Southwest land of sandstone mesas, blue sky and sun. As I described the sandstone spring, the spiders, water bugs, swallows and rattlesnakes, I remade the place in words; I was no longer on a dark rainy island thousands of miles away.

She wasn’t just  homesick for the place, she missed the people and the storytelling, so she awakened them by writing them into the novel, narrating a kind of prose poem using powerful mythological women like Corn Woman, Changing Woman, Serpent Women and Thought Woman (the spider), who with her sisters created all life by thinking it into being.  It is she who is thinking this story, the author narrates it.

Ts’itstsi’nako, Thought-Woman,
is sitting in her room
and whatever she thinks about
appears.

This fable-like story frames the novel, interrupting it throughout to remind us of how things were, of the distractions, the suffering and regret, the need to make amends, the value of setting a challenge, going on a quest, the need to make sacrifices and bring back what is necessary for forgiveness and healing to occur.

And in the belly of this story
the rituals and the ceremony
are still growing.

It wasn’t until I had read the novel through that I began to understand the connection between the Pueblo myth and the story, first we encounter it, then we begin to make sense of it. At times while reading, I was on the edge of understanding, informed a little by what I I know of shamanic stories, rituals, signs and traditions, there were many  references I’d encountered from reading Alfredo Villoldo’s Wisdom, Power and Grace of the Earthkeepers.

The story focuses on the character Tayo, a young man whose very existence reminds some of his family members of things they detest. When they look at him they remember. He is always trying to make amends, to win approval, yet he seems destined to disappoint.  He is of mixed blood, stuck in a place where he seems not to be able to inhabit either culture he is connected to, and yet there are expectations of him, both imposed from outside and from within.

“They are afraid Tayo. They feel something happening, they can see something happening around them, and it scares them. Indians or Mexicans or whites – most people are afraid of change. They think that if their children have the same colour of skin, the same colour of eyes, that nothing is changing.” She laughed softly. “They are fools. They blame us, the ones who look different? That way they don’t have to think about what has happened inside themselves.”

He has recently returned from war, traumatized, he is suffering and struggling to find peace, trying to avoid the temptation of oblivion that other young veterans have fallen for. He has nightmares and hallucinates. His grandmother makes a suggestion:

“That boy needs a medicine man. Otherwise, he will have to go away. Look at him.”

The title Ceremony refers to the healing ceremonies based on the ancient stories of the Diné and Pueblo people. The ceremony that Tayo goes through reminds me of the hero’s journey, ultimately he has to leave and go on a quest, which he does, he meets someone from whom he learns things, he fulfills the challenge he set himself and then returns.

At this point the novel I wasn’t thinking in those terms and the ending is quite terrifying, until I reflect that this is indeed all part of the ceremony, and the biggest test of all comes at the end when he must embrace and use all those aspects of himself, the wisdom of all the cultures running through his veins.

He cried the relief he felt at finally seeing the pattern, the way all the stories fit together – the old stories, the war stories, their stories – to become the story that was still being told. He was not crazy; he had never been crazy. He had only seen and heard the world as it always was: no boundaries, only transitions through all distance and time.

It felt almost like an initiation to read this novel, waiting for its meaning to awaken as I read, I loved it and can’t wait to read more of her work, her ability to write the modern story that demonstrates the power of the mythological stories that get handed down through generations is brilliant. It reminds me of the retellings of the Greek myths that are currently popular, bringing the learnings of storytelling into contemporary situations, teaching us their wisdom, showing how their message never ages, the necessity for each person to live through it to understand it.

What She Said:
The only cure
I know
is a good ceremony,
that’s what she said.

A brilliant and gifted storyteller, highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Ceremony via BookDepository