It is only fitting that I picked up Leslie Marmon Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes (1999) just days after learning of Larry McMurtry’s passing. The two authors were friends, and the book opens with a special thanks to him for “all the books and encouragement.” I heard echoes of Gus in Grandma Fleet, particularly in the line “Dying is easy – it’s living that is painful,” which made this quite the special book for me indeed.
Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) is a prominent author in what is considered the First Wave of the Native American Renaissance. She has multiple poetry and essay collections, but only three novels. Ceremony (1977) was required reading in AP English back in 1999, and it was my introduction to this remarkable storyteller. I fell in love with Almanac of the Dead (1991) after finding it on a syllabus for an upper-level literature class that was full by the time I was able to pick classes at UNC. (I frequently packed my shelves with books for classes I wasn’t able to take.) When I saw Gardens in the Dunes (2000) at the used bookstore, there was no hesitation; Leslie Marmon Silko is a Storyteller, and her words dance to a drumbeat until your heart calls out in the same rhythm.
Set in a particularly interesting time in US history – the Ghost Dance religious movement that began in 1889ish – Gardens in the Dunes is a story of sisters, faith, womanhood and resilience.
Sister Salt and Indigo are the last of the Sand Lizard people, a unique tribe that has always done things their own way. Their mother ran off with the Messiah after a spiritual dance was interrupted by the police and the people, including the Mormons cast out from their church after the ban on polygamy, scattered. Grandma Fleet is arrested but quickly released, and she returns to the dunes and the girls where they wait for word of their mother.
After Grandma Fleet dies, Sister Salt and Indigo are apprehended by the Indian police. They determine that Sister Salt, who has just started menstruating, is too old, and she is sent to the reservation. Indigo is sent to an Indian boarding school in California, where she promptly runs away. While hiding in a flower garden, she sees an unusual creature and quickly befriends it. The owner of what Indigo soon learns is a monkey, is a wealthy and recently married white woman. When she learns that the boarding school has closed for the summer, she convinces her husband, Edward, that the child should stay with them and be trained as a maid until the school reopens in the fall. Indigo joins the couple as they head east to visit their families before they travel to England and Europe. Edward has plans in Corsica that he intentionally hides from his wife, but Hattie is so full of love for her new charge that she doesn’t notice. Prior to their overseas journey, Edward’s sister gifts Indigo a beautiful (and unhappy) parrot that Indigo names “Rainbow.”
With her parrot by her side and her white girl’s clothing, Indigo still prefers to sleep on the floor. She still weeps for her mother and Sister Salt. She still plots her escape. She describes the sand dunes to Rainbow. She never once forgets she is of the Sand Lizard people and the dunes are her home.
Edward is a scholar and researcher, and his knowledge of plants has allowed him to traverse the world. His very scientific view of plants stands in stark contrast to Indigo’s knowledge, which was passed down to her by Grandma Fleet. Indigo becomes quite impressed at the gardens they encounter on their journey, and she delights in gathering seeds and bulbs with the hopes of bringing them to the gardens in the sand dunes.
Indigo is resilient and grows where planted, ready to weather the storms until she can get home.
The novel primarily follows Indigo, but does switch to others, including Hattie, Edward, and especially Sister Salt. The cards aren’t necessarily as kind to Sister Salt, but she also grows where planted. She builds a life for herself at the encampment by the river, making money and hoping to hear word of Indigo and their mother. She befriends a black chef, Big Candy, and soon finds herself pregnant. As a child born of a Sand Lizard woman is always a Sand Lizard child, Sister Salt knows she’s pleasing her ancestors and hears the call of the dunes urging her to return home.
Sister Salt makes relationships that will alter the course of her life, and her child’s, forever. One woman, Delena, is a fortune teller with a dog army and a passionate mission of her own. Delena’s story is one I wanted more of, and this novel certainly set the scene for a continuation of what is bound to be a stand-off between Delena and her dog army, and Big Candy – both of whom are driven by equally strong forces. Theirs is a story begging to be told.
Gardens in the Dunes tells the story of two sisters, the last of their kind, during the Ghost Dance, and it is captivating to the very last word – home.
Read this book.