This is a lovely, layered, complex book weaving together the stories of many people connected to two sisters of the Sand Lizard tribe, Indigo and Sister Salt, back around the turn of the last century.
There were three themes I really enjoyed. One is the ways in which difference and similarity are interwoven. For example, When Indigo sees some ancient pre-Christian European statues, she immediately recognises Bird Woman and Snake Woman from her own beliefs. These kinds of interconnections are made throughout the book and by multiple characters.
The second theme is that of personal agency. Although Indigo is still a child when her life starts taking unexpected turns, she is always thinking about how she can and should act to survive, to be reunited with her family, and to continue the important work of looking toward the future and the past. Other characters in the story behave in similar self-driven ways, except for one primary character whose refusal to accept responsibility for his decisions or make realistic plans is in stark contract to all the other strong, engaged people in the book.
The third theme is that of seeds and plants and gardens. Indigo in particular collects seeds and seed knowledge wherever she goes, and also shares her knowledge with others. Because she is a little brown girl, she is not always taken seriously in this, but her own personal work to amass seeds and plants that might be useful to her people is a constant throughout her story.
I enjoyed the way Silko used the diverse and fascinating characters to pull in so many of the difficult issues of the day (most of which are still frustratingly relevant): colonialism, slavery, residential schools, privilege, oppression, rape, and genocide. And also so many good things: kindness, self-determination, emancipation, gardening, survival, compassion, loving families, ingenuity, and adventure. What makes this so impressive is that Silko doesn’t even use most of these words. She is so adept at show, don’t tell.
My only real complaint is that in some places, it seems like the copy-editor was having a bit of a snooze. But overall, I very much enjoyed this book. And the main character, Indigo, is delightful. I loved seeing her world through her eyes, and being surprised by what a resourceful, imaginative, grounded child she is.
Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko. 1999.