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"'Stop it!' I yelled. My heart was thumping. 'You're killing that bird!'" - Codi Noline, Animal Dreams
Those are the words of Codi Noline, a brave heroine with her mind set on rescuing a beautiful but defenseless peacock from horrible torture by a group of demented children on her first day back in her hometown of Grace, Arizona. Much to Codi's chagrin, the bird turns out to be just a piñata, spilling candy and bright treasures rather than a gory mass of blood and bone. The children aren't a pack of hopelessly troubled youth engaging in animal mutilation for sport, only a normal group of kids participating in a party game very common to the Southwestern Mexico-influenced culture scared and confused by a stranger's outburst. Anyone who has seen a piñata might wonder how a person without impaired vision could mistake one of those bright, artificial paper mache creations for a living animal, but sometimes an abnormal state of mind can make the world be viewed through a murkier haze than poor eyesight could ever produce.
Codi's misconception of the peacock incident is a rather humorous story, but it has a deeper underlying meaning. Things are not always as they seem, whether they are seen with the eyes, the mind, or the heart. This is a truth Codi learns a little more of every day she is home. Her own spiritual and emotional journeys are reflected in part by her changing views of the town's pet birds, the peacocks. The town's women founders, the blue-eyed, dark-haired Gracela sisters from Spain, arrived to wed lonely gold miners and left the small town with a legacy of looks, legends, and unique wild birds.
At first, the helplessness of the piñata Codi believes is real "reminds her of her own powerlessness, and the fact that it has no defenders seems like her own lack of protection from her various losses." (DeMarr, 1999) Codi's return is not the joyous homecoming of the student voted most popular in high school, but the return of one who has always felt different and alienated. She sees herself as an outsider because of her looks, her father's insistence that his girls were better than everyone else, and her lack of childhood memories of Grace. Even before the incident with the piñata, the peacocks pushed themselves to the front of Codi's mind by being the first thing she heard while walking through her quiet town.
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As far back as she can remember, Codi's father has told her that she and her sister Hallie were special. The girls' mother died when they were little, and their father, Doc Homer, raised them mostly alone. He told the girls their ancestors weren't from Grace, and took an almost obsessive pride in bringing them up different. Doc Homer "protected" his daughters from things he felt other parents were negligent in allowing, like toy guns that lead to violence, regular shoes that lead to fallen arches, and common superstitions that lead to decreased intelligence. In this too, the peacocks played a part. Nearly every home in Grace featured a large vase filled with peacock feathers people picked up during their everyday business. When the vases got full, people would give the feathers to women of the town who used them to make the piñatas, and the process would begin again. Peacock feathers were a thing Doc Homer never allowed in his house because "the feathers were crawling with bird mites; he dreaded to think what those old women's houses harbored in the way of microorganisms." (Kingsolver, 1990) No matter how much they wanted to fit in, the girls were always destined to be different.
Because of that difference, Codi spends as much as possible during her first few weeks at home hiding out. She runs into people from her former life, but mostly tries to minimize contact with all but a select few. Codi moves in with Emelina, one of her few real high school friends, settles in, and is in no hurry to even see her father, the reason she had come back to Grace in the first place. Gradually, Codi begins to interact slightly more with the town through no plan of her own. At a party thrown by her friend Emelina, Codi reconnects with an old high school boyfriend, Loyd Perigrina. Loyd brings back painful memories of a stillborn child he never knew about, but Codi accepts the beginnings of a rekindled romance anyway. She had accepted a job as a temporary biology teacher before moving back to Grace, and was more in touch with the teenagers than people her own age.
It is on a field trip to the river with these students Codi learns something about her town that would turn out to be the beginning of her emotional awakening and remembrance of a childhood she had thought forever lost. They collect samples of river water to take back to the classroom and analyze for protozoa, but the water turns out to be dead with no signs of microscopic life that signal a normal, healthy body of water. The Mountain, a familiar name for the large mining company that had more or less bought the town of Grace, was polluting the river. Codi uses her students to find out what was going on, and learns that the mining company has been running sulfuric acid through the now-dormant mines to recover copper. The acid ran off and is poisoning the river, which is used to irrigate the town's economically essential fruit and pecan orchards. The tainted irrigation water is having the effect of years of acid rain, and will eventually kill the trees. Even if Codi will not yet admit to truly caring about the town, the scientist in her can't just stand back and watch the pollution happen.
Codi writes to the local authorities about the problem, believing they simply don't know about the problem and will clear it up as soon as they are aware. Emelina's mother, Viola, puts that idea out of Codi's head by summing up the contents of a meeting held by the men that informed them of what was actually going to happen. "Dam up the river… the EPA just says they can't put it down here where people live." (Kingsolver, 1990) No river means no irrigation, no irrigation means no orchards, and no orchards means an end to the town of Grace. The women of the town decide that if their men won't do anything about the problem, they'll have to take matters into their own hands, and they elect Codi as one of their expert spokespeople since she is so knowledgeable about the science of it. Codi speaks at their meeting, but still isn't completely committed to the cause, at least not enough to consider staying in Grace past the year she has planned. She uses that leaving to distance herself emotionally from her father, Loyd, people of the town, and even her best friend to some extent. Yet while she is attempting to keep the world at arms' length, Codi also remembers and learns more and more about her past and becomes more deeply involved than she is willing to admit.
Here, the peacocks make a comeback. The women of the town put their heads together and try to come up with a way to raise the necessary money to hire a lawyer and save their town, and what they decide on is making their wonderfully unique real feather peacock piñatas to sell in Tucson. The birds are a hit, and sell for more than expected. The ladies went home satisfied and with plans to make 500 more piñatas to sell, this time with an added feature, a history of Grace and the mining problem to go with each bird. Without her knowledge, Codi was elected to write this history, further involving her in the struggle. By this time, the peacocks have become more than an antiquated legacy left behind by some unknown women, but a rallying point for the inhabitants of Grace and a symbol of the beauty of the town's unbeatable soul.
Soon the peacocks have proven that everyone, including birds, can have their fifteen minutes of fame. The piñatas and the women who make them get on the news, in magazines, newspapers, etc., to become celebrities. Meanwhile, Codi finds out more about her past than she ever hoped to understand. Through memories of her childhood, stories from friends, and one painfully extracted confession from Doc Homer, Codi learns that her and Hallie are anything but outsiders. Their mother was a descendant of the original Gracela sisters, their father had ancestors from Grace, and they were both born with the abnormal white-eyed condition peculiar to their town. Codi gets a connection, and the peacock-induced fame gets Grace the attention it needs. The town will become a historic preserve in less than two years, and the river will go back to normal. The town is saved, mission accomplished.
Unfortunately, it's not that simple. While Codi has finally learned not to run from her problems and stand up for something she believes in, her sister Hallie has been kidnapped and killed for doing the same thing, which she has done all of her life. Codi's grief is so deep that she almost undoes all of the emotional healing she has accomplished by once again running away from Grace and the people who love her. Through personal interactions with people on her trip, she realizes what she has to do and once again returns home. In the words of Barbara Kingsolver herself in an interview about her works, "Survival itself, in certain circumstances, is heroic. To live through mean times without becoming mean-spirited is heroic." (Epstein 1996),
Codi deals with her grief for Hallie by having a memorial where the townspeople bring something that reminds them of Hallie. Peacocks cry throughout the service, and the second to last item to top the pile is a miniature, perfectly made peacock piñata.
At the end of the book, Codi has put all of her demons to rest. She has found a home, the truth about her past, the truth about herself, love, and a new feeling of family both old and new. Her heart is saved, and with it the town of Grace, Arizona. The peacocks brought to Grace by its original settlers, which were always a part of the town but never really thought to be useful, end up being Codi's and the town's indirect instrument of salvation. Things have come full circle, and the strength of spirit has triumphed over corporate carelessness and American apathy. Memories of times both good and bad will remain and assure the town and people aren't abandoned. In the words of Viola, "…if you remember something, it's true, …in the long run, that's what you've got." (Kingsolver, 1990)
DeMarr, Mary Jean. Barbara Kingsolver: A Critical Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Epstein, Robin. "Barbara Kingsolver." The Progressive. Feb 1996. 33-37.
Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal Dreams. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1990.
Lyall, Sarah. "At Lunch With Barbara Kingsolver: Termites Are Interesting But Books Sell Better." The New York Times. 01 Sep 1993.
Smiley, Jane. "In One Small Town, the Weight of the World." The New York Times. 02 Sep 1990.