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Gardens in the Dunes.

Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko Simon & Schuster. 304 pages. $25.00.

Leslie Marmon Silko is at the forefront of contemporary Native American literaure. Famous for Ceremony (Viking, 1977) and Almanac of the Dead (Simon & Schuster, 1991), she now has published another big novel, Gardens in the Dunes.

Literal gardens figure prominently in this book, and there are also metaphorical gardens--instances where characters reap what they sow. Silko integrates this biblical notion with others drawn from Gnostic theology and Celtic magic. The result is a fascinating novel of ideas, myth, and allegory.

The novel is set in the late nineteenth century. The last members of the Salt Lizard clan--Indigo, Sister Salt, their mother, and their grandmother--live in the desert near the border of California and Arizona. They survive by gardening sandy soil. In this garden, they welcome snakes and revere them as the providers of life-sustaining water. The women live peacefully here until they travel to Needles, Arizona, to perform the dance to the Messiah.

But Silko's Messiah is not the Christ of Anglo lore. He is the leader of the Lakotas who were murdered at Wounded Knee. And he appears in the dance.

"The others saw him now, but they all kept dancing, as they knew they must, until Christ reached the middle of their circle. Wovoka the Prophet came too. He walked beside the Messiah's mother; behind them came the Messiah's eleven children."

In passages such as this, Silko forces us to put aside the image of the chaste and crying Christ. Silko's Christ is a family man, a part of a community. He is not a mystery to be understood only by clergy. He comes when the people dance for him. Even those who are not knowledgeable about the fate of the Lakota, who dared perform what American historians call the "Ghost Dance," know that the people will be punished for practicing such liberating beliefs.

The dance is raided, and many people are captured and never seen again. The younger sister, Indigo, is sent to one of the infamous Indian boarding schools. Since Sister Salt is nearly thirteen, she is deemed too old to be educable. She is placed in the authority of the Indian Agency, where she is forced to perform menial tasks at slave wages.

Here, the story could have easily disintegrated into a tale of woe. But Silko adopts a Dickensian sensibility and allows Indigo to escape the clutches of the villainous superintendent by cunning and serendipity. She is rescued by Hattie, a privileged white woman trapped in a passionless marriage to a capitalist eco-menace. Hattie has suffered a breakdown after her thesis on "Female Principle in the Early Church" was not approved by her Ivy League professors. (The pages and pages dedicated to Hattie's studies do little to further the plot of the novel.) She welcomes the company of Indigo and travels across Europe with the child under the pretense of training her to be a maid.

Meanwhile, Sister Salt is freed from the Indian Agency by Big Candy, her African American lover. She still washes clothes for a living, but she now works for a decent wage. She also dabbles in a sort of benign prostitution to earn more money, which she plans to use to get back to the gardens in the dunes, where she will be reunited with Indigo.

As in Almanac of the Dead, Silko puts forth a world in which Native Americans are not isolated. The Salt Lizard women make alliances with African Americans, Africans, Anglo Americans, Italians, Mexicans, and American Mormons. Silko's diverse characters travel across the United States, through Western Europe, and even to Brazil.

Silko manages to juggle these travels, characters, and themes to create a powerful novel that may frustrate readers accustomed to plots revolving around the inner conflict of a single protagonist. Silko's novel is more in the folk tale tradition.

Each section is a story with its own meaning and lesson. Many of the chapters can be enjoyed independently of the rest of the novel.

Sister Salt says, "Money! You couldn't eat it or drink it, but people went crazy over it!" Gardens in the Dunes is a project which is not motivated by market interests. Instead, it is pushed by revolutionary ideas and thoughts. These are what grow in Leslie Marmon Silko's garden.

Tayari Jones is an MFA student in fiction at Arizona State University. She reviewed "The Great Whirl of Exile" by Leroy V. Quintana in the November issue.
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Author:Jones, Tayari
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 2000
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