GARDENS IN THE DUNES by Leslie Marmon Silko


Email this review


There are many wonderful moments in this ambitious tale of Native America in conflict with paternalistic white culture—unquestionably the best fiction yet from Silko. Its settings are the southwestern and northeastern US, England, and Europe near the end of the 19th century, and its resonant theme is the imperfect adaptation of a girl of the (Arizona) Sand Lizard Indian tribe and an educated woman seeking independence to each other’s starkly contrasting “worlds.” The story begins (and, sadly, during its first hundred pages, sags) with a detailed account of the survival of preadolescent Indigo and her older “Sister Salt” when a massacre of their people by US cavalry leaves them orphaned, to be raised and tutored by their resourceful grandmother. When the beloved “Granny Fleet” dies, the sisters are captured, sent to white schools, and separated—after which the innocent Indigo enchants, and is effectively adopted by, Hattie Palmer, the young wife of the much older Edward, a botanist and explorer driven by both scientific and mercenary ambitions. During travels with the Palmers back east and abroad (climaxing with their viewing, in an Italian village, of a cache of carved stone “fertility figures”), Indigo’s “education” acquaints her with such alien commonplaces of white culture as sexual irregularity and hypocrisy, Christianity’s strong moralistic component, and “civilization’s” proprietary attitude toward the natural world. A chastened return to Arizona, and Indigo’s (not quite believable) reunion with her sister, now an unwed mother, occasions an awkwardly overplotted series of ironic reversals that leave the disillusioned Hattie (easily the best character here) only a mocking simulacrum of the “liberation” she has pursued. Given that Silko (Almanac of the Dead, 1991, etc.) is less a novelist than a lyrical observer and celebrant of Native American life, this daunting fiction is, despite several longueurs and narrative miscalculations, both a thoughtful exploration of the incompatibility of dissimilar traditions and an absorbing reading experience.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-684-81154-5
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1999


NonfictionTHE TURQUOISE LEDGE by Leslie Marmon Silko
by Leslie Marmon Silko
NonfictionYELLOW WOMAN AND A BEAUTY OF THE SPIRIT by Leslie Marmon Silko
by Leslie Marmon Silko
FictionALMANAC OF THE DEAD by Leslie Marmon Silko
by Leslie Marmon Silko


IndieDANCING WITH WILD WOMAN by Parris Afton Bonds
by Parris Afton Bonds