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Book Review

By Gregory Wright

MAY 17, 1999: 

Gardens in the Dunes, Leslie Marmon Silko, (Simon & Schuster, cloth, $25)

Is it heresy to ask whether Leslie Marmon Silko must continue to be herded on to the reservation set aside for "Native American novelists"? Or even more unfairly, "Native American Women authors"? Yes, Silko is a Native American from New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo; she's also a woman. And a novelist.

In her latest novel, Gardens in the Dunes, Silko has demonstrated a virtuosity that makes that last designation the most pertinent of all and provides a compelling argument that all those other modifiers simply serve to limit her audience. Her latest work is a fully-realized, robust novel in the finest tradition of the form.

In fact, the work is equal to the finest examples of the 19th century novel, taking us back to the traditions of Jane Austen, Henry James and other inventors and enlargers of this sustaining literary staple. In this tradition, Gardens in the Dunes is a study in manners and morals. But here Silko expands it further, adding "magic" to the mix.

The novel weaves the tale of Indigo, an eleven-year-old American Indian from the desert surrounding Needles, Calif., leading us from her traditional and contented life with Grandmother Fleet, Sister Salt and her Sand Lizard People's agricultural life amidst the dunes through a rite of passage into the more complex and difficult Western world. In the process, we see a beautifully and carefully wrought picture of both worlds. The contrasting nature of the two world views is perhaps the novel's central irony, comprising the engine that drives us through this wide-ranging journey.

At the outset, Indigo is literally captured and then sent to an Indian School in Riverside, Calif. She escapes, hiding in orange groves and finally finding herself at the home of a botanist/collector and his wife. There she meets Linnaeus, a monkey with whom she forms a relationship more simple and loving than perhaps any other explored in the book. The intuitive nature of their bond transcends, in its simplicity and truth, any of the complications and sophistications found elsewhere in the novel.

The tale continues, exploring the lives of Hattie and Edward, who arrange to care for Indigo and take her with them on their travels to Italy, providing an exceptionally insightful portrait of enlightened turn-of-the-century thought. Throughout, Indigo's yearnings, her connection to Grandma Fleet and her hopes of finding The Messiah provide a counterpoint that curiously supplants the melody itself as the music of the story.

Travels across the United States (a stopover at Albuquerque is a nice bow by Silko to her homeland's main city), through the complexities of Long Island society and on to Europe enrich the plot. Side trips abound and include a description of Edward's disastrous South American orchid-gathering expedition, fraught with beauty, treachery and decadence.

The centrality and symbolism of plants and gardens is perhaps the most unifying presence in this ambitious work. And it works. We meet Indigo as she revels and delights in the plants and flowers of her minimalist dune life, with the wisdom of Grandma Fleet and the companionship among the plants with Sister Salt, and are transported through time and diverse cultures, through a seemingly endless progression of gardens. Increasing sophistication marks these oases, and yet the central connection to the green and blossoming landscape remains intact, providing a constant bridge between Indigo and her roots.

It is easy to get lost in the details of Gardens in the Dunes because its components are beautifully and knowledgeably constructed. It is in these details that Silko demonstrates her mastery of the European form of the novel; yet it is in her deep, personal experience with the soul of traditional cultures, and in a woman's soul, that the author joins the tradition of magical realism as well.

Silko's novel speaks with a full and resonant voice. It is an accomplished work. To consider it solely as a feminist or Native American novel can only serve to limit its audience, which should include all lovers of fiction and enchantment. In Gardens in the Dunes, readers are privileged to live in two worlds, and Leslie Marmon Silko has the rare experience and artistry to bring them both fully alive for us. It's time that Leslie Marmon Silko is removed from the reservation and welcomed into the community of great American novelists.

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