Arizona: the land of scorching desserts and swimming pools in every backyard. Of hot, dry temperatures and the deep, majestic Grand Canyon. But what about the literary output from or about Arizona? Which authors have made this southwestern state their home, and what sorts of works have they crafted with Arizona as their setting? Continuing our series of the top books in each state, today, we focus on Arizona. We have actually pulled two books by one, well-known Arizonian author and one book by another. These titles impress us with the vivid imagery of the setting alongside the griping stories present in each of these books.
The Bean Trees, and Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver is perhaps most well known for her book, The Poisonwood Bible, and for her local eating commitment as documented in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Still, some of the novels that catapulted Barbara Kingsolver into her rightful place in the literary world are set in Arizona. Kingsolver herself earned her master’s degree from the University of Arizona in ecology and evolutionary biology.
In her debut novel, The Bean Trees (1988), Kingsolver takes readers on a journey alongside the main character—Taylor Greer—who has left her home in Kentucky and makes her way west to Arizona. Along the way, she comes into possession of an abandoned child whom she must learn to care for. When she arrives in Tucson, Taylor wrestles with her new responsibilities and the benefits of establishing herself in a community.
“The whole Tucson Valley lay in front of us, resting in its cradle of mountains. The sloped desert plain that lay between us and the city was like a palm stretched out for a fortuneteller to read, with its mounds and hillocks, its life lines and heart lines of dry stream beds.
A storm was coming up from the south, moving slowly. It looked something like a huge blue-gray shower curtain being drawn along by the hand of God. You could just barely see through it, enough to make out the silhouette of the mountains on the other side. From time to time nervous white ribbons of lightning jumped between the mountaintops and the clouds. A cool breeze came up behind us, sending shivers along the spines of the mesquite trees.”
A year after The Bean Trees was published, Kingsolver published a nonfiction book titled Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike and based on countless interviews and first-hand accounts. The following year, Kingsolver published Animal Dreams, again set in Arizona. In this story, Kingsolver employs her trademark multiple narrative voice, with the perspective shifting from the main character of Codi to that of her father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Expertly woven through this tale are instances of dreams, flashbacks, and Native American legends.
In terms of the Arizona setting, we see the impact of Codi’s move to a rural town where she feels like she doesn’t belong. And as a reviewer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune noted, “Barbara Kingsolver gives us the gift of a trip to forgiveness and love through lovingly sensual detail, characters we all know and yet wish we knew better, through evocations of an Arizona landscape both nurturing and mysterious.” The main character’s first description of Grace, Arizona is particularly effective in showing readers her mindset when the story begins.
“It was midmorning when I stepped down off the bus in Grace, and I didn’t recognize it. Even in fourteen years it couldn’t have changed much, though, so I knew it was just me. Grace is made of things that erode too slowly to be noticed: red granite canyon walls, orchards of sturdy old fruit trees past their prime, a shamelessly unpolluted sky. The houses were built in no big hurry back when labor was taken for granted, and now were in no big hurry to decay. Arthritic mesquite trees grew out of impossible crevices in the cliffs, looking as if they could adapt to life on Mars if need be.”
Animal dreams was named the Arizona Library Association Book of the Year and listed as an American Library Association notable book.
Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko
Leslie Marmon Silko is another Arizonian author of note. She is widely considered an important figure in the Native American Renaissance—a phrase coined by scholar Kenneth Lincoln in 1983 (and the title of his book published that same year) to describe the period of time beginning in the 1960s and continuing to this day which can be categorized by an increase in Native American literary expression and an exploration of tribal ritual and tradition.
Silko began publishing in the late 1960s. Her novel Ceremony (1977) received much acclaim even as fellow members of her Pueblo tribe criticized Silko for sharing tribal secrets (and knowledge special to their people) with the entire world. Still, Ceremony is often found on reading lists and classroom syllabi to this day. It gained an even wider readership following the Vietnam War as soldiers returning home were able to connect with the book’s themes of coping with war and the universality of trauma. From the 1970s to the 1980s, Silko published numerous other novels. In 1991, she published The Almanac of the Dead.
Like Ceremony, The Almanac of the Dead received mixed reviews. Both stories focus on the relationship between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans. However, unlike its predecessor, The Almanac of the Dead never achieved popular success.
Still, we’ve added it to our list today to bring it to your attention. The Almanac of the Dead is set in multiple locales throughout the southwestern United States and Mexico. Before the story even begins, we see a map with Tucson as the hub. And much of the first section of the novel is set in Arizona. Throughout the book, we’re treated to multiple perspectives from different characters of differing ages, backgrounds, hometowns, and motives. What results is a complex work.
“Out the window Seese saw long lines of blue landing lights outlining the runways. In the dim light she could see the grass and weeds between runways bent to the ground by strong winds. Ah Tucson. What a nice welcome, she thought as she swallowed the last of the rum. The only places that had worse dust storms than Tucson were Albuquerque and El Paso.”
Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal Dreams. HarperPerrenial, 1991, p. 8.
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Bean Trees. HarperPerennial, 1992, p. 161.
Marmon Silko, Leslie. Almanac of the Dead. New York, Penguin Group, 1992, p. 54.