cover image Gardens in the Dunes

Gardens in the Dunes

Leslie Marmon Silko. Simon & Schuster, $25 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-684-81154-3

Silko (Almanac of the Dead, etc.) is widely considered a master of Native American literature, but in this third novel, as always, the poet, short-story writer and essayist soars beyond the simpler categorizations that might circumscribe her virtuosic and visionary work. Indigo is one of the last Sand Lizard people, who for centuries have cultivated the desert dunes beyond the river. Young Indigo's story opens like a folk tale, outside place and time, but gradually circumstances become plain. It's the turn of the century, Arizona is on the verge of statehood and an aqueduct is being constructed to feed water from the Colorado River to Los Angeles. Displaced peoples strip the desert gardens, and Grandma Fleet takes Indigo and Sister Salt to Needles. There the girls' mother has joined the encampment of women dancing to summon the Messiah, who, to Indigo's wonderment, appears with his Holy Mother and his 11 children. Soldiers raid the celebration; soon Indigo and Sister Salt are captured and separated, and Indigo is sent to school in Riverside. She escapes and is found hiding in a garden by intellectual iconoclast Hattie, who adopts the child and takes her first to New York, then to Europe. The novel, expanding far beyond its initial setting and historical themes, is structured around intricate patterns of color and styles of gardening: the desert dunes are pale yellow and orange; in Italy, a black garden is formed from thousands of hybrid black gladioli. Significantly, there's also a parrot named Rainbow--along with a monkey named Linnaeus and a dog circus. Silko's integration of glorious details into her many vivid settings and intense characters is a triumph of the storyteller's art, which this gifted and magical novelist has never demonstrated more satisfyingly than she does here. (Apr.)