Dr. Homero Noline watches his sleeping daughters, Cosima and Halimeda. The girls perform elaborate rituals to hide their sleeping together; he does not tell them that he knows. They spent the day, the Day of the Dead, happily helping to plant flowers in the cemetery along with a group of neighbors. Doc Homer considers that the grave they decorated is that of a great grandmother who is no part of their family. He decides not to allow them to return to the cemetery the following year. Watching the girls from the doorway, Doc Homer feels how close they are to each other and how distant they are from him. They have no mother.
In August of 1985, Hallie, as Halimeda is commonly known, leaves Tucson, Arizona for Nicaragua; shortly thereafter, Codi, as Cosima is known, takes a bus to Grace, where the two grew up. Codi has not been back home since her high school graduation in 1972. She is the only person to get off the bus in Grace. No one is there to meet her.
Carrying her bags into town, she already misses Hallie and her lover Carlo, both of whom she had been living with in Tucson. The home they had established fell apart when Hallie left; she was the only homemaker of the three. Carlo, like all of Codi's boyfriends, had "loved Hallie best and settled for" Codi, which did not bother Codi. But without Hallie, no longer in love with Carlo, and not at all attached to her job as a clerk at the local 7-Eleven convenience store, Codi had no reason left to stay in Tucson. And with Doc Homer ill, there was an important reason for her to return to Grace.
Codi walks through town to the house of her old high school friend Emelina Domingos, where she plans to live. She will care for her father and teach biology at the high school. Codi continues past town, through the orchards. Hearing the call of a peacock, she considers the local legend of the nine blue- eyed Gracela sisters who came to the area from Spain to marry miners in a local gold camp, their peacocks in tow. Codi mistakes a bunch of kids hitting a peacock-shaped piñata as attacking of a live bird, only realizing her mistake after she has begun to chastise them.
On a separate page before the beginning of each chapter, a single name appears: Homero before the first and Codi before the second. Animal Dreams is narrated by two different voices; the names announce the perspective of each section. The narrative voice shifts at varying intervals throughout the novel but is always announced. In the sections preceded by Homero, a third person limited narrator shares the perspective of Doc Homer. A larger number of chapters are narrated in the first person voice of Cosima, whom everyone calls Codi.
The separation of the two narrative voices mirrors the separation of the characters, while the perspective of each symbolizes his or her personality. Doc Homer goes about his entire life as if it were a medical experiment. Medical metaphors abound in the chapters told from his perspective. He always attempts to be objective and to maintain himself at a distance. The third person, being more an objective point of view than first person, fits him perfectly. It also suggests that he may no longer be present to tell his story himself. On the other hand, Codi, the main protagonist of the story, is engaged in a personal search for meaning and direction in her life. Her narration in the first person helps the reader to identify with her as a protagonist and also demonstrates her struggle to understand the place of her life in the larger scheme of the world.
Although Doc Homer presents himself to the other characters as intentionally and happily separate from those around him, he feels a great deal of sadness at the extension of this distance to his relationship with his daughters. His chapters focus primarily on past events, suggesting that he is attempting to remedy some wrong or to find a clue to help him understand his life. Doc Homer's past, beyond his daughter's adolescence, is shrouded in a mystery he works to maintain. Some clue to that past must be held in the cemetery, for his decision to forbid his daughters to participate in the Day of the Dead ceremonies hinges on his fear that they may learn some undisclosed fact.
Several elements of the plot of Animal Dreams refer to a reality outside the bounds of the novel. The most direct of these is the war in Nicaragua. In late 1980s, a communist government was elected in Nicaragua. They had enormous popular support based on elaborate plans for agrarian reform and an egalitarian distribution of wealth. Arguing that communism in any country in Latin America was a threat to its national security, the US government supported a group of highly armed rebels, the Contras, in their attacks against Nicaragua's elected regime. In the novel, Codi considers her beloved sister Hallie's move to Nicaragua to participate in the agrarian reform as helping to save the world. Implicitly, the perspective of the novel supports the cause of the elected Nicaraguan government and condemns the actions of the Contras and US policy.
The reference to the Day of the Dead as well as to Arizona firmly locates the main action of Animal Dreams in the Mexican and Native American-inflected culture of the southwestern United States. The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that honors family members who have passed away just after Halloween, on November 2. Families spend the entire day at the cemetery, cleaning the graves and planting fresh flowers. It is not, however, a day of mourning. Families bring picnics to the cemetery, visit with neighbors, and play music. When they eat, they set out plates for those who have passed on. The Day of the Dead is a holiday to remember and to celebrate the lives of deceased family members. It is also a time to connect with family and ancestors, both living and dead. Doc Homer's decision to keep his daughters from that celebration removes the girls both from a connection with their own family history and from a connection with their community. Codi obviously feels this distance from her community when she returns as an adult. Not only does she enter Grace alone, she also fails to recognize a common children's activity there.