One of the aims of this novel is to show the Cherokee Nation as a valued community. Part of this value comes from the way the Cherokees rethinks the notion of what constitutes a family. This novel refuses to privilege one family structure over another: while it asks us to consider the advantages of Cherokee familial structures, it does not undervalue the bond between mother and child.
The novel provides many examples of what makes up family on the Cherokee Nation. Annawake explains that the Cherokee people do not distinguish between mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandfather, and grandmother. The reason that Annawake can feel outrage about Turtle, even when her aunt chose to give her away, is because no individual—even birth parents—have the legal authority to give away their children. No one is any way "contracted" to be more obligated to a child than the next person is. Millie's house is filled with kids who Millie has had with her divorced husband, Dell. Annawake, Millie's ex-husband's sister, actually lives with Millie, and Dell still comes around often. Sugar tells Alice about one of her grandkids whose mother had so many kids when he was born that someone else on the Nation adopted him. They share their kids, without valuing one family relation over another. This family model offers a more inclusive alternative to the nuclear family, and a sense of security in its vastness. This theme is addressed again and again through Alice. The thought of a bigger support network brings her great comfort.
In the end, the novel does not condemn a more conventional American family structure. Indeed, Turtle will live with Taylor at least nine months out of the year, probably also with Jax. The novel does privilege the idea of inclusion, however. Turtle is not better off being separated from her mother to live in a more untraditional family structure. She is, however, better off having more relatives to take care of her. Now she will have her grandfather, and all of his relations, widening her web of "family."
This novel takes a strong sociopolitical stance in the way that it addresses Native American life in America today. It challenges the conventional American lifestyle by presenting the Cherokee Nation as an alternative. Jax's conversation with Gundi offers a good way of conceptualizing this theme. He asks Gundi if she could be completely satisfied painting for the good of society, if she never was allowed to sign her paintings. In other words, he questions whether either of them could feel totally happy immersed in a communal life, never thinking of their individual life first.
In the case of child adoptions, the Cherokee stray from the conventional legal tendency to ask what is the best situation for the child. In addition, the Cherokee consider what is best for the tribe. The author presents a scene of communal living where no one needs to question his or her own achievements or ambitions. When Alice goes to the stomp dance, she loses a sense of herself, and finds a sense of belonging. Boma Mellowbug's tree becomes an important metaphor for the Cherokee life; instead of devaluing Boma for not being "self-sufficient" the town celebrates her spirit by turning her tree into a community landmark. This lifestyle is a stark contrast to America's mass-consumer society that is based on individual desire and ambition. Barbie symbolizes the antithesis of the Cherokee life; she is motivated by capitalist values and marketing schemes, literally turning herself into a commodity. Not only do the Cherokee refuse materialistic status symbols, they also value dependents as an important part of their community. There is no shame in asking for help, and it is consistently given, as they share food, family and land.
The novel suggests that Native American culture cannot thrive at all outside of Native American reservations and communities. Annawake comments that trying to raise a child Cherokee by living outside the Nation is like raising an elephant, but taking it to the zoo once in a while. Gabriel's experience helps to develop this theme: if a child taken away from the Nation, he was misunderstood by a white world that took him for a kind of pseudo-Mexican. Gabriel's demise illustrates the way in which white society is ignorant of Native American culture, and the way in which Cherokee people living outside the Nation are victimized as a result.
Cash Stillwater's stint in Jackson Hole is another way the novel addresses culture clash. His past "get rich quick" attitude is in a way a product of white television. As soon as he tells Alice how he ran away to Wyoming, because he thought "being close to good times is like having good times," Alice thinks of Harland, her T.V.-loving second husband. The T.V. indeed offers a way of being close to good times; it provides a kind of virtual world, in which a person can experience something vicariously without ever having to live it. This kind of illusion is the same that drove Cash to a ritzy tourist town, where money and the illusion of Indian culture ran rampant. Indeed, this environment only brought him more pain and suffering. Mr. Crittendon's suicide illustrates the point further. A man worth a million dollars self-destructed when he felt that Native American culture had no other value in American life other than being marketed as a commodity.
This motif recurs throughout the novel, and adds structure to the sudden train of events that follow "Lucky" Buster's rescue. The idea of luck and chance is conceived of differently in the Cherokee world than it is in American life, and it helps to illuminate the differences between the two cultures. The Las Vegas setting epitomizes the way that white America conceives of luck and chance—it always relates back to money. Taylor leaves Las Vegas having lost the fifty dollars that she was lucky enough to find on her car. At the same time, Franklin Turnbo is remembering a time when he found himself without gas in the middle of the highway in the Cherokee Nation. He hears the meadowlarks singing, and looks around him, and feels so lucky just to live where he does. Taylor comments in the beginning of the book that she feels like she just cannot think that much about luck, one way or the other. Whether or not it was lucky for she and Turtle to fall into this life that led them back to the Nation is still seems unclear to her at the end of the book. Indeed, the "gambling agenda" on the blackboard in the final chapter epitomizes the way in which chance governs human life.
Images of nature's cycles and systems recur throughout the novel. In addition to animal imagery—birds, pigs, turtles, and horses—Kingsolver often uses the predator-prey relationship to explain human behavior. The book suggests that sometimes human beings act out of a survival instinct to protect themselves and their families. This animal instinct cannot worry about feelings or compassion; it acts according to the laws of nature. When Jax sees the coyote devour eggs to feed her young, he seems to see his life in terms of predator- prey roles. Taylor leaves Jax to protect her daughter; Jax has sex with Gundi, drawn by the temptation of sexual pleasure. When Taylor sees the salmon ascending the ladder to get back to their birthplace, she is reminded of herself, struggling to care for herself and Turtle. Like the salmon work just to be eaten by sea lions at the top of the ladder, so does Taylor work to find herself only further behind. The last important example is the way the author compares Annawake to a bird of prey. Annawake sees herself as a hawk who has lost her other wing, and now she is merely "tearing flesh to keep her own alive."
Proximity to nature is also one of the traits that separates the Cherokee Nation from the rest of America. Cherokee people have continued to live alongside nature, instead of against it. When Annawake comes to visit Taylor, the birds have ruined nearly every apricot on her tree. On the Cherokee Nation, Sugar's husband has planted a mulberry tree to distract the birds from his peaches. On the Nation, rivers teem with fish, while Taylor and Turtle have to splurge to make tuna fish sandwiches. Nature is thus used to contrast the Cherokee way of life with the life of other Americans.
The "Six Pigs in Heaven" is the name the Cherokee give the Pleides constellation—the same constellation that Caucasian Americans would call "Seven Sisters." This name comes from a story about six little boys who never wanted to do any chores. Their mothers became so fed up that they boiled the balls the boys played with and served it to them to eat. The boys got angry, and ran out to the ball field, where the spirits took them up the sky, and they stayed as the six stars. The "pigs in heaven" serve as a reminder to human beings to do well by their people. They also remind parents to always forgive their children. When the six boys went to the sky, the mothers mourned their loss. The constellation therefore symbolizes all the children who have been lost. Cash Stillwater mourns the loss of his granddaughter, as Taylor grieves her potential loss.
We should note the other ways that "pig" is used in the book. The pig is the animal used to tell this Cherokee story, but pigs are also a part of Alice's upbringing and background. In fact, in the first chapter, Alice chases away her neighbor's pigs when they invade her yard. After a while, she decides to let them stay. If one thinks about pigs as being associated with the Cherokee Nation, then this scene parallels Taylor's attempt to chase Annawake out of her life. In the end, she finds herself conceding to the Cherokee way of life. Alice has spent her childhood on a hog farm, and she has a myriad of expressions that use the word "pig." The presence of "pig" in her past and in her speech suggests that she is in some way aligned with Cherokee life. "Heaven" also has a dual meaning in the book. The pigs go up to live in the sky—in heaven—and the Cherokee of the novel live in a place called "Heaven."
Annawake's twin brother symbolizes all the Cherokee children taken from the Nation. Annawake identifies the disappearance of their children as the modern day atrocity suffered by Cherokee people. Throughout history, white Americans marched the Cherokee into Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, cheated them out of the land on the reservation, and sent them to prison-like boarding schools to learn Christianity and the ways of the white man. The novel unveils the social and political injustice still waged against Native Americans today. Gabriel is a tragic reminder that America still takes advantage of its native peoples.
The television symbolizes all that is bad about American capitalism. Cash explains T.V. as something that shows you what you want before you even knew you wanted it. Within the context of the novel, the promise of that materialistic gain never comes to fruition. Television is almost always related to marketing in the novel—it is always selling something, whether it be a product or a way of life. It is the T.V. that projects images of Indians that have nothing to do with reality. Harland is of course so enraptured in this world that he is convinced by the illusion. He does not see any reason to see things for himself when he can watch it on a screen. Alice feels lonely as the result of Harland's love affair with the T.V. It is of course not an accident that American capitalism and loneliness are both represented through this same object.
Take a Study Break!