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.