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Chapter 18: Natural Systems
Cash Stillwater is driving through Oklahoma, headed toward the Cherokee Nation, listening to a song about putting a wedding ring on the right women's hand. He is heading back to the Nation—his home—for good.
Meanwhile, Annawake wakes up one morning to find her baby niece curled under Annawake's quilt. Dellon comes in the room to retrieve the little girl, and tells Annawake that there will be another hog fry, to honor Cash's homecoming. Annawake figures out who Cash is, going through all relations in his family. He is the brother of Jesse Stillwater and Letty Hornbuckle, and is kin to Sugar Hornbuckle who was Annawake's mother's friend.
At home in Tucson, Jax is grieving over his situation. Lou Ann, Taylor's best friend, tries to convince him to snap out of it, with no success. After she leaves him, Jax looks out the window to see a mother coyote scare a dove away from its nest, and gobble down the eggs. Crying, he thinks that nature's morality is based only on success or failure, not on feeling.
Chapter 19: Chewing Bones
From a motel in Sacramento, Alice tries to find a number for her cousin Sugar. She finds eight different Hornbuckles living in Heaven, Oklahoma, and starts to call each of them. Meanwhile, Taylor notices that Turtle is anxious about Alice leaving. Taylor tells Alice of Jax's infidelity and Alice finally gets Sugar on the phone, and makes plans to go visit.
Meanwhile in Heaven, Letty and Sugar are cooking at the hog fry. Sugar tells Letty of the phone call, and ends up talking about her childhood in the South. Sugar thinks to herself that Letty is nosy Letty. Outside, the men of the community are frying pig parts in a huge pot. Sugar observes the scene around her, including the people from the tribe gathering together. Boma Mellowbug, a crazy, but wise old woman, points out the kolon, a bird, flying in the sky, making a noise like "chewing bones." He flies overhead when someone dies, but Boma says his flight is not always bad.
Chapter 20: The War of the Birds and the Bees
When Alice arrives in Heaven, she finds the small town run-down and pathetic. Sugar is showing her around, and explains to her that the Nation used to be much more prosperous, before the land was cut up into small allotments, and families were tricked into giving away the only land that belonged to them. Sugar politely avoids asking Alice what has brought her to the Nation, but asks about Harland and Taylor. She tells Alice that Heaven got its name from the water hole outside of town. On the walk back to Sugar's house, she finds "poke," leaves used for salad greens, growing by the road, and picks some to take home. The two women reminisce about old times growing up, and Sugar shows her a couple more town landmarks, such as an ostrich farm owned by a rich man and Boma Mellowbug's house. Mr. Green, who owns the ostrich farm, hates Boma, mostly because she keeps bees living in her roof. Sugar explains that they are "good bees if you love them, and Boma does."
Cash's decision to leave Wyoming (Chapter 11) is juxtaposed in the book with Alice's departure from Kentucky (Chapter 12), and in this section, Alice arrives in the Cherokee Nation just after Cash does. The reader should note the way that Alice's and Cash's lives parallel one another. One could say that both leave their respective towns after feeling like they could never achieve a sense of home where they were. Both also are motivated by an anxiety for their family. Cash grieves over his dead daughter and missing granddaughter while Alice knows that Taylor needs her help. In Chapter 18, Cash's thoughts about Rose also are reminiscent of Alice's thoughts of Harland. Both Cash and Alice believe that their significant others will not experience much feeling of loss, and both Cash and Alice do not care too much anyway. In short, their hearts are no longer with their old partners. The George Jones lyrics on the radio about choosing the right hand for a wedding ring foreshadow the romance that will bloom between Cash and Alice.
Meanwhile, Jax's relationship with Taylor is still uncertain. The image of the coyote at the end of Chapter 18 is an interesting part of an ongoing motif in the book that invokes images of natural processes and cycles. The natural world is often meant to symbolize the human world. The law of the jungle requires that every beast protect itself and its offspring, without asking what the consequences will be for others. The coyote can hardly be blamed for finding food for her offspring, and still Jax feels the cruelty of taking another mother's eggs. Of course, the detail of the dove's eggs reminds us of the robin's egg that Jax used to symbolize the fact of his affair. Jax will give Taylor this egg, so she can decide what she will about their relationship. Seeing the destruction of the dove eggs, then, brings Jax all the more grief.
These chapters also investigate the gender theme in the novel more explicitly. Although Annawake is battling against Taylor and Alice, all three of these women project strong-willed, determined personalities. Annawake and Taylor actually have many common traits; one of the more conspicuous is that they both lack the need for a man in their lives. In Chapter 18, Annawake makes a sarcastic comment about women marrying men just to borrow their clothes. She is also lying in bed in her brother's shirt, caring little about her clothes or physical appearance, just like Taylor.
The Cherokee Nation also represents a reunion of women family and friends. The reader will soon realize that Sugar and Alice lost contact partly as a result of Alice's first marriage. Now, Alice is returning to reclaim this bond, in the same way one might "claim" Cherokee heritage. This reunion also alludes back to the first chapter in the book, when Alice walks out to her yard in the middle of the night, feeling incredibly lonely, and thinks about Sugar and feels warmth and comfort. Now, she literally achieves this communion. When Sugar sympathizes with Alice about Harland's weaknesses, Alice thinks that talking about men's behavior is the "baking soda" for women's bonding—it is what allows women to "bubble and rise" together.
Sugar's thoughts about the old women of the tribe reveal that women's collective strength goes far deeper than just Alice and Sugar. She thinks that "the obstinate practicality of old women pierces and fortifies these families like the steel rods buried in walls of powdery concrete." The images of building and construction seem to recall the material state of the reservation—the decrepit houses and the "powdery concrete." The women in the tribe are what give strength to material weakness. Incidentally, Sugar also notes humorously that the men at the hog fry keeping watch over the boiling pig. She thinks of how women know they can leave a pot to boil; otherwise, the world could not go on. In other words, women know how to accomplish much with just two hands and few resources.
Both Sugar and Alice give descriptions of the community of Cherokees. Sugar observes her family in her yard at the hog fry at the end of Chapter 19 and Alice takes in her new surroundings when she first arrives in heaven. We should note the contrast between these two juxtaposed descriptions. First of all, Sugar's observations are almost all related to the people she knows and loves. She notices the strength of the love that binds all of her people together, feeling the invaluable security of family. Alice notices mostly material decay and decline. These two descriptions provide an interesting paradox. Although the town boasts ubiquitous mean dogs and run-down trailer homes, it also offers a rare form of lasting family and love. As the novel continues, Alice's impressions will change.