Annawake often feels frustrated that people only think of Native Americans in terms of history, or that people's perceptions of Cherokee life are based mostly on marketing and media representations. How does the book represent modern Cherokee life? How is it different than the way it is represented in American culture?
The Cherokee Nation values family and community above all else. When Alice arrives at the Nation, she is startled to see how differently the Cherokee community conceives of "family." Family comes in all kinds of configurations, with aunts and uncles adopting kids, divorced parents having kids together, and grandparents taking care of everyone. The idea of the "extended" family does not really exist at all. Everyone's role is valued equally, and ideally, everyone takes responsibility for one another. Annawake, Dell, and Millie are always taking turns caring for Dell and Millie's kids, for example. Alice observes how respectful the teenagers are to their older relatives. As soon as Alice and Sugar arrive at the watering hole, a young boy appears with a string of fish for them.
The book also goes to great lengths to present a scene of Cherokee life that is separate from the tourism and advertising industries. Alice thinks when she goes to the stomp dance that everything Native American she has seen up till this point, was something to do with tourism. This scene, she finds, is just a bunch of people having a good time together. Cash's job making beaded jewelry provides another example. Rose sits in the window every day, pretending to string beads, just so the tourists can have the experience of seeing a real Indian at work. Cash points out that being able to feed a lot of people with a few pigs or chickens has more to do with Cherokee life than beaded jewelry. Annawake mentions the Land-O-Lakes woman as a prime target for derogatory jokes made about Native Americans. All in all, the novel tries to communicate that the images Americans see every day do not have anything to do with real Cherokee life.
The novel also demystifies the notion of the Native American as a quaint picture of traditional life. Cash mentions that his daughters smoke cigarettes, join Weight Watchers, and talk about their husbands on the phone with their friends. Oftentimes the images used to describe Cherokee experience are images that appear in everyday American life, but used in a different way. For instance, Alice compares the stomp dance to a kind of spiritual Stairmaster. This image is powerful because it suggests that Cherokee life is not any less modern or civilized than American life; the Stairmaster conjures up an image of modern technology. Still, the Cherokee life is more than what American commodity can offer, since it values a spiritual way of imagining the world. Alice also compares the dancing girls to magazine models. Unlike the stick figures of fashion magazines, though, these girls find grace in the heavy shackles around their legs.
Over the course of the novel, the author uses several details that lead up to Turtle's new relationship with the Cherokee Nation. What kinds of details suggest that Turtle and Taylor must at some point confront Turtle's identity as a Cherokee?
Many details demonstrate that Turtle at some point must learn about her homeland, and her people. Turtle already confronts issues typical of Native American kids living outside the reservation. At one point, Alice asks Annawake what separates Alice from Turtle, in terms of their identity as Cherokees. Alice, too, has Cherokee blood in her family. Annawake responds that the difference is the way society perceives skin color. Indeed, Turtle already has been the recipient of offensive remarks concerning her race. One of the men that Taylor dates assumes Turtle is Korean, and then starts making ignorant, offensive remarks about the Korean community. Barbie's remarks in Las Vegas carry the same sentiment. Barbie scrutinizes Turtle's skin color before pointedly talking about the new ethnic Barbies on the market. Although this remark is borne out of an innocent sort of ignorance, it is representative of American culture at large, which will always position Native American identity as "other." Barbie is merely symbolic of an entire culture that values women for their dimensions, clothes, and blond hair.
Turtle herself has no examples in her life of what Cherokee people are really like. This idea is most clear when she and Taylor realize they have to go talk to the folks in Oklahoma, and Turtle asks her mom if she is going to give her to the Indians. Turtle already feels the shame associated with poverty in urban America, when the kids at school make fun of her clothes. On the reservation, poverty does not carry a sense of shame. Also, Taylor and Turtle find out eventually that Turtle is lactose intolerant, a problem that would have been anticipated if Turtle were in contact with people of her own race.
The author invokes imagery throughout the novel that foreshadows Turtle's eventual communion with the Cherokee community. One example is Taylor and Turtle's trip to see the salmon struggling to get back to their home. This natural cycle of life is symbolic of the course that Turtle will follow. Kingsolver also makes at least three references to "turtles" on the Cherokee Nation before Turtle arrives. Since Turtle is named for snapping turtles, it is appropriate to assign symbolic meaning to this imagery. First, Alice notices the turtles lying the road, that manage to avoid being hit by oncoming traffic. Turtle, likewise, has a kind of near scare when Annawake enters her life, but will emerge unscathed. A second reference comes when Alice is visiting the watering hole, and a young boy tells her about the snapping turtles in the pond. We are alerted that the very animal that Turtle is named for makes its home in this place. The third image is of the terrapin shells on the young girls' legs at the stomp dance. These girls are more a part of the community than anyone, and they are who Turtle could become.
At the end of the novel, Alice understands that her long line of women on their own, is now opening its doors to men. What role does gender play in the novel? How does the idea of "women on their own" evolve?
This novel is filled with "women on their own." Alice has enough gustiness to get up and leave her husband and her home, though she is in her forties; Taylor explicitly says she does not "need" Jax; and Annawake pursues her career over any man; even Turtle recognizes Barbie's shallowness. The three older women show themselves to be gutsy, strong-willed, and independent. The novel obviously values women who seek out their own lives, without compromising for the sake of a man.
All of these women seek out a more communal life, eventually, and the presence of other people is always essential to making a community. Men are a part of communal living and while Taylor and Alice end up with a man, they can never substitute for the strength and bondage of women's friendships. When Alice feels lonely, she longs for Sugar. Sugar becomes the reason she comes to the Nation, and the way she is inducted into the community. Alice sits next to Sugar with the Bird Clan at the stomp dance. During the dance, Cash becomes all but irrelevant. Alice's transformation is based on the warmth and unity of an entire community, not a single man. Taylor, too, when speaking of her family, names Lou Ann and Mattie along with Jax. On the Cherokee Nation, especially, women's strength is valued and celebrated. Sugar thinks wistfully that her community is strengthened by the older generation of women, who persist like "steel rods" amidst "powdery concrete." Sugar and Alice bond over sharing stories of men's behavior. The book implicitly argues that the strength of family is dependent on strong female-female relationships.