Always Coming Home

Discussion in 'Ursula K. Le Guin' started by Dtyler99, Jun 13, 2017.

  1. Dtyler99

    Dtyler99 Well-Known Member

    LeGuin has been a major influence in my own writing and I have read most everything she has written, including her many short fiction collections and volumes on the craft of writing. Perhaps the only material of hers I've stayed away from is her YA stuff (A Wizard of Earthsea is NOT YA), although a couple months ago I read Very Far Away From Anywhere Else which is an exceptionally thoughtful mainstream coming of age novella.

    Everyone will discuss The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Lathe of Heaven, and with good reason. There is a reason the former two volumes are so beloved and highly-regarded. The one book of hers that gets short shrift, in my opinion, is Always Coming Home, her far post apocalyptic "anthropological study" of the Kesh, descendants of survivors that live in the Na (Napa) valley region of California whose lives are reminiscent of the Coast Miwok Indians who populated the region before the coming of the Europeans.

    It's no surprise LeGuin used this societal model, as her father, Alfred Kroeber, founded the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley and chief among his research were the dwindling native American populations in California as they were being systematically exterminated. Additionally, her mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote the volumes, Ishi In Two Worlds and Ishi: Last of His Tribe, recounting the life of the "last wild Indian" in California, who knew nothing of modern life. LeGuin's family also had a summer house in the Napa valley where she became intimate with the region and its flora and fauna.

    The structure of Always Coming Home is, to be charitable, unusual. Although there is a narrative (broken into three parts) that follows the life of Stone Telling, a woman born to a Kesh mother and fathered by a member of a militant tribe hundreds of miles away, the narrative itself only accounts for about a third of the book. The other two thirds consist of what you would find in an ethnographic fieldbook: social structure, marriage rites, recipes, stories, poems, and descriptions of how the Kesh conduct their day-to-day lives.

    When I first started reading, the structure seemed a little off-putting as there isn't the kind of straightforward narrative flow one expects from a novel, but the deeper into the book I got, the more engrossed I became and when I finished the last page I put the book down, realizing I had just read a novel! I have since re-read it twice and each time the book seems utterly new to me, even though I know the shape and the arc of the "story."

    When it was published in 1985, it was hailed and reviled; hailed because those that saw through to LeGuin's intent and dexterous construction, saw in the volume what I did, and some even welcomed her as one of the few crossover SFF writers to REAL LITERATURE. Reviled because it seemed like LeGuin was shaking her feminist-leaning finger at those who slaughtered the tribes and make people of European descent feel shame and guilt, though they had nothing to do with it.

    Well, that's a hell of a long way of getting to the point: Has anyone on the forum read Always Coming Home, and if you did, what did you think?
    Boreas and Diziet Sma like this.
  2. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Not yet, I'm afraid. Boreas has recommended me Le Guin's fantasy as well as her SF work and I already have some of her books. I just need a long paid holiday to catch up with all this great reading. Sigh...!
  3. TomTB

    TomTB Administrator Staff Member

    Great post, but alas, I also am yet to pop my Le Guin cherry. If I'm honest I've never really considered reading any of her work, but I think I may need to reconsider this after reading your post and several other recommendations here/BFB forum. I'm very much in the same boat as @Diziet Sma though; too many books, too little time.
    Diziet Sma likes this.
  4. Dtyler99

    Dtyler99 Well-Known Member

    Indeed! I find it difficult enough to keep up with the output of my favorite authors, much less dive into the "back catalog" of books I know and want to read.
  5. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I have the book, but I've not read it. It was one of those that I contemplated on starting always 'next', but the half-narrative/half-study-like structure struck me as a little odd. And that's strange, because I enjoy experiencing narrative structures that are novel. I still want to read it, but there are a number of other LeGuin books I've not gotten around to that are more of a priority for me. Plus, I've been wanting to re-read her Ekumen and Earthsea novels for a while now.
  6. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I agree that A Wizard of Earthsea and it's sequels are not 'young adult' novels (are they really labelled as such?), although I think they were written specifically as children's books by LeGuin. The great thing about those novels is that you can read them on multiple levels, from a child's perspective and from a multiplicity of perspectives as an adult. The influence of her 'informal' training in anthropology through her father is as strong in these children's novels as they are in any of her adult fiction!
  7. Dtyler99

    Dtyler99 Well-Known Member

    Boreas -- You don't have to start LeGuin from the top (i.e., Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed) because while they are milestone books in SF, they can tend to overshadow some of LeGuin's work which is much more delicate and straightforward (if you can conceive that!). Seek out her heavily anthologized short story Those Who Walk Away From Olemas, and try The Lathe of Heaven. SF on a HUMAN scale and she is such an adroit writer. All of her work in the 60s and 70s was leading up to Always Coming Home and it's brilliant. I'll be quiet now... :)
    Boreas likes this.
  8. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Your strong recommendation of Always Coming Home has definitely encouraged me to read it! It might take me a while to get to it, but I'll for sure give you my thoughts on it when I'm done.
  9. Dtyler99

    Dtyler99 Well-Known Member

    Make sure -- if you haven't already -- you pick up either slip-case bound version or the trade paperback. The mass market edition, unfortunately, leaves out many of the excellent internal illustrations.
  10. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I know I've got a copy, but I don't remember whether it's the trade paperback or the mass market paperback. I used to move around a lot, so I had most of my books put away in boxes and still do. Will have to search for it.
  11. hrafnwasser

    hrafnwasser Well-Known Member

    Always Coming Home is beyond ordinary genre writing; amazing, If I recall correctly Le Guin characterises it as "future archaeology ". There is a depth of vision and sense of time and place that matches the very best of writers in any writing. If you haven't yet read "Always" then pick it up, read and surrender to Le Guin's magic.
    Boreas likes this.

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