Ursula K. Le Guin – Always Coming Home

Now the year is wearing on and we are coming to the end of October, I am able to report I have completed my tenth Great Book for the year, and a complex and challenging work it is. Always Coming Home is the story of the Kesh people, their culture and customs, and incidents from the lives of some of its people. We are also taken into its antithesis, the Condor world, a world of war, cities, and machines, where women are completely subjugated.

The setting is far in the future when our world has been obliterated by the inevitable catastrophe.  The book is a life story of the girl who begins as North Owl and whose last name is Stone Telling. Her story is broken into three parts, and interspersed with the stories of other lives, poems and even recipes, as laid down in A First Note

The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.

The main part of the book is their voices speaking for themselves in stories and life-stories, plays, poems and songs.

Pandora is the archaeologist putting all this together. Sometimes she makes interjections, small passages

Pandora Worries About What She is Doing: She Addresses the Reader with Agitation

Am I not a daughter of the people who enslaved and extirpated the people the peoples of three continents? Am I not a sister of Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank? Am I not a citizen of the State that fought the first nuclear war? Have I not eaten, drunk, and breathed poison all my life, like the maggot that lives and breeds in shit?

Later, in a conversation with the Archivist of the Madrone Lodge, she gives her reasons for writing the book

This is a mere dream dreamed in a bad time, an Up Yours to the people who ride snowmobiles, make nuclear weapons, and run prison camps, by a middle-aged housewife.

So, she has found/created Kesh, her ideal society. It is village life lived simply and in the main, harmoniously. The people are generally peaceable and hard -working. Music and dance and celebration at certain times of the year are central to their lives; the World Dance, the Moon Dance, the Wine Dance. There are some who want to be Warriors or who, like North Owl’s mother, withdraw from society, but in the main life is simple and generosity is the highest value. In the Back of the Book in A Treatise on Practices the desired state is described thus

…A bright imagination, a clear intellect, warmth, readiness, magnanimity, grace, and ease are wanted in the practices of gardening, farming, sharing food, caring for animals, cure, care, healing, and comforting, the arts of making order and cleanliness where people live and work, all dancing and delightful exercises, the arts of making beautiful and useful things, and all the arts and practices of music, of speaking, of writing, and of reading aloud or silently.

North Owl is only half Kesh, her father is a Condor warrior her mother fell in love with and  whose return she has awaited for years. When North Owl is nine years old her father returns hoping that, Willow, her mother has waited for him. She has waited, but after time spent together, she turns away from him because he will not take her with him on his journey. She reverts to her childhood name, Towhee, and it is North Owl, years later, who goes with him on his journey back to the City of Man. Here she finds a society where women and lower people are forbidden to read on pain of mutilation, and where women live together deprived of knowledge or education. Her father is kind, but not able to alter this. In her years there she makes a deep friend, she has a child and eventually, as a woman with a young daughter, and with the help of her father, she escapes and journeys back to Kesh. During that journey she takes the name Woman Coming Home.

Kesh society is in many ways an ideal society. The people live lightly on the land, they live communally, but  in a small group. Having more than two children is frowned upon, whereas the Condor people women have many children. The Condor society destroys itself by its search for lethal weapons while people starve, the Kesh people keep their society small and survive.

There is a strong feeling of Indigenous American culture underlying this book; Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist who wrote the Handbook of the Indians of California and her mother, an author, wrote The Inland Whale (traditional narratives of North California). It is clear the Na Valley is modeled on the landscape of California’s Napa Valley. Coyote is often lurking about.

A Grass Dance Song


From the house of the Lion that lies on the mountain,

footsteps of the dancers approaching,

hurrying: listen, the footsteps

of Bear dancers hurrying downwards

over the foothills towards us.

Coyote, Coyote follows them.

      Coyote howling and singing!

It seems to me Le Guin’s book is an homage to the destroyed societies of the Indigenous American peoples. It is not an appropriation but a celebration. And an apology.

An extraordinary work of poetry and scholarship and definitely one of the Great Books.

13 thoughts on “Ursula K. Le Guin – Always Coming Home

    1. That’s a very good question. I know of writers like Alexis Wright who won the Miles Franklin for Carpentaria, a fictional telling of Indigenous life in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and Kim Scott’s Taboo about the conflict with white society, but I don’t know of a writer who has done what LeGuin has done and created a whole new society. Dorothy may know.

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