READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Leslie Marmon Silko's Gardens In The Dunes was one of two delightful surprises to hit Tucson this past April (the other being that Easter-morning snow shower). By far the longer-lasting pleasure, this 300-page historical epic is perhaps Silko's most ambitious work to date, weaving seldom-developed Western characters such as Indian girls, black entrepreneurs, Mexican revolutionaries (a gypsy woman traveling with a pack of sideshow dogs, no less!), prostitutes, Mormons and Indian school authorities into an enthralling tale that spans decades and continents.
Gardens follows the lives of three generations of Sand Lizard women -- a grandmother, her daughter and two granddaughters -- from their happy, cultivating years in the eponymous old gardens, to a prison in Yuma where the girls' lives are split apart and sent down wildly divergent paths. Along the way, Silko imparts an always-challenging view of the notion of "quality of life," and just enough social justice to keep you hopefully cheering on her hard-scrabble heroines. Luscious descriptions of gardens in the American Southwest, on the posh mansions of the East Coast, Italy and England, and intriguingly detailed fragments of the unexpectedly political history of commercial botanicals (in particular, orchids) propel this mesmerizing and dryly humorous tale of love and betrayal to unexpected conclusions. It's a wonderful piece of regional literature that embraces the larger western world.