Books: History of an Imagined World Always Coming Home

by Ursula K. Le Guin Harper & Row; 525 pages; $50 hardcover, $25 paperback

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Her father A.L. Kroeber was a renowned anthropologist, and her mother Theodora wrote nonfiction, principally on the American Indian. Those who do not know these facts about Ursula K. Le Guin could probably deduce them from her 23rd book. Always Coming Home can be read as a novel, but it is really something else: a scientific-looking compendium of information about a people who might exist in the distant future. They are called the Kesh, a gentle tribe living in the nine towns of the valley of the river Na, somewhere in Northern California. Le Guin's fieldwork into their rites and customs comes decked out with maps, charts, tables and drawings. Also accompanying the book (and accounting for its steeper-than-normal price) is a tape recording of Kesh poetry and music.

A multimedia book sounds like a terrible idea. If a cassette has to do the work that properly belongs to words on the page, then everyone involved should forget the whole thing. Fortunately, Le Guin's language is thoroughly up to the task she sets herself, which is an encyclopedic history of an imagined world. The sounds are only special effects.

The most important element in Always Coming Home is the autobiographical narrative of a woman called Stone Telling. Although her story takes up roughly one-fifth of the book, it provides an accessible focus for the bigger picture that Le Guin wishes to convey. Stone Telling looks back on her childhood, when she was called North Owl (Kesh people change their names whenever it seems appropriate to do so). She lives with her mother and grandmother in a matrilineal society whose rituals harmonize with nature and the passing seasons. She studies the habits of animals and learns the Kesh song of happiness and praise: "Heya hey heya heya heya."

Her only unhappiness among all these Edenic ways stems from the fact that her father is a member of the Condor people, a fierce warrior tribe to the north. His name is Terter Abhao, which translates into Kesh as Kills. When North Owl is nine, he reappears and spends the autumn and winter. The young girl watches his behavior toward the soldiers under his command. He tells her how to give them an order. She does so, and they instantly obey: "So I first felt the great energy of the power that originates in imbalance."

This knowledge guarantees that she will some day journey with her father to observe Condor society firsthand. But once she makes the trip, she is sorry. The Condors are everything that the Kesh are not: violent, destructive, acquisitive, caste ridden, competitive. "Everything they did," North Owl notes, "was war." High-born women are forced into lives of idle seclusion. All other females, along with foreigners and animals, are routinely abused as hontik. Condor warriors worship the god One and kill for his glory. North Owl concludes that her hosts are "a sick people destroying themselves" and yearns for the day when she can change her name to Woman Coming Home.

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