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Always Coming Home is a 1985 novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, about a cultural group who "might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California." (p. i) Part novel, part textbook, part anthropologist's record, Always Coming Home describes the life and culture of the Kesh people.[1]

Always Coming Home
First edition cover
Author Ursula K. Le Guin
Illustrator Margaret Chodos
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction
Published 1985 (Harper and Row)
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)
Pages 523
ISBN 0-06-015545-0
OCLC 11728313
813/.54 19
LC Class PS3562.E42 A79 1985
Submerged California, the setting of the book. The Old Straight Road is the SR 29, the Grandmother Mountain (Ama Kulkun) is Mount Saint Helena.
Heyiya-if, a holy symbol for the Kesh.
The Kesh aiha alphabet


Plot introductionEdit

The book weaves around the story of a woman called Stone Telling, who spent her childhood with her mother's people in the Valley, and as a very young woman lived for years with her father's people in the City. The two societies are contrasted: the Kesh are peaceful and the Dayao or Condor people are rigid, patriarchal, hierarchical and militarily expansionist. Her life-story fills less than a third of the book, with the rest being a mixture of Kesh cultural lore (including poetry, prose of various kinds, mythos, rituals, and recipes), essays on Kesh culture, and the musings of the narrator, "Pandora". Some editions of the book were accompanied by a tape of Kesh music and poetry.

It is set in a time so post-apocalyptic that no cultural source can remember the apocalypse, though a few folk tales refer to our time. The only signs of our civilization that have lasted into their time are indestructible artefacts such as styrofoam and a self-manufacturing, self-maintaining, solar-system-wide computer network. There has been a great sea level rise since our time, flooding much of northern California, where the story takes place.

Pandora describes the book as a protest against contemporary civilization, which the Kesh call "the Sickness of Man". Pandora muses that one key difference is that due to cumulative genetic damage, the Kesh have a high infant mortality rate[2]—there are many fewer of them than there are of us. A low population density means that they can feed themselves from their land. They use such inventions of civilization as writing, steel, guns, electricity, trains, and a computer network (see below). However, unlike most neighboring societies, they reject government, a non-laboring caste, expansion of population or territory, disbelief in what we consider supernatural, and human domination of the natural environment. They blend millennia of human economic culture by combining aspects of hunter-gatherer, agriculture, and industry, but reject cities; indeed, what they call towns would count as villages now.

The cultural lore has attributions or annotations such as an ethnographic fieldworker might make. A number of these are attributed to another Kesh woman, Little Bear Woman;[3] the name is a fair equivalent of the author's first name, "Ursula", which is Latin for little she-bear.[4]


The novel received the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and was a runner up for the National Book Awards.[5][6]

Literary significance and criticismEdit

It has been noted that Always Coming Home underscores Le Guin's long-standing anthropological interests. The Valley of the Na [River] is modeled on the landscape of California's Napa Valley, where Le Guin spent her childhood when her family was not in Berkeley.[7]

Like much of Le Guin's work, Always Coming Home follows Native American themes. According to Richard Erlich,[8] "Always Coming Home is a fictional retelling of much in A. L. Kroeber's [Ursula's father] monumental Handbook of the Indians of California." There are also some elements retrieved from her mother's The Inland Whale (Traditional narratives of Native California), such as the importance of the number nine, and the map of the Na Valley which looks like the Ancient Yurok World.[9] There are also Taoist themes: the heyiya-if looks like the taijitu, and its hollow center (the "hinge") is like the hub of the wheel as described in the Tao Te Ching. Le Guin had described herself "as an unconsistent Taoist and a consistent un-Christian".[10]

Stone Telling's narrative may be seen as a return to the theme of The Dispossessed and The Eye of the Heron, in which a person from an anarchistic society visits an acquisitive government-ruled society and returns.[citation needed]

Box set and soundtrackEdit

A box set edition of the book (ISBN 0-06-015456-X), comes with an audiocassette entitled Music and Poetry of the Kesh, featuring 10 musical pieces and 3 poetry performances by Todd Barton. The book contains 100 original illustrations by Margaret Chodos. As of 2017, the soundtrack can be purchased separately in MP3 format (ISBN 978-1-61138-209-9)[11].

Stage performanceEdit

A stage version of Always Coming Home was mounted at Naropa University in 1993 (with Le Guin's approval) by Ruth Davis-Fyer. Music for the production was composed and directed by Brian Mac Ian, although it was original music and not directly influenced by Todd Barton's work.

Publication historyEdit


  • Italian: "Sempre la valle", Mondadori, 1986
  • Spanish: "El eterno regreso a casa", Edhasa, 1989.
  • Danish: "Altid hjem", Klim, 1990
  • Serbian: "Stalno se vraćajući kući", Polaris, 1992
  • Polish: "Wracać wciąż do domu", Prószyński, 1996
  • Russian: "Всегда возвращаясь домой", Polaris, 1997; Eksmo, 2005
  • French: "La Vallée de l'éternel retour", Actes Sud, 1994, Mnémos, 2012


  1. ^ Bernardo, Susan M. & Murphy, Graham J. Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006), pages 19-20.
  2. ^ Le Guin, Ursula K. (1986). Always Coming Home. Bantam Spectra. p. 509. ISBN 0-553-26280-7. 
  3. ^ Always Coming Home, 2001 edition
    • Shahugoten. As told by Little Bear Woman of Sinshan to the Editor. Pp.57–59. [a legend]
    • Coming Home to Up the Hill House. By Little Bear Woman. P.258 [a poem]
    • The Writer to the Morning in Up the Hill House in Sinshan. By Little Bear Woman. P.258 [a poem]
    • A Song to Up the Hill House in Sinshan. By Little Bear Woman. P. 259. [a poem]
    • Some of the paths around Sinshan Creek. A Kesh map of the watershed of Sinsham [sic] Creek, given to the Editor by Little Bear Woman of Sinsham [sic]
  4. ^ From ursa "a she-bear" + -ula, fem. form of -ulus "diminutive"
  5. ^ National Book Foundation, National Book Awards 1985, list
  6. ^ Kafka Recipients
  7. ^ Bernardo, Susan M.; Murphy, Graham J. (2006). Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood. p. 19. ISBN 9780313332258. 
  8. ^ Erlich, Richard D. (1997). "Always Coming Home". Coyote's Song: The Teaching Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin. The Milford Series Popular Writers of Today. Wildside Press. p. 247. ISBN 978-1-4344-5775-2. ISSN 0163-2469. 
  9. ^ Kroeber, Theodora (1963). The Inland Whale. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 10. 
  10. ^ letter responding to the chapter about The Left Hand of Darkness in David Ketterer's book, New Worlds For Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature, see Le Guin, Ursula K. (July 1975). "Ketterer on The Left Hand Of Darkness". Science Fiction Studies. SF-TH. 2 (6): 139. 
  11. ^ "Music and Poetry of the Kesh by Ursula K. Le Guin & Todd Barton". Bandcamp. 
  • Bernardo, Susan M.; Murphy, Graham J. (2006). Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion (1st ed.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-33225-8. 
  • Cadden, Mike (2005). Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre: Fiction for Children and Adults (1st ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-99527-2. 

External linksEdit