I read a lot and even have some favorite authors. For escape, I tend to read murder mysteries. Some of my go-to murder mystery writers are Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, Alexander McCall Smith, and Tony Hillerman. I also read novels by such authors as Jodi Picoult, Ursula Le Guin, Jane Smiley, and Anne Tyler. But one of my favorite authors is Barbara Kingsolver. I have read most of Kingsolver’s books and enjoyed them all.
My First Introduction to Kingsolver
My introduction to Kingsolver was through her third novel Pigs in Heaven (1993). It technically was a sequel to her first novel The Bean Trees (1988). Both novels can stand alone, but they do share characters and a progressive story line. Pigs in Heaven follows the journey of a single white woman Taylor who has informally adopted a young Indian girl called Turtle. All is well, until the tribe learns of the situation and works to intervene and return the child to the Cherokee Nation and reservation life. As the story unfolds the reader sees the emotion and turmoil of the matter from all sides: mother and child, individual and tribe/reservation, different cultures, and even grandparents on both sides.
The characters are vivid, authentic, and a bit quirky; the dialog rings true and moves the story forward; the social concern is explored from all sides; and the changing countryside enhances the story and feelings that are unfolding. As the characters move toward resolution they pass through the Tucson desert, rural Oklahoma, and even Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam. The secondary characters—like Jax, Taylor’s boyfriend, and Barbie, the fellow traveler they meet up with who aspires to be just like the Barbie Doll—add humor and counterpoint to the other relationships in the story. Taylor’s mother Alice opens and ends the novel, serving as a firm anchor for the individual vs. the family dichotomy being explored. Other issues that are woven throughout the novel include the value of family and community, the problems and benefits of interracial adoptions, and the inability of social services to really fix things.
The reviews of Pigs in Heaven offer praise that could easily apply to any of Kingsolver’s novels:
“Very few novelists are as habit-forming as Kingsolver. . . .Pigs in Heaven succeeds on the strength of Kingsolver’s clear-eyed, warmhearted writing, and irresistible characters.” Newsweek
“Kingsolver makes you care about her characters to the point of tears; she is bitingly funny—and she writes like a dream.” San Francisco Chronicle
“That rare combination of a dynamic story told in dramatic language, combined with issues that are serious, debatable, and painful. . . [it’s] about the human heart in all its shapes and ramifications.” Los Angeles Times Book Review
The focus in Pigs in Heaven on Indian culture—specifically the Cherokee Nation—fascinates me; it is one reason I was drawn to the novel. That same interest made me curious about the author, her background and experience. All the book jacket says about Kingsolver is that she was born in Kentucky but now resides in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband and two children. Since then she has moved to southern Appalachia.
Kingsolver understands that readers may be curious about her life, so she provides an official website. However, she does “not believe this information improves the understanding of [her] books, in any way.” Since others will tell her life story if she does not, she provides the website to make certain her truth is out there, noting that her version is “less entertaining than some of the others, but has the distinction of being true.”
When asked if her works are in anyway autobiographical, her answer is a resounding, “No!” Yes, she has lived in some of the places used as locations in her work and conducts extensive research, but the stories and characters are all imagined, unless prominently displayed as historical. She does pride herself on being fully immersed in the various locations, knowing that the details—the smells, the sounds, even the feel of the land—help the places become real for the reader and her characters. This realism regarding nature and location is part of what makes Kingsolver’s work so vibrant, alive, believable. But she has never adopted a child, worked as a forest ranger, been the daughter or wife of a missionary, or been an illegal alien trying to survive.
Still, it is entertaining to read Kingsolver’s review of her life. She comes across as observant and self-effacing with a liberal mix of adventure, conscience, and humor thrown in. She was born in 1955 and grew up in rural Kentucky, especially enjoying her time outdoors. At various times her father’s work as a doctor volunteering his time to those in need moved the family to remote locations such as the The Congo when she was 8 years old. Early on she was exposed to social consciousness as well as the dichotomies so often evident in life: rich vs. poor, outsider/stranger vs. family/group, and many different cultures and languages.
She started college as a music major studying piano in 1973, but she shifted to a biology major, hoping to actually find a job upon graduation. Although she kept a journal since she was about 8, enjoyed writing in grade school, and dabbled at creating short stories and poetry, she did not see herself as a writer—that passion seemed about as possible as becoming a movie star. She moved to Tucson in 1978 and worked for two years as a lab technician before beginning graduate work in advanced biology at the University of Arizona. While taking classes, she started teaching a bit and worked more and more as a technical writer.
She kept writing fiction but never shared it with anyone. By the mid-1980s, she was married and earning a living on her freelance technical writing. Just before her first daughter was born in 1987, she undertook what she calls “extreme housecleaning.” As she sorted through one of her closets, she found the draft of her first novel. She decided those pages had either to be thrown out or forwarded to someone—she sent it on to an agent. The Bean Trees was published the next year with good reviews. The Los Angeles Times called her first novel “the work of a visionary.” The New York Times Book Review said, “As clear as air. It is the southern novel taken west, its colors as translucent and polished as one of those slices of rose agate from a desert shop.” Kirkus Reviews said, “Lovely, funny, touching, and humane.”
From then on, Kingsolver has been a published author, but that status still surprises her a bit. With each new book she wonders if readers will come along on the journey. From then on personally, she was divorced, traveled extensively, remarried, had another daughter and eventually moved to Virginia, residing now in Appalachia. Her published work includes novels, short stories, poetry, essays, and other works of non-fiction. Her work continues to impress critics and amaze her readers. And her life continues to unfold, not just as an author but as wife, mother, neighbor, farmer, and citizen of the world. Kingsolver recently wrote an article for More Magazine about how growing older is not so bad: “The Upside of Acting Your Age.”
Kingsolver has won several awards including the National Humanities Medal awarded by President Clinton (2000) for exemplary service through the arts, United Kingdom’s Orange Prize for Fiction (2010), and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize’s Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award (2011). She has also won various other awards from the American Booksellers and American Library Associations, was named one of the most important writers of the 20th century by Writers Digest, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has been frequently anthologized and is routinely taught as part of standard school curriculum. She especially appreciates the ongoing responsibility of serving on the review panel for American Heritage Dictionary. As she explains: “One of my kids learned early that any playground shouting match over ‘my-parent-is-better-than-yours” could be ground to a halt with: ‘My Mom writes the dictionary!’”
Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize for Fiction in 1998. This award is the nation’s largest prize for an unpublished work, and it helps establish the career of new literary voices. Recently, this award has become the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Her involvement with this award makes perfect sense, given the social commentary that is an integral aspect of all of her work. The prize is awarded in the even-numbered years to an American author with a social conscience that is given voice in print. Kingsolver provides the $25,000 prize, and the winning author’s work is published.
Kingsolver writes poems, short stories, novels, essays, magazine articles, and non-fiction books. Her full bibliography can be seen on her website. Her short stories—Homeland—and essays—High Tide in Tucson and Small Wonder—maintain her enthralling use of nature and her vivid characters and dialogue. She is probably best known for her seven novels. A search of the Kirkus Reviews Website provides a review of most of her books, but especially each of her novels: The Bean Trees (1988), Animal Dreams (1990), Pigs in Heaven (1993), The Poisonwood Bible (1998), Prodigal Summer (2000), The Lacuna (2009), and Flight Behavior (2012).
Pigs in Heaven was the first novel that achieved bestseller status, and it remains popular and in print in many languages after 20 years. The Poisonwood Bible is perhaps the best known since it was nominated for the Pulitzer and was named as part of Oprah’s Book Club. This novel is set in the Belgian Congo, where a minister has brought his wife and four daughters as he pursues his ministry. The women tell the story, offering their varying perspectives. Kirkus Reviews simply calls this novel “A triumph.” The New York Time Book Review says, “Haunting. . . .A novel of character, a narrative shaped by keen-eyed women.” For me, her novel is reminiscent of Faulkner through her engaging use of character and perspective to explore perception and reality.
When asked how she starts writing a book, Kingsolver explains that she focuses on questions and then a devises a story that will present some answers. For her novel The Lacuna, her primary question was, “Why is the relationship between art and politics such an uneasy one in the U.S.?” The novel then introduces the readers to Harrison Shepherd, a developing author who lives in Mexico for a time, meeting the likes of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Lev Trotsky, and then moves to Ashville, North Carolina, during the time of Pearl Harbor, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Red Scare. The collision of art and politics is presented against a backdrop of real people and real events, some of which are not mainstream stories.
Kingsolver explains how the title of The Lacuna underscores the theme: “The theme arrived long before the word. I worked on the novel for six years under a different title, which wasn’t a very good one. I was near the end of a first draft when one day I thought about this amazing word, lacuna, with all its intertwined meanings that unlock the inner workings of my story. I typed it, stared at it, and actually may have smacked myself on the forehead. It must have been lurking in my unconsciousness for a while, because everything came together around that word, once I committed it to the page. This novel is about all the important things you don’t know – the other side of the story, the piece of history that’s been erased. The plot is elaborately drawn around this idea in dozens of different ways.”
This novel, not surprisingly, was well received by critics and readers. The United Kingdom’s The Independent said, “Every few years, you read a book that makes everything else in life seem unimportant. The Lacuna is the first book in a long time that made me swap my bike for public transport, just so I could keep reading.”
Two critics compare The Lacuna to The Poisonwood Bible, praising both:
“As in The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver perfects the use of multiple points of view … This [The Lacuna] is her most ambitious, timely, and powerful novel yet.” Library Journal
“Before reading [The Lacuna], I would have sworn that 1998’s The Poisonwood Bible was her masterpiece, not to be surpassed; it was as close to a truly perfect book as I’ve ever read. This one’s even closer to that lofty goal.” Dallas Morning News
I have read most of Kingsolver’s novels, and each captivates me through her vivid, engaging characters and a strong sense of place that lends credence to the action that unfolds. My favorite novel of hers is Prodigal Summer. I admit it may be my favorite because it is the one I read most recently. This novel carefully weaves the stories of three main characters together in ways that are first subtle but become more apparent page after page. The characters are a female forest ranger living alone in the wild and her somewhat accidental lover, a young city woman who studies biology and marries and then quickly becomes a widow while living on the late husband’s family farm, and a retired widower and his almost friendly bickering with a neighbor woman who is younger but not young. Their stories are interwoven chapter by chapter under the headings “Predator,” “Moth Love,” and “Old Chestnuts.”
The fourth character in the novel is Nature itself, the valleys and canyons, mountains and fields of southern Appalachia. But Nature is more than the location. It is a breathing living presence that each character builds a relationship with. Lusa, the young widow learning farming, points out the personality of Nature she is coming to know: “People in Appalachia insisted that the mountains breathed, and it was true: the steep hollow behind the farmhouse took one long, slow inhalation every morning and let it back down through their open window and across the evening—just one full deep breath each day.” She doubted this insistence at first, but finally came to accept the life and companionship of the Nature around her. “She learned to tell time with her skin, as morning turned to afternoon and the mountain’s breath began to bear gently on the back of her neck. By early evening it was insistent as a lover’s sigh, sweetened by the damp woods, cooling her nape and shoulders whenever she paused her work in the kitchen to lift her sweat-damp curls off her neck. She had come to think of Zebulon [Mountain] as another man in her life, larger and steadier than any other companion she had known.”
In Prodigal Summer, Nature is a constant for all the characters as well as a connection between them. Through their relationships with Nature the social concerns of conservation and preservation vs. hunting, saving farms and meeting increased food production demands, and living with nature in every way are explored. Of course the novel also explores life and death, love and loss and growing old, and strength of independence and the comfort of family and community. As the Newsweek review noted, “A warm, intricately constructed book shot through with an extraordinary amount of insight and information about the wonders of the visible world.” The paperback edition’s second cover page suggests some of the vibrancy of the nature presented in the novel.
If you have not yet read anything by Barbara Kingsolver, pick up one of her books. I guarantee you will be impressed. I have not read everything Kingsolver has written, but what I have read I’ve liked. And I am working on the rest. Small Wonder (2002) is a collection of essays that is on my nightstand, ready to be read. Her most recent novel Flight Behavior (2012) will be available in paperback in June. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007) is a non-fiction narrative that recounts how her family experimented for a year living mainly off food grown locally—it sounds like it will be a fun read. As Washington Post Bookworld says, “Charming, zestful, funny and poetic. . . . The authors [Kingsolver, her husband and older daughter] . . . add three powerful voices. . . to the swelling chorus of concern about the food we grow, buy, and eat.” The following video is an interview with her about this book and the experience it chronicles.
“What keeps me awake at the wheel is the thrill of trying something completely new with each book. I’m not a risk-taker in life, generally speaking, but as a writer I definitely choose the fast car, the impossible rock face, the free fall.”
“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”
“A novel has to entertain — that’s the contract with the reader: you give me ten hours and I’ll give you a reason to turn every page.”
“Beginning a novel is always hard. It feels like going nowhere. I always have to write at least 100 pages that go into the trashcan before it finally begins to work. It’s discouraging, but necessary to write those pages. I try to consider them pages -100 to zero of the novel.”
“If we can’t, as artists, improve on real life, we should put down our pencils and go bake bread.”
“Literature duplicates the experience of living in a way that nothing else can, drawing you so fully into another life that you temporarily forget you have one of your own. That is why you read it, and might even sit up in bed till early dawn, throwing your whole tomorrow out of whack, simply to find out what happens to some people who, you know perfectly well, are made up.”
From her books
“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.” Animal Dreams
“Fiction cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view.” Small Wonder
“Don’t try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal. When you’re good, bad things can still happen. And if you’re bad, you can still be lucky.” The Poisonwood Bible
“If it crosses your mind that water running through hundreds of miles of open ditch in a desert will evaporate and end up full of concentrated salts and muck, then let me just tell you, that kind of negative thinking will never get you elected to public office in the state of Arizona. When this giant new tap turned on, developers drew up plans to roll pink stucco subdivisions across the desert in all directions. The rest of us were supposed to rejoice as the new flow rushed into our pipes, even as the city warned us this water was kind of special. They said it was okay to drink but don’t put it in an aquarium because it would kill the fish.
“Drink it we did, then, filled our coffee makers too, and mixed our children’s juice concentrate with fluid that would gag a guppy. Oh, America the Beautiful, where are our standards? ” Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
“But kids don’t stay with you if you do it right. It’s the one job where, the better you are, the more surely you won’t be needed in the long run.” Pigs in Heaven
“The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don’t know.” The Lacuna
“’I lost a child,’ she said, meeting Lusa’s eyes directly. ‘I thought I wouldn’t live through it. But you do. You learn to love the place somebody leaves behind for you.’” Prodigal Summer
“Every one of us is called upon, perhaps many times, to start a new life. A frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, loss of a job. . . . And onward full-tilt we go, pitched and wrecked and absurdly resolute, driven in spite of everything to make good on a new shore. To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another—that is surely the basic instinct. . . . Crying out: High tide! Time to move out into the glorious debris. Time to take this life for what it is.” High Tide in Tucson
“It’s terrible to lose somebody, but it’s also true that some people never have anybody to lose, and I think that’s got to be so much worse.” The Bean Trees