Barbara Kingsolver’s (born. April 8, 1955) long fiction is best characterized as contemporary versions of the Bildungsroman with a feminist twist. The main character ventures forth to develop herself and find her place in her community. Many books by women that incorporate such a quest portray punishment for women who explore issues of sexuality or who discover meaningful work in the world. Often these Bildungsromane reiterate a main female character’s struggle with the patriarchal response to her journey, as in The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin, or emphasize the price in intimacy and passionate relationships a woman pays for fully developing her skills, as in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913). In both instances, female writers highlight the tension between an individual and society to suggest women’s dilemmas finding legitimate voices and strengths in their lives and times.
Kingsolver’s work departs from the punitive mold. Tension emerges as her female characters seek synthesis, a coming together that will meld place, memory, and the present moment to create personal identity. Her narratives also orchestrate the play between inner and outer landscapes. In The Bean Trees, Taylor Greer moves across Kentucky and through Oklahoma, landing in Tucson with a baby who will change her emotional geography. On the third page of Animal Dreams, the still mysterious Cosima announces her destination as Grace, Arizona—the site of her early life, stage for the novel’s action, and catalyst of self-knowledge. Pigs in Heaven includes another flight by Taylor and Turtle. Ultimately, it depicts their trek to the deep Cherokee past, which threatens Taylor’s role as a mother and unlocks Taylor’s and Turtle’s ties to their own histories and identities. The Poisonwood Bible evokes the Belgian Congo of the 1960’s in rich detail, juxtaposing it with the southern U.S. landscape of memory and the recent past of Nathan Price’s wife and four daughters. Patriarchy, instead of creating the frame of reference as in earlier fictions, emerges referentially in Kingsolver’s books as part of a female consciousness.
Kingsolver’s women negotiate new places for themselves within their personal, domestic, and social contexts. They acquire self-understanding through social interaction and introspection; these things bring harmony within and without. Her main female characters weather negotiation with themselves and their environments. They display character flaws, lapses in judgment, anger, and personal fears as well as idealism, generous hearts, moral consciences, and affection. Her women reach equilibrium rather than glorious redemption. Their personal insights are fragile in the way that most real-life understandings are, remaining constant only until new discoveries or crises initiate adjustment or expansion. Such shifts do not destroy each woman’s cumulative advancement toward wholeness. Kingsolver’s journeying women increase their poise and certainty at a rate commensurate with their courage and individual learning curves.
Taylor, Cosima (Codi), and the Price women all passionately pursue relationships spawned by family identity. Coming into their own carries an intrinsic connection to family, community, and state. In all Kingsolver’s books, the personal is acutely political. Codi, of Animal Dreams, discovers her true origins as she works with older Hispanic women in Grace to end toxic environmental contamination. Leah, in The Poisonwood Bible, redefines her cultural and religious allegiances as she takes up residence in the “liberated” Congo. Kingsolver’s long fiction is overtly political, her short stories obliquely so. (Her short fiction often focuses on the domestic sphere of women’s lives—situations replete with social and matrimonial expectations dictated by patriarchal values before the revolutions of the 1960’s began to change sensibilities.) Her women live in the real world, and her narratives include male activity in women’s ruminations or the narration of events. Male perspectives surface primarily because they affect the female characters and move the plot forward. The Poisonwood Bible, in which the Price entourage is dragged off to Africa, seems an exception. However, the women tell the entire story of their father’s and husband’s misguided mission, controlling perspective and interpretation.
Kingsolver’s fiction places relationships—between parents and children, spouses and families—in the foreground and sets them against the larger social milieu. Kingsolver gives no credence to the opinion that art is apolitical. The inherent inequities and racism faced by Hispanic, Native American, and African persons surface, not as the chief lament of her main characters or as the narrative frame for their lives, but as elements in their situations.
The Bean Trees
Marrietta Greer, the traveling woman of The Bean Trees, sees herself as part of life in Pittman County, Kentucky, but she has flair. She leaves town five years after high school graduation in a “’55 Volkswagen bug with no windows to speak of, and no back seat and no starter.” She heads west in search of a new name and new location, believing that mysterious signs will appear to help her along. She takes her new name from Taylorville, Illinois, where she runs out of gas. Deciding to go west until the car stops running, she reaches the “Great Plain,” as she calls it, and finds herself in a broken-down car in Oklahoma. She appreciates the irony of landing in Cherokee territory: Her maternal grandfather had provided the one-eighth Cherokee blood required for her to qualify for tribal membership, and the idea of moving to the Cherokee Nation had become a family joke—their last hope if they face destitution. Before Taylor leaves a Cherokee bar in Oklahoma, a pleading American Indian woman deposits a child in her front seat and drives off. Taylor calls the silent child Turtle because she attaches herself to Taylor anywhere she can get a grip and holds on as fiercely as a mud turtle when it bites. Turtle has been fiercely abused. Chapter 2 introduces Lou Ann Ruiz, pregnant, living in Arizona, and struggling in a failing marriage with Angel. Taylor arrives in Arizona in chapter 3 and, through the auspices of Mattie (a woman who runs Jesus Is Lord Used Tires), Taylor and Lou Ann form a supportive and zany household. The two friends become involved in Mattie’s clandestine work with illegal Central American refugees.
The Bean Trees reorients readers toward daily experience, juxtaposing ordinary picnics, car repairs, and kitchen scenes with such events as the chilling account of Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter being snatched by the Guatemalan government. Kingsolver’s relatively uneducated but compassionate people live mundane lives, but many of their activities focus on the human terms of political injustice. The novel braids the stories of ordinary women following their consciences, and it gives the lie to the idea that massive amounts of money and large organizations are needed to eradicate inhumanity. The novel’s end offers a typical array of Kingsolver anomalies. Turtle is illegally but justly adopted; family has been redefined, and readers accept the safe place that Taylor and Lou Ann inhabit; the politics of safe houses and churches aiding immigrants and refugees escaping crushing cruelty seems noble despite its clandestine nature; and money has nothing to do with feeling cared about and connected.
Cosima (Codi) and Homer Noline share this book in alternating sections that detail Codi’s return to Grace, Arizona, to care for Homer, her physician father, who is succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease. Alternation between an omniscient narrator for the Doc Homer sections and first-person narration for Codi emphasizes postmodern disjunction of perspective, but Kingsolver uses memory to create links between the sections and characters that override the break in form. The personal, communal, and global politics of Animal Dreams are syncopated as well. Personally, Codi discovers her tie to the nine Gracela sisters who founded Grace. She also comes to terms with a baby she had buried alone when she was fifteen. Communally, she connects with the older women of the Stitch and Bitch Club, who alert her to the Black Mountain Mining Company’s toxic presence in Grace. Together they challenge and defeat the corporate polluter. Hallie’s letters from Nicaragua weave the theme of human rights throughout Animal Dreams. As usual in Kingsolver’s fiction, the scenes take place in domestic and familiar public places—kitchens, attics, front yards, schools, and trains—where personal circumstances allow a focus on larger social and political issues. There are no pat answers. An ordinary woman seeking justice dies, but the Stitch and Bitch ladies triumph. Codi moves toward a full life. All Souls Day and the Corn Dance rituals unite the past and present and provide time for Codi to seek and find answers. Animal Dreams articulates the complicated intersection of private and public identities and offers hope.
Pigs in Heaven
Pigs in Heaven revisits Taylor and Turtle’s lives. They are on a road trip visiting Hoover Dam when Turtle’s glimpse of a near-fatal fall that involves a spectacular rescue makes celebrities of Taylor and Turtle. Notoriety brings the Cherokee Nation into the story, and soon Taylor is traveling to keep Turtle from being “repossessed” by Cherokee lawyer Annawake Fourkiller. Taylor maintains telephone contact with her mother, Alice, and lives hand-to-mouth while avoiding Ms. Fourkiller. To expedite matters, Alice travels to Oklahoma to reestablish her tie with a Cherokee cousin. She falls in love with an American Indian man named Cash Stillwater. Telephone calls and negotiations result in Taylor and Turtle meeting with Annawake, Cash, Alice, and the Child Welfare Services. In a bizarre twist, Cash turns out to be Turtle’s grandfather and proposes to Alice. The solution of joint custody and Alice and Cash’s determination to be married unite everyone with their pasts, both deep and recent.
Chapters in Pigs in Heaven establish irregular intervals between Taylor and Turtle’s adventures and accounts of Taylor’s mother, who is beginning her own road trip away from her second husband as the novel starts. Taylor runs until she must return to Oklahoma, and Alice travels to Cherokee ground to reunite with her cousin. Throughout, Kingsolver relies on the threads of Cherokee blood, Alice and Taylor’s telephone calls, and the history of the Cherokee Nation to bind the plot lines. She employs a style that combines an omniscient narrator in equal parts with dialogue and with sequences that seem to be half narrated and half in the voice of the character under consideration. The ritual Cherokee stomp dance and the U.S. government’s mistreatment of the Cherokees make readers consider how the past carries forward as both repetition and renewal.
The Poisonwood Bible
In The Poisonwood Bible the ill-fated Price women follow two men, a husband and their father, to the Belgian Congo just as fighting for liberation breaks out in earnest. The Bildungsroman in this case involves the simultaneous creation of five separate journeys to the self within the framework of the family’s African journey. The book is an ambitious undertaking, as Kingsolver creates the voices of six-year-old Ruth May, twelve-year-old twins Leah and Ada, and fifteen-year-old Rachel Price. She then follows them to adulthood (all but Ruth May, who dies of malaria), through the tumult of Congolese revolution and U.S. manipulation.
The surviving sisters fare better than their parents do. Leah marries the universityeducated Congolese rebel who was her teacher and remains in the country. Her thoughts outline the Congo’s grinding poverty and the sheer energy it takes to survive in a society preyed upon by a colonial power and then by capitalist interests. Ada becomes a doctor, and Rachel runs a hotel for the Europeans who remain in Africa fomenting unrest. Ironically, she, the most self-centered and resentful daughter, comes closest to emulating her father despite her financial success. Orleanna Price returns to America a drifting and unsteady shadow of herself.
After his family escapes, Nathan Price sinks into madness and wanders wildly for years. Kingsolver provides an intimate portrait of the stupidity of Nathan Price; his attempted exploitation of the Congolese stands as a metaphor for the plundering of the Congo. Rich details of landscape and tribal culture, including the traditional philosophy that shapes Congolese life, surface through the disparate voices of the Price girls. The tragedy of the Price family’s lives, the ruin of Congolese tribal structure, and the breakdown of national order are concentric circles. The failure of private communication within the Price family and between the Prices and their African neighbors both prefigures and contributes to the failure and destruction of an ancient society in a ruthlessly short period of time.
In this 2000 novel, Eddie Bondo and Deanna Wolfe share a love of nature, and they begin their interlude as lovers before he even knows her name. Deanna is a Forest Service employee serving as a resident biologist-ranger overseeing a section of the Zebulon National Forest. She has a deep knowledge of the people and ecology of Zebulon Valley and a stake in the wildlife balance, which she suspects that Eddie will threaten.
Then readers meet Lusa, Cole Widener’s “over-educated” wife whom he brought back to his family’s farm from Lexington, Kentucky. Lusa and Cole fight about her unwillingness to mix with local people, and Cole feels the sting of her idea that the world they inhabit is stultifying. Her Arabic background and her love of moths and insects set Lusa apart from the family. Cole defends his people and the ways of farmers, as well as his closed-minded family, when Lusa tries to tell him her problems. Cole’s accident while driving a grain truck for Southern States changes Lusa’s life forever and adds another point of conflict with the family, since she inherits the farm.
The third pair of antagonists, Garnett Walker and Nannie Land Rawley, tussles over whether to spray weeds along Highway 6. She is afraid that the toxins will drift onto her organic apples, and he wants the spraying done to protect his chestnut seedlings.
Kingsolver considers this her most difficult novel, as the issues being considered are more important in the book than the characters themselves. She has said that it has no main character and encourages readers to look beyond the tensions of the human interaction. Over the course of the novel, the five chief characters remaining after Cole’s death explore their sexuality in relationships, through memory, and by reputation. Their relationships prompt talk based on ideas like those found in T. R. Paine’s work on keystone predators. The effect of removing even one such predator from an environment is profound, upsetting the fragile ecological balance beyond repair. All the human tensions in the novel relate in some way to balance and the sensible use of the land, as well as respect for all living things. The novel reminds readers that their interdependence with nature is inescapable.
Long fiction • The Bean Trees, 1988; Animal Dreams, 1990; Pigs in Heaven, 1993; The Poisonwood Bible, 1998; Prodigal Summer, 2000; The Lacuna, 2009; Flight Behavior, 2012; Unsheltered, 2018.
Short fiction: Homeland, and Other Stories, 1989. poetry: Another America/Otra America, 1992.
Nonfiction: Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, 1989; High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never, 1995; Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands, 2002 (photographs by Annie Griffiths Belt); Small Wonder, 2002. edited texts: The Best American Short Stories, 2001, 2001.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.