Barbara Kingsolver’s (born. April 8, 1955) short stories are notable for their clear-eyed, sometimes ironic, and always empathic look at the daily lives of ordinary people. Her narrators are mostly female or compassionate omniscient voices telling stories of homecomings, intergenerational misunderstandings, and mundane events such as scheduling errands or getting to know one’s neighbors. She pays close attention to the tensions that control events like Thanksgiving dinners and accurately captures the dynamics of husband and wife and of mother and daughter. In her stories, characters struggle to understand who they are in the context of family history and their present circumstances. The epiphanies of Kingsolver’s women are small but searingly personal. They range from deciding not to have a child to a sudden understanding of a mother’s point of view. In a News Hour online interview with David Gergen, editorat- large for U.S. News and World Report, Kingsolver explained her fascination with the quotidian episodes in families’ and couples’ lives:
We need new stories. We need stories that can help us construct, reconstruct the value of . . . solidarity, of not . . . the lone solo flier, but the family, the community, the value of working together.
Kingsolver’s short fiction is not minimalist. She belongs to generations of storytellers who create settings rich in sensual and situational detail. Her characters are clearly situated and her stories have a satisfying beginning, middle, and end as do the stories of nineteenth century writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. She is also distinctly contemporary because her characters reach an episode’s end when they achieve some insight or understanding of their condition. They do not, however, find sentimental or easy answers. Each story concludes with characters more able to cope with the literal and emotional landscapes of their lives.
Like poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, Kingsolver embraces the political. She believes art should reflect the world she sees daily, so she writes, for example, about the plight of mine workers in the American Southwest and the displacement of American Indians. College professors, aging hippies, and small-town eccentrics all wrestle with bigotry and stereotyping as they move through their lives. Kingsolver’s characters avoid the cynicism of many contemporary fictional voices, seeking instead a synthesis that will see them through or the moral vision that will allow them to rise above prejudices they cannot control. She combines the narrative structure of nineteenth century realists with the frank look at life espoused by John Steinbeck, one of her inspirations. Kingsolver’s characters offer an alternative to ironic, angry characters. They struggle with the inequities of American life without losing their ability to maintain human connection. Kingsolver creates characters who confront life without relinquishing hope. Her vision is distinctive and welcome.
Homeland, and Other Stories
Barbara Kingsolver’s collection is divided between stories in which the difficulties of small-town life are controlled by the fears and sensibilities of people wedded to the status quo and those in which the clash between alternative lifestyles and the ordinary routines of existence is prominent. With one exception, the narrators are women or feature omniscient narrators, whose voices elucidate women’s lives and points of view. The stories frequently have a postmodern view of time, jumping nonchronologically from one episode or memory to the next, the changes marked by spaces in the text as well as by narrated events. Kingsolver interestingly blurs the line between character and narrator by interspersing narrative passages with snippets of dialogue. Often the narrator’s contributions could just as easily be spoken by the main character; this shared quality underlines the universal relevance of private stories. Kingsolver’s stories, built around family routines, usually emphasize a thoughtful female character grappling with a problem. These range from spending quality time with a child (“Quality Time”), facing the need to break off a love affair (“Stone Dreams”), coping with suffering the failure of a long-standing relationship (“Blueprints”), and fighting economic and social injustice (“Why I Am a Danger to the Public”) to deciding whether or not to have a child (“Covered Bridges”).
Another theme is how one comes to terms with one’s past. “Survival Zone” and “Extinctions” have dual tensions: The eternal city/country dilemma surfaces differently in each story, and each considers the opportunities for a life in the larger world as opposed to a well-known existence. “Rose-Johnny” tackles the divisive and meanspirited effects of racial prejudice in a small southern town. A young girl, curious and kindhearted, tells the story, which highlights the socially sanctioned cruelty of adults. Kingsolver’s characters realize the beginnings of personal solutions or they relate histories that reveal insights won after the scrutiny of their pasts. Either way, readers know life always goes on in its complicated and demanding way. Survival is mandatory; understanding possible.
The title story of Kingsolver’s collection Homeland, and Other Stories retrospectively tells the tale of an aging Cherokee grandmother’s last days. Gloria St. Clair, Great Mam’s granddaughter, a grown woman with her own grown children, narrates a family history that begins with the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Great Mam’s band had eluded relocation by hiding and was finally allowed to settle where they chose. Still, they called the refugee years “The Time When We Were Not.” Gloria’s reference initiates the reader into history as a personal experience. A reminiscence of the family’s trip back to Great Mam’s birthplace, the Hiwassee Valley in Tennessee, follows. Gloria’s father, a coal miner just back to work after a season of wildcat strikes, decides this trip is necessary for his mother, who is in her waning days; he plans it despite his wife’s skepticism.
Great Mam and Gloria’s special relationship evolves along with the story. During lazy afternoons or quiet evenings in the dark, Great Mam tells Gloria stories of the animals “as if they were relatives [her] parents had neglected to tell [her] about.” The trip, with the three children bumping along in the back of a pickup truck, as well as the fact that they slept three to a bed, reveals the family’s economic situation. Gloria’s mother represents a third dynamic, the social status quo; she is thankful God spared her children a “Cherokee nose.” Mrs. Murray rises above the common-law, racially mixed marriage of her husband’s parents. Gloria balances between her mother and her love for the soft-spoken woman, who tells her how the world began and calls her Waterbug. She fatalistically laments her lack of attention to stories she now knows were rare treasures. The trip fails, the home of a once-proud people houses a troop of sideshow Indians in Cherokee Park. Great Mam does not get out of the truck but remarks to Gloria, “I’ve never been here before.” Great Mam’s death is unremarkable, personal, and poignant for Gloria and a troublesome irritation for her mother—the three of them a perfect metaphor for the pain of America’s position on “the Indian question.”
Islands on the Moon
Annemarie and her mother Magda are intimate antagonists because Annemarie thinks her mother “doesn’t seem mid-forties, she seems like Grandma Moses in moonstone earrings.” Annemarie has been alienated from her mother, an aging hippie with wild hair, since her father’s death, and her aggravation only increases when Magda turns up pregnant at the same time that she does. As it turns out, Annemarie is not presently married and is contemplating remarrying her first husband. Her own son, Kevin, is moving steadily beyond her reach. Magda breaks her practice of keeping her distance because she wants Annemarie to accompany her when she has amniocentesis, a test to which she would not have agreed had her doctor not threatened to drop her as a patient if she refused. On the way to the clinic, the two have an automobile accident and are rushed to the hospital. The shock of the accident and their time side by side in the hospital free a torrent of resentments from Annemarie. Her persistence prompts Magda to say, “I never knew what you expected from me, Annemarie. I never could be the mother you wanted.” When Annemarie makes the ultimate accusation, that Magda does not miss her husband, Magda recounts her husband’s obsessive attempts to try to think of all the things she would need to remember to do after he was gone. Stunned, Annemarie understands her error. “How could I not ever have known that, that it wrecked your life, too?” she asks her mother. At the story’s end, Annemarie reaches over to touch her unborn sister, establishing a tenuous bond which now has a chance to flourish.
Anthology: The Best American Short Stories, 2001, 2001.
Novels: The Bean Trees, 1988; Animal Dreams, 1990; Pigs in Heaven, 1993; The Poisonwood Bible, 1998; Prodigal Summer, 2000.
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.
Poetry: Another America/Otra America, 1992.
DeMarr, Mary Jean. Barbara Kingsolver: A Critical Companion.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Draper, James P. “Barbara Kingsolver.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism: Yearbook 1993. Vol. 81.
Epstein, Robin. “Barbara Kingsolver.” Progressive 60 (February, 1996): 33-38.Fleischner, Jennifer, ed. A Reader’s Guide to the Fiction of Barbara Kingsolver: “The Bean Trees,” “Homeland, and Other Stories,” “Animal Dreams,” “Pigs in Heaven.” New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.
Gaard, Greta. “Living Connections with Animals and Nature.” In Eco-Feminism: Women, Animals, Nature, edited by Greta Gaard. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
Kingsolver, Barbara. Interview by Lisa See. Publishers Weekly 237 (August 31, 1990): 46.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Pence, Amy. “Barbara Kingsolver.” Poets and Writers 21, no. 4 (July/August, 1993): 14- 21.
Ross, Jean W. “CA Interview.” In Contemporary Authors. Vol. 134, edited by Susan M. Trotsky. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.
Ryan, Maureen. “Barbara Kingsolver’s Lowfat Fiction.” Journal of American Culture 18, no. 4 (Winter, 1995): 77-123.