Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Magill's Literary Annual 2008)
For many people in the United States, food is relatively abundant. It comes from the supermarket, and additives keep items fresh. With elaborate transport systems, a variety of food is available year-round. However, it was not always this way. Over the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, farming has been radically altered, transformed from small, often family-run enterprises into a commercial industry of gigantic proportions and profits. For some, this change means progress, and the attendant energy and other costs are simply part of the process. However, a growing number of Americans are paying attention to the effects of their food choices, not only on their own lives but also on their communities and the environment. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver chronicles the story of her family’s year of “deliberately eating food produced in the same place where we worked, loved our neighbors, drank the water, and breathed the air.”
The narrative begins in May, 2004, as Kingsolver, her husband, and their two daughters, Camille and Lily, are leaving Tucson, Arizona, for a road trip to their farm in Virginia. For some time, they had talked about setting down permanent roots there, and it was about to happen. They were also planning to live off the land for one year, eating locally grown rather than industrially produced foods. With characteristic wit, Kingsolver says, “We were about to begin the adventure of realigning our lives with our food chain. Naturally, our first stop was to buy junk food and fossil fuel.” As they check out at the convenience store, a cloud crosses the sun, and everyone notices. The bleached-blond cashier scowls at the window, then at Steven when he says that he hopes it will rain. The cashier retorts that she hopes it will not rain, because tomorrow will be her first day off in weeks and she intends to wash her car.
In this book, as in Kingsolver’s fiction, details are not arbitrary. One page and six days later, the Arizona cashier is contrasted with a waitress in a small-town Virginia diner who tells the family that she is looking forward to the weekend. When the rain begins, she says that she hopes it will rain long because the fields need it. This kind of connectedness resonates throughout the book. However, Kingsolver, knowing that it would be easy to fall prey to clichés praising country life over the city, explains that she wants only to say that “children of farmers are likely to know where food comes from, and that the rest of us might do well to pay attention.” This book is an opportunity for urbanites, rural residents, and everyone living in between to do just that. The early vignettes set the stage for dichotomies to come, both optimistic and sobering, where considerable information is woven into a captivating storyline and where Kingsolvera self-proclaimed polite firebrandpresents her views but does not preach.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was published at a time when other authors were also chronicling what Americans eat and investigating where food comes from. “Stunt books,” which detailed people spending a period of time (usually a year) doing something unusual, were also popular. It is inevitable that some might accuse Kingsolver of participating in a fad. However, she explains early on that the family had been talking for years about eating locally, before the term “locavore” was even coined. They were already familiar with gardening, eating healthfully, and preparing their own food. She says that they wanted to connect their food choices with their family values, honoring both those around them and the place they called home. In the book’s final chapter, Kingsolver acknowledges potential criticism. Although her family had undertaken a “life change” in part as a reaction to America’s “snappily-named-diet culture,” it did not take long before their lifestyle had its own snappy name: “The 100-Mile Diet Challenge.” It was no surprise, she says, that they were trendy.
The family’s farm is in southern Appalachia, very close to the Kentucky border where Kingsolver grew up. Prior to the couple’s marriage in the mid-1990’s, Steven lived there and had owned the land for twenty years. After they were married, the whole family commuted: academic years in Arizona, three-month-long summers in Virginia while living in a shack behind the farmhouse they rented out year-round. Now, they were moving into it. Allotting themselves time to get the one-hundred-year-old house in shape, to get to know local farmers, and to start their garden, the family intended to begin their locavore year, eating what...
(The entire section is 1960 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2008)
The Boston Globe, May 20, 2007, p. F1.
Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 5 (March 1, 2007): 208-209.
Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2007, p. E18.
The New York Times Book Review 156 (May 27, 2007): 11.
Publishers Weekly 254, no. 13 (March 26, 2007): 75.
San Francisco Chronicle, May 27, 2007, p. F1.
Science News 171, no. 26 (June 30, 2007): 408-409.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 29, 2007, p. F1.
USA Today Magazine 136 (September, 2007): 80-81.
Women’s Review of Books 24, no. 6 (November, 2007): 10-11.