Barbara Kingsolver’s long fiction is best characterized as a contemporary version of the bildungsroman, but with a feminist perspective. Her main characters (women) develop themselves and find their place in their community. Traditionally, books by women that incorporate a female’s quest—such as exploring one’s sexuality or finding meaningful work in the world—end in punishment for that girl or woman. Also, traditional bildungsromans show a struggle against those who wish to stifle a female’s journey, as in The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin, or the novels emphasize the price a woman pays for fully developing herself as a person, as in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913).
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 help create personal identity. Kingsolver’snarratives 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 page 3 of Animal Dreams, the still-mysterious Cosima announces her destination as Grace, ArizonA&Mdash;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, the novel 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 American landscape of memory and the recent past of Nathan Price’s wife and four daughters. In Kingsolver’s works, patriarchy emerges referentially as part of a female consciousness. It is not the frame of reference, as it is in the traditional bildungsroman.
Kingsolver’s women negotiate new places for themselves within their personal, domestic, and social spheres. 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 force the women to make adjustments.
Taylor, Cosima (Codi), and the Prices are women who passionately pursue relationships spawned by family identity. Coming into their own carries an intrinsic connection to family, community, and state. In all of Kingsolver’s books, the personal is acutely political. Codi, of Animal Dreams, discovers her true origins as she works with older Latinas in Grace to end 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.) Her women live in the real world and her narratives include men only occasionally. Male perspectives surface primarily when 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, even in this novel, the women tell the entire story of their father’s and husband’s misguided mission.
Kingsolver’s fiction places relationships—between parents and children, spouses and families—in the foreground and sets them against the larger social milieu. She gives no credence to the opinion that art is apolitical. The inherent inequities and racism faced by Latinos and Latinas, American Indians, and Africans surface not as the chief lament of her main characters or as the narrative frame for their lives but as elements of their daily lives.
The Bean Trees
Marrietta Greer, the traveling woman of The Bean Trees, sees herself as part of life in Pittman County, Kentucky—but she also 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 place, believing that mysterious signs will appear...
(The entire section is 1928 words.)