Essays and Criticism
A Lyrical and Critical Account of Family in America
Readers and critics of a Barbara Kingsolver novel agree that politics and aesthetics wed in an often inspiring fashion. Reviewers have praised the freshness of the prose and the realism of her characters, who typically battle prejudice and a feeling of dislocation with great determination. Unfortunately, aesthetics and politics usually have a troubled marriage since—in the critic's eye—the one tends to undermine the other: books can be either works of beauty and genius or vehicles for political change. And since Kingsolver's politics are popular or "correct," her work has achieved more popular than critical success. Kingsolver, most likely, would not want it any other way. Leaving this debate to her readers, this essay instead focuses on the politics of names in her first novel, The Bean Trees, and how seeing connections between the human and the natural worlds expands our definition of what a name—such as "family"—might mean.
A contemporary poem by the Canadian P.K. Page, "Cook's Mountains," will help introduce the idea that the act of naming says as much about the giver as the receiver. The poem juxtaposes two moments of seeing the Glass House Mountains in Queensland, Australia. First is the scene of Captain James Cook, an eighteenth-century British explorer, naming these mountains "Glass House" because from a distance they appear as "hive-shaped hothouses." Two hundred years later, the poet sees them and is told their name by her driver....
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Utopian and Feminist Ideals
As excerpts from the reviews will reveal, critics generally rave about Barbara Kingsolver's prose in her first novel, The Bean Trees. Kingsolver blends "common language with beautifully constructed images," writes one critic. She "delivers enough original dialogue and wry one-liners to put this novel on a shelf of its own," writes another. "Kingsolver doesn'tt waste a single overtone. From the title of her novel to its ending, every little scrap of event or observation is used, reused, revivified with sympathetic vibrations," writes another.
What divides, even troubles critics is the novel's Utopian impulse. Writes Jack Butler, Taylor Greer (the novel's heroine) "confronts prejudice, trauma, self-abnegation, chauvinism, and always, always has the right attitude.... The other characters are purified to types as well"
Drawing upon Butler, Maureen Ryan describes Kingsolver's fiction as "aggressively politically correct." Kingsolver, she says, "wrestles the beasts of contemporary society: child abuse, labor unrest, political repression, feminism, the disintegration of Native American culture, and environmentalism. But she proffers her medicine sprinkled with Nutrasweet." By creating "perfect" mothers, and "intrepid and resilient" women, concludes Ryan, Kingsolver may unwittingly suggest that "if we love our children and our mothers ... the big bad world will simply go away."
In other words, neither Butler nor Ryan find the...
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Barbara Kingsolver's Lowfat Fiction
Kingsolver's work...consistently floats among the verbiage that vies for our dwindling reading time. Her novels and stories are seductively appealing, offering, as they do, sympathetic, interesting characters; well-paced plots with clear resolutions; and a breezy, colloquial, eminently readable style. That is to say, they give us all the comforting conventions of old-time realistic fiction, flavored with the cool contemporary lingo favored by so many of the truly hip young guns. In short, Barbara Kingsolver's novels and stories are a good read. But I would argue that more importantly—and distressingly—Kingsolver's fiction is so very popular because it is the exemplary fiction for our age: aggressively politically correct, yet fundamentally conservative.
Kingsolver knows what she's about. In the battle that rages in literary magazines for the elusive soul of contemporary American fiction, she unabashedly proclaims herself to be "old-fashioned." It's a popular position: on the attack against so-called minimalist writing and in defense of his very popular behemoth, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe in 1989 bemoaned what he perceived to be the sterility and social irresponsibility of contemporary American fiction and called for a return to the "big, rich" social novel of Dickens and Steinbeck.
Reviewers of Barbara Kingsolver's work perhaps inadvertently betray their sympathies with the call for a return to traditional realistic...
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