The novel is about the struggles of American life for the vast number of people for whom the rags-to-riches dream is never realized. This is the real America, the America of unskilled labor, low levels of education, and limited access to the perks of American society. Yet in Kingsolver’s novel there is no bitterness, no petty jealousy or envy, no crime, merely an easy acceptance of the way things are and an appreciation of life’s good parts.
The novel is also about growing up. While the device of the journey has often been used to focus such a theme, Taylor’s growing up comes not so much as a result of her experiences traveling as a result of her attempts to deal with the new and unexpected responsibility of a needy child. Taylor must learn how to be a mother—how to provide for Turtle’s physical needs and, even more important, how to provide for Turtle’s emotional needs. Slowly, she becomes committed to satisfying those needs, to being a real parent for Turtle.
Another theme of the novel is women’s strength. All the major characters are women, and they form a community of support for one another. They accept one another’s weaknesses, helping one another to change what can be changed and to work around what cannot. This is a story of women who are not empowered in any way but who nevertheless have the will, the spirit, and the commitment to find the resources within themselves to do right individually.