Small Wonder Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Barbara Kingsolver began this book on September 12, 2001, one day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. In a series of twenty- three essays, she shares with readers how she has tried to come back from grief and despair over this tragedy to regain a measure of hope for the future. She has found consolation in the small wonders of everyday life. Big issues such as terrorism, global warming, the enormous gap between rich and poor, and the wasteful overuse of Earth’s resources all seem overwhelming to an individual. Kingsolver instead writes about lifestyle choices on a personal level that eventually can change the world for the better. She reminds her readers that it was a small number of highly committed individuals who brought about major social changes such as racial equality in the United States, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and progress in women’s rights.

In the lead essay, titled “Small Wonder,” Kingsolver points to the fundamental weakness of a purely military response against terrorism. From Greek mythology, she cites the story of Jason, who killed a dragon but found that each of the dragon’s teeth germinated and grew into a new enemy. This story is pertinent to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network. She says,

We kill its leaders and they swell to the size of martyrs and heroes, inspiring more martyrs and heroes. This terror requires of us something that most of us haven’t considered: how to defuse a lethal enemy through some tactic more effective than simply going at it with the biggest stick at hand.

On the same day that the United States began its bombing campaign over Afghanistan, a news story from neighboring Iran reported an amazing miracle: A young child who had wandered away from his village was found alive three days later in a cave, where a she-bear had been nursing it. A skeptic would question whether this story could possibly be true when it was much more probable that such a child would become food for the hungry bear. Nevertheless, bears have a mothering instinct for their young, so it could have happened as reported. Kingsolver pursued this story on the Internet until she became convinced from the testimony of witnesses in the village that it really was genuine. This story of a child who was unexpectedly spared provided her with an important “small wonder” to balance against the large-scale brutality and destructiveness of the bombings.

In trying to understand what it is that motivates a suicide bomber, Kingsolver focuses on the increasing economic gap between the haves and have-nots of the world. While the Western countries live in growing affluence, the lowest quarter of the world’s poor are sinking into greater poverty, losing ground as they struggle. In her poignant words, it is the “insane rage of the dispossessed” that brings new recruits into the terrorist training camps. Her prescription is for the wealthier nations to become less wasteful and more generous in sharing the world’s resources.

In an essay titled “And Our Flag Was Still There,” Kingsolver contrasts two views of patriotism. One viewpoint often attributed to President George W. Bush holds that if Americans do not agree with his position then they are supporting the terrorists. The terrorist attacks are seen as a declaration of war against the United States, requiring a military response. The fear of further terrorism is used to justify restrictions in civil liberties and large increases in military expenditures. Kingsolver objects to this “us-against-them” philosophy and searches for an alternative definition of the meaning of patriotism. She feels alienated by violent retaliation and is concerned for the civilians in Afghanistan who have become a population of refugees.

At a time of national emergency, citizens are exhorted to give unqualified support to their government. Under the banner of “United We Stand,” dissenting voices may be criticized for being disloyal. During the Vietnam conflict in the 1960’s, some people with a narrow view of patriotism had an automobile bumper sticker that carried the message, “America, love it or leave it.” Kingsolver describes herself as someone who loves her country but at the same time is opposed to its militarism. She would like to replace the symbolism of “the rockets’ red glare” in the national anthem with the message of brotherhood found in “America the Beautiful.” She insists that criticism of American policy is a duty of citizenship and that the flag is her banner of patriotism as much as it is for the more militant voices.

Kingsolver has a college degree in biology that provides the background for several essays dealing with ecology. “The...

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