Barbara Kingsolver

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Barbara Kingsolver Biography

Barbara Kingsolver seems to have been born to be a writer. In grade school her first published essay, titled “Why We Need a New Elementary School,” was printed in the local newspaper. It outlined the reasons her local school was unsafe and may have helped to secure an improvement bond.

In college, she studied everything from music to science, eventually doing graduate work in evolutionary biology. Though she worked as a scientific writer for the University of Arizona and then as a freelance writer, she finally turned to fiction full-time in the 1980s. Since then, Kingsolver has published twelve novels and won numerous awards, including the 2000 National Humanities Medal.

Facts and Trivia

  • Before becoming a full-time author, Kingsolver held many jobs: typesetter, housecleaner, medical laboratory technician, translator, scientific writer, and freelance journalist.
  • She wrote her first novel, The Bean Trees, "during the insomniac nights of [her] first pregnancy" at a desk in the closet, so as to not disturb her sleeping husband.
  • Kingsolver instituted the Bellwether Prize in 1997, which is awarded biennially to a novel that uses literature as a tool for social change.
  • Kingsolver loves to write about people’s relationship to the land. She counts Henry David Thoreau as one of her many influences.
  • She was awarded the National Humanities Medal, which was presented to her by President Clinton.
  • Kingsolver now lives on a farm in Virginia where she raises chickens, sheep, and turkey and has a huge vegetable garden.

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Born in Annapolis, Maryland, on April 8, 1955, Barbara Kingsolver grew up in Kentucky. Her father, Wendell, was a physician, and her mother, Virginia, was a homemaker. Kingsolver, who has kept a journal of personal revelations since the age of eight, learned a sense of community in small-town Kentucky. Community, to her, meant a place where people “grow their own food and know who they could depend on for help.” She writes about community in all of her stories, but she discovered that the reality of community is relatively rare in other parts of the United States. Part of her heritage is Cherokee, and her stories include American Indian characters, history, and issues. She discovered that the community so important to her is fundamental to most American Indian cultures.

After leaving Kentucky for college, Kingsolver deliberately lost her “hillbilly” accent, which prompted ridicule wherever she went. “People made terrible fun of me for the way I used to talk, so I gave it up slowly and became something else. It was later in life, about ten years later, that it occurred to me this language was a precious and valuable thing.”

Kingsolver earned a B.A. magna cum laude in biology from De Pauw University (1977) and an M.S. in biology from the University of Arizona (1981); she has completed additional graduate study. Her university studies began with a piano scholarship, but she switched to biology because it was more practical. She has always written, everything from childhood journals to scientific and technical writing after college. Kingsolver’s jobs have included research assistant in the department of physiology at the University of Tucson (1977-1979), technical writer in the Office of Arid Lands Studies (1981-1985), and freelance journalist (1985-1987). Kingsolver’s late 1970’s activity in the sanctuary movement to help Central American refugees led to writing pamphlets for the cause. Writing gratified Kingsolver, and when she realized that she might make a living doing something that she loved, she turned to fiction. Kingsolver embedded her convictions about United States policies in Latin America and other human rights issues in her narratives, enlivening policy with motive and characters.

In her first novel, The Bean Trees (1988), a young woman leaves home, adopts a child, and becomes politically enlightened. This novel achieved both critical and popular success, as did AnimalDreams (1990), a story of a woman’s search for place, and Pigs in Heaven (1993), a book about children’s rights, loneliness, and poverty. Kingsolver’s Homeland, and Other Stories (1989) consists of twelve short stories. Her first collection of poetry, Another America/Otra America (1992), with parallel English and Spanish texts, reveals her commitment to a sense of being a citizen of the world. Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (1989) features the bravery and persistence of women protesting copper mining practices during difficult and violent strike years in southern Arizona copper-mining towns. The Poisonwood Bible (1998) details missionary lives in a prerevolutionary Belgian Congo. Its split perspective narrates the Price family’s experiences from five distinct points of view. Prodigal Summer (2000) tackles the problems of how an inherited sense of place and land complicate a family’s acceptance of an outsider who marries into a rural, agricultural clan. Small Wonder (2002) revisits Kingsolver’s ease with essays and considers ordinary events, writing, and patriotism in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Kingsolver’s many awards include the Enoch Pratt Library Lifetime Achievement Medal in 2005; the 2002 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for Prodigal Summer ; an award for the Best American Science and Nature Writing in 2001; a National...

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Humanities Medal in 2000; the 1999 Patterson Fiction Prize; aNew York Times Ten Best Books selection for The Poisonwood Bible in 1998; American Library Association (ALA) awards for Homeland, and Other Stories in 1990 and The Bean Trees in 1988; the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award for Fiction for Pigs in Heaven; a citation of accomplishment from the United Nations National Council of Women in 1989; and a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and an Edward Abbey Ecofiction Award for Animal Dreams in 1991.

Kingsolver’s subjects come from her heart and from real-life experiences. An interest in her American Indian heritage, her southern upbringing, her human-rights activities, and her coverage of the Arizona mine strike all inspired plots or incidents in her books. Critics praise Kingsolver’s sensitive portrayals of average people facing everyday victories and losses as well as extraordinary challenges.


Critical Essays