Barbara Kingsolver Critical Essays

Barbara Kingsolver American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Kingsolver has always been a storyteller with an urgent need to share her deeply felt beliefs. She strives to reach an audience that includes both the well-and less-educated, challenging the former without alienating the latter. Kingsolver’s empathy for all people and a lively sense of humor keep her books relevant to contemporary life. Ordinary middle-class people narrate her stories, which incorporate current political and social issues. She creates spunky characters in colorfully rendered landscapes. The major characters of her novels The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, Pigs in Heaven, The Poisonwood Bible, and Prodigal Summer are women struggling to make places for themselves. They consider new circumstances and ideas with courage and humor, developing a moral sensibility that helps them to progress. These ordinary women express a feminist perspective championing self-determination, commitment to family and community, and a desire to change the world with compassion.

Kingsolver’s upbringing focused on southern traditions of community. Her search for a sense of belonging and mutual support in other geographic locations informs her life as well as her writing. She grows most of her own vegetables and buys only local produce to support her belief in ecologically responsible life and consumerism.

She did not know much about her Cherokee ancestry but has discovered a congenial sense of family and community identity in Native American tradition. She senses acutely the tension between the mainstream American focus on individuality and Native American stress on combining personal pursuits with communal well-being. The Cherokee realization of group identity as part of personal life suits Kingsolver’s belief that all human beings are interrelated and share responsibility for Earth and one’s life on it—familial, social, and political.

Kingsolver begins writing with a question, rather than a character or story line, then writes her way to a satisfying answer. After The Bean Trees was published, she looked closely at adoption law and discovered the existence of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which states that no Cherokee child can be adopted out of the tribe without tribal consent; this information led to the central dilemma of Pigs in Heaven. In The Bean Trees, Turtle is literally given to Taylor, who devises a way to “adopt” the young Cherokee girl in an effort not to lose her. Pigs in Heaven explores the moral and social aspects of the adoption, particularly Turtle’s life with a non-Indian mother.

Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, Kingsolver’s first work of nonfiction, describes labor and feminist issues as well as environmental degradation and the oppressiveness of corporate presence in small southern Arizona mining towns during a long labor strike. The book was an important source of material for Animal Dreams and for the short story “Why I’m a Danger to the Public,” which is included in Homeland, and Other Stories.

Kingsolver’s two degrees in biology inform her narratives. In “Covered Bridges,” Lena runs a poison hotline and is susceptible herself to deadly bee stings. Hallie Noline puts her scientific skills to better use in Animal Dreams by leaving her Tucson houseplant hotline to help repair soils depleted by poverty and politics in Central America. In The Bean Trees, Kingsolver creates a metaphor comparing the role of bacteria in the survival of wisteria vines in poor soil to the role of underground sanctuary houses in providing safe refuge for Central and South American refugees in the United States.

Kingsolver’s human rights vision and activism are part of her stories. She believes that writing about abuses and atrocities in her novels presents information and tells the truth in a way that may be more effective than pamphlets or media presentations. The Bean Trees describes the difficulties that Central American expatriates experience trying to live safely in the United States. In Animal Dreams, Hallie Noline ultimately travels to Nicaragua to work with the Sandinistas.

In her first collection of poetry, Another America/Otra America, Kingsolver describes poverty and danger as well as inner courage and strength; the voices are courageous and familiar. Her poems appear in both English and Spanish, with themes that embrace life in both the United States and Central America. Kingsolver’s poems are translated into Spanish to emphasize her strong belief in the importance of multicultural and multinational respect and understanding.

Although she shed her own southern accent, Kingsolver uses rich language generously throughout her stories. Language is a major plot element in Turtle’s development. A victim of child abuse before meeting Taylor, she is slow to speak, and her first words are anything but usual. She begins speaking by naming vegetables as though they were a safe topic and only slowly ventures into new topics of conversation. One of the sisters in The Poisonwood Bible speaks in palindromes, and another habitually misuses words. In Prodigal Summer, a battle over spraying insecticide involves signs as well as verbal arguments.

The Poisonwood Bible focuses on the ways in which European and American power, both political and religious, have affected Africa—in this case, the former Belgian Congo. The story of the Prices, an American missionary family, portrays both personal and institutional abuses of Africa and considers the morality of power when it is used to destroy cultures and lives for the material gain of other societies. Prodigal Summer considers power from another standpoint. The ecological balance of the world in a corner of Appalachia takes prominence in this novel. Nature in all its sensuousness and vulnerability is part of all the human plots and counterplots, which evolve around the themes of belonging and inheritance in a small place. These two novels foreground Kingsolver’s activism and social conscience more prominently than her previous ones.

Kingsolver’s essays articulate a fiercely involved sensibility. She passionately believes in humans’ responsibility to one another and the earth. Her attention to such subjects as the habits of a hermit crab and how people regard the American flag, as well as many other natural and communal situations, raises issues of empathy and patriotism that echo through all of her work.

The Bean Trees

First published: 1988

Type of work: Novel

Although determined to avoid pregnancy and scared of tires, Taylor becomes a mother and a tire-shop employee, sharpening her political and feminist views along the way.

The Bean Trees begins with Missie Greer’s first-person account of her youth in rural Kentucky, including how she developed a fear of exploding tires after a man overfilled one and was blown to the top of a gas-station sign. Kingsolver’s wry storytelling style in this humorous opening scene sets the novel’s tone.

Missie has grown up noticing that many small-town girls experience early motherhood. Her own mother has given her a strong sense of self-sufficiency, and, as soon as she can, Missie buys a run-down Volkswagen and leaves in search of opportunity and adventure. Missie decides that when she runs out of gas, she will choose a new name to replace the despised “Missie.” In Taylorville, Illinois, she becomes Taylor Greer. Her car breaks down in Oklahoma, where a desperate Cherokee woman shoves a bundled-up child into the car, saying, “Take this baby.”

Taylor names the child Turtle because of the way in which she grabs and holds on to anything within reach. Turtle fuels a pivotal subplot concerning child abuse and survival. Endearing Turtle develops slowly and has setbacks, but her...

(The entire section is 3276 words.)