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Barbara Kingsolver 1955-

American novelist, short story writer, essayist, nonfiction writer, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Kingsolver's career through 1999.

Barbara Kingsolver has attracted a large readership and critical appreciation for creating highly entertaining stories that feature strong, appealing female characters. These stories typically address contemporary...

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Barbara Kingsolver 1955-

American novelist, short story writer, essayist, nonfiction writer, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Kingsolver's career through 1999.

Barbara Kingsolver has attracted a large readership and critical appreciation for creating highly entertaining stories that feature strong, appealing female characters. These stories typically address contemporary social and political evils, from poverty and child abuse to environmental pollution and human rights violations. Her best-selling novels The Bean Trees (1988), Animal Dreams (1990), Pigs in Heaven (1993), and The Poisonwood Bible (1998) revolve around women from rural, working-class backgrounds who struggle to form connections and find their place in society. Through idiomatic prose and compelling storytelling, Kingsolver creates popular fiction that presents strong opinions on contemporary America and its problems.

Biographical Information

The daughter of a country doctor and a homemaker, Kingsolver was born in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1955 and grew up in the rural and impoverished town of Carlisle, Kentucky. When she was in second grade her parents moved the family to the Belgian Congo, where her father worked as a physician for a year before returning to Kentucky. In high school the shy and cerebral Kingsolver shared little in common with her rural classmates, few of whom went to college or moved away from Kentucky. She was a talented pianist and won a music scholarship to DePauw University in Indiana, later changing her major to earn a bachelor's degree in biology when she realized career opportunities in music were limited. Kingsolver earned a M.S. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Arizona in 1981. She began a doctoral program at Arizona but left to take a job as a technical writer for the Office of Arid Land Studies. Later, she worked as a freelance writer and journalist. Much of her writing focused on social issues, including protest against nuclear power plants and drawing attention to human rights abuses in Latin America. Kingsolver married chemist Joseph Hoffman in 1985. While pregnant with her first child, Kingsolver began work on The Bean Trees, which won a 1988 American Library Association Award. Its success helped her to complete and publish Holding the Line (1989), a nonfiction work that she began prior to writing The Bean Trees. She continued to write and publish short stories, many of which appeared in Homeland and Other Stories (1989). She published Animal Dreams the following year, winning the PEN fiction prize and the Edward Abbey Ecofiction Award. Kingsolver later wrote Pigs in Heaven, a sequel to The Bean Trees, published a collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson (1995), and produced her best-selling work to date, The Poisonwood Bible. Kingsolver divorced her first in husband in the early 1990s and married ornithologist Steven Hopp in 1995. She lives with her husband and two daughters, Camille and Lily, in Arizona.

Major Works

Kingsolver uses her writing to address social and political issues that are important to her. Her working-class characters generally suffer from sociopolitical ills and discover they cannot succeed alone—they must unite with others to triumph over the obstacles they face. Kingsolver's intricate plots unfold quickly, and she alternates points of view between characters, employing humor and witty colloquial dialogue to engage the reader. Kingsolver frequently draws on her biology background to create parallels between the interconnections of the natural world and human society. The Bean Trees traces the journey of Taylor Greer as she travels west from her small Kentucky hometown. Taylor wants to escape the limited opportunities in her rural town and to establish a new life on her own terms. However, she soon becomes the reluctant caretaker of Turtle, a Cherokee toddler who has been molested and abused by her family. When Taylor and Turtle arrive in Tucson, Arizona, they meet Mattie, who owns Jesus is Lord Used Tires Company and shelters Latin American political refugees, and Lou Ann Ruiz, a single mother whose husband has left her and her child. Taylor takes a job at Mattie's tire store and she and Turtle room with Lou Ann and her son. Taylor's political consciousness is raised when she meets Estevan and Esperanza, Guatemalan refugees who were tortured in their native country. As she becomes aware of persecution in the world and gains affection for her new makeshift family in Tucson, Taylor learns to embrace human connections and engineers an unorthodox plan to adopt Turtle.

Holding the Line began when Kingsolver covered the Phelps Dodge Copper Company strike in Arizona in the early 1980s as a freelance journalist. She became intrigued by the stories of the families involved in the strike and used her interviews to tell the story through the eyes of the women family members. When the workers were forbidden to picket through a court injunction, the wives and daughters of the strikers organized and continued a female picket line. Though the copper mines eventually closed down, Kingsolver recounts how a group of working-class women, most of whom were scarcely educated homemakers with little political awareness, united to change their circumstances and became empowered community activists with a new sense of self-worth. Homeland and Other Stories features a title story about Great Mam, an aged Indian woman whose family takes her on a trip to see her birthplace. Great Mam arrives to find that the area has turned into a vulgar tourist trap and refuses to get out of the car. The protagonists of the other stories include a paroled kleptomaniac struggling to stay out of jail, a strike organizer who is jailed for her activism, and a young pregnant woman who reconciles with her pregnant mother. In Animal Dreams, Codi Noline returns from a lonely life in the city to her hometown of Grace, Arizona, to care for her father. The story's point of view alternates between Codi, her Alzheimer's-stricken father Homer, and letters from Codi's sister, a human rights activist in Nicaragua. Codi forms an attachment with Loyd, an Indian man she dated in high school, and when she learns a nearby factory is polluting Grace, she becomes involved in the crusade to save the town's orchards. Codi is accustomed to thinking of her sister as a hero, but by becoming involved in the community she becomes a local hero herself.

Pigs in Heaven, the sequel to The Bean Trees, revisits Taylor and Turtle. Six-year-old Turtle is brought to the attention of the Cherokee nation when she and Taylor help rescue a man who falls into the spillway at the Hoover Dam. As a result they appear on the Oprah Winfrey show, where Cherokee lawyer Annawake Fourkiller hears about Taylor's questionable adoption of the Cherokee Turtle and attempts to reunite her with her forebears. Taylor flees with Turtle but finally realizes she owes Turtle a connection with her heritage. They return and work out a compromise with the Cherokees that allows Turtle a connection to her adoptive mother and the Cherokee culture. The Poisonwood Bible was inspired by the Kingsolver family's sojourn in the Congo in the early 1960s. Kingsolver uses the six members of the fictional Price family to represent the different ways white people have viewed and affected the Congo. Nathan Price, a missionary, brings his wife and four daughters from Georgia to the Congo in order to bring God to the natives. He arrives determined to mold the village natives in his own image, remaining completely oblivious to the values and nuances of the native culture. Nathan represents the most reprehensible forces the West has brought to bear on the Congo. As Belgium and the United States drove the Congo into political and social chaos, so Nathan breaks apart and destroys his family. Kingsolver shows Nathan entirely through the eyes of his wife and daughters, who narrate the story in alternating chapters. Nathan's wife sees that he is headed toward disaster but is powerless to stop him. Rachel, a self-absorbed princess, observes her father's errors but never moves beyond concern for her own problems. The silent, partially paralyzed Adah recognizes Nathan for what he is and silently records his journey into madness. Adah's twin sister Leah worships her father at the beginning of the story, though later falls in love with a native man and stays in Africa to build a life and attempt to pay the psychic debts her country owes to the Congolese. The youngest child, Ruth May, is the innocent who ultimately pays the highest price for Nathan's madness.

Critical Reception

Kingsolver is praised for her strong humor, vivid characterization, absorbing plots, and ability to combine colorful dialogue reminiscent of her native Kentucky with evocative imagery of the Southwest. Kingsolver's sociopolitical messages, however, are a point of contention among critics. Her books draw attention to issues including political torture in Latin America, industrial pollution in the United States, and the damage caused by American imperialism in Africa. Some view her messages as a strength that gives her work greater weight, while others consider them heavy-handed and obvious. Though critics admire her strong storytelling abilities, some consider her symbolism clumsy and her plots contrived in order to bring home her moral points. Because her stories usually support popular liberal social causes, some critics note that they present minimal conflict and rarely risk challenging the reader's point of view. Critics applaud Kingsolver's ability to create convincing, strong female characters, but some point out that her few male characters tend to be one-dimensional. While the merit of her sociopolitical commentary is much debated, Kingsolver's witty style, engaging plots, and vibrant characters are regarded by many as a notable contribution to popular literature.

Principal Works

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The Bean Trees (novel) 1988

Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (nonfiction) 1989

Homeland and Other Stories (short stories) 1989

Animal Dreams (novel) 1990

Another America/Otra America (poetry) 1992

Pigs in Heaven (novel) 1993

High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never (essays) 1995

The Poisonwood Bible (novel) 1998

Margaret Randall (review date May 1988)

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SOURCE: “Human Comedy,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. V, No. 8, May, 1988, pp. 1, 3.

[In the following review, Randall offers praise for The Bean Trees.]

Here's a first novel that's fast reading but long-staying. It starts off with the narrator's first-person childhood memories. You think this is great: something for light consumption on the daily commuter train or to be absorbed in the pleasure of a steaming tub. And this is certainly a book that can be read in just those places. But it's not simply another trashy (read: delicious) piece of fiction. You are thoroughly hooked by the time you realize Barbara Kingsolver is addressing and connecting two of our most important issues.

The Bean Trees is about invasion. Invasion, not as it is probed and theorized about by political thinkers, psychologists, or academics. Invasion as it is experienced by middle America. And not middle-class America, but real middle America, the unemployed and underemployed, the people working in fast-food joints or patching tires, Oklahoma Indians, young mothers left by wandering husbands or mothers who never had husbands. In this novel you travel from Kentucky to Arizona and never even have to consider the sophisticated complexities of New York, San Francisco, or Chicago.

The Bean Trees is hilariously funny. You laugh out loud. I literally fell off my chair. You turn the pages and wheeze, empathetically amazed and delighted by the characters who people these pages; by their perceptions of themselves and the world and by the decisions they make for their moral as well as physical survival.

Our heroine, Taylor, makes it through high school with the support of a brave and truly loving mother. She remembers one special teacher, whose chief claim to local fame is that his nails are clean; he becomes her key to a first real job: analyzing blood, urine and feces at the small town hospital. This enables her to save $300 for an old VW: her ticket to the world. She leaves her provincial destiny behind, and hits America's roads.

Pace-wise, or in some of its rhythms, The Bean Trees has something in common with Jack Kerouac's classic On the Road. But its meaning is exactly the opposite. Kingsolver's characters don't opt for dropping out of society; they are desperately trying to survive within its confines. For unexpected yet believable humor, made from the more painful observations of our culture, it takes me back to William Eastlake's Portrait of the Artist with Twenty-Four Horses.

But it would be misleading to compare Kingsolver with either of these male authors. In style and vision, she has written a book all her own, and with a deep female consciousness that feels like bedrock when put up against some of the preachier, more explicitly feminist works. Attempting to define this published-yet-new author, Georgia Cotrell's name comes to mind; Kingsolver's prose style has something in common with Cotrell's use of language in Shoulders. She also shares Cotrell's curiosity about a given (although different) social group, her integrity in shying away from surface judgments when looking at complexities and contradictions, and her explorations of non-traditional families.

Two lines of narrative eventually converge in Kingsolver's novel. There is our heroine, telling her story with the quiet unsophisticated irony of a tough and travelin' Kentucky woman. She leaves home bent on getting herself a new name and decides she'll take the cue from wherever she runs out of gas. “I came pretty close to being named after Homer, Illinois, but kept pushing it. I kept my fingers crossed through Sidney, Sadorus, Cerro Gordo, Decatur, and Blue Mound, and coasted into Taylorville on the fumes. And so I am Taylor Greer,” she announces early in the story.

And there is an alternating-chapter third-person narrative: Lou Ann, also from Kentucky but already a sometime Tucson resident, whose rodeo-riding husband Angel Ruiz loses what sense of self he may once have had when an accident takes one of his legs below the knee. Irritable and dissatisfied, he leaves Lou Ann before their child is born.

Taylor's VW breaks down the first time in Oklahoma where, along with repairs enough to get her on the road again, she acquires a child of her own. An Indian woman presses a silent baby of indeterminate age and origin into her arms. The woman retreats, leaving Taylor no choice but to continue on her way, now the adopted mother of this mystery bundle. The child seems slow in her responses; Taylor dubs her Turtle.

Her VW breaks down definitively in Tucson. From then on, it's Taylor as a sudden mother, trying to make it for two, and Lou Ann with her little Dwayne Ray. The Bean Trees, on one well-fashioned plane, is the story of how these two poverty-level women find one another through want ads and mutual need, how they aid one another by pooling their meager resources and sharing a house, how they help one another go on learning about life and what it means.

The end of the scene in which Taylor and Lou Ann join fortunes is worth repeating. The former has answered a house-to-share ad placed by the latter. “Lou Ann hid her mouth with her hand. ‘What?’ I said. ‘Nothing.’ I could see perfectly well that she was smiling. ‘Come on, what is it?’ ‘It's been so long,’ she said, ‘You talk just like me.’”

These two apparently different women are immensely compatible:

Within ten minutes Lou Ann and I were in the kitchen drinking diet Pepsi and splitting our gussets laughing about homeostasis and bean turds. We had already established that our hometowns in Kentucky were separated by only two counties, and that we had both been to the exact same Bob Seger concert at the Kentucky State Fair my senior year.

Lou Ann has been carefully programmed to ask permission for breathing. Many of us will recognize in her that part of ourselves that has trouble believing we do anything well enough, are ever good enough, belong anywhere—even inside our own skins. Taylor offers Lou Ann a piece of her life-earned philosophy, this one about men:

one time when I was working in this motel one of the toilets leaked and I had to replace the flapper ball. Here's what it said on the package; I kept it till I knew it by heart: “Please Note. Parts are included for all installations, but no installation requires all of the parts.” That's kind of my philosophy about men. I don't think there's an installation out there that could use all of my parts.

This is also the story of Mattie, Mattie of Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, and the occupants of her labyrinth second floor; people like the nervous young priest on the motorcycle, and Estevan and Esperanza, who come and go in the night. After a short stint frying up fast food at Burger Derby, Taylor rebels and goes to work for Mattie, a knowledgeable woman who drinks coffee from a white mug on which hundreds of tiny rabbits are having sex in hundreds of different positions.

Mattie can tell right away that Turtle is a girl. And Taylor begins to learn about Mattie's world:

Mattie's place was always hopping. She was right about people always passing through, and not just customers, either. There was another whole set of people who spoke Spanish and lived with her upstairs for various lengths of time. I asked her about them once, and she asked me something like had I ever heard of a sanctuary. I remembered my gas-station travel brochures. “Sure,” I said. “It's a place they set aside for birds, where nobody's allowed to shoot them.” “That's right. They've got them for people too.” This was all she was inclined to say on the subject.

Nothing more is said at that point. But if we didn't get it when we experienced Taylor's shock at discovering the damage suffered by Turtle's victimized body, by this time we are sure that this is a tale about something more complex than two uniquely ordinary women making their way in the world.

There are endless delightful moments in this book. A typical Kingsolver scene happens when Taylor is introduced to Lou Ann's cat:

“You wouldn't believe what your cat is doing,” I said. “Oh yes, I would,” Lou Ann said. “He's acting like he just went potty, right?” “Right. But he didn't as far as I can see.” “Oh no, he never does. I think he has a split personality. The good cat wakes up and thinks the bad cat has just pooped on the rug.”

As is necessary to any decent novel about ordinary America, fundamentalism as a leitmotif surfaces every once in a while. Taylor hits Oral Roberts country on her trip West, and the knowledge that she can always call 1-800-THE LORD keeps her going through many a near-desperate time. Towards the end of the story, a fully confident Taylor decides more out of nostalgia than anything else to dial the “help” line:

The line rang twice, three times, and then a recording came on. It told me that the Lord helps those that help themselves. Then it said that this was my golden opportunity to help myself and the entire Spiritual Body by making my generous contribution today to the Fountain of Faith missionary fund. If I would please hold the line an operator would be available momentarily to take my pledge. I held the line.

“Thank you for calling,” she said. “Would you like to state your name and address and the amount of your pledge?” “No pledge,” I said. “I just wanted to let you know you've gotten me through some rough times. I always thought, If I really get desperate I can call 1-800-THE LORD. I just wanted to tell you, you have been a Fountain of Faith.”

She didn't know what to make of this. “So you don't wish to make a pledge at this time?” “No,” I said. “Do you want to make a pledge to me at this time? Would you like to send me a hundred dollars, or a hot meal?”

She sounded irritated. “I can't do that ma'am,” she said. “Okay, no problem,” I said. “I don't need it anyway. Especially now. I've got a whole trunkful of pickles and baloney …”

Taylor doesn't read about the brutal sexual abuse of children in a book. She discovers it the first time she bathes Turtle. Her knowledge is confirmed months later when she takes the child to a pediatrician and listens to him tell her the terrified little girl she has imagined is perhaps a year and a half is probably closer to three. Sometimes they just stop growing, he says.

Taylor knows nothing about the wars in Central America, and how the US government promotes those wars and then rejects their victims, until she becomes friends with Estevan and Esperanza and accepts the fact that some people work fast-food or assemble lines, others have used tire shops and sanctuaries.

Two related versions of invasion, the sexual invasion of a child's body and the political invasion of a nation's sovereignty, come together and unfold in this story of ordinary people who understand both realities as they touch their own lives. This is also a story about racism, sexism and dignity. It's a story propelled by a marvelous ear, a fast-moving humor and the powerful undercurrent of human struggle.

Something happens in The Bean Trees. It's one of those old-fashioned stories, thankfully coming back onto our literary scene, in which there are heroines and anti-heroines, heroes and anti-heroes, ordinary humans all. They go places and do things and where they go and what they do makes sense for them.. . and for us. There are surprises in this book. There is adventure. And there is resolution, as believable as it is gratifying.

Barbara Kingsolver, herself a Kentuckian living in Arizona, clearly knows whereof she writes. Her prose is effortless and lovely, her structure easy, her evolutions warm and deeply satisfying. Invasion as metaphor is not new with this novel. It has surfaced over the past several years in poetry and prose by some of our most important women writers. Here it occupies a new territory, that of the commonplace, mostly undramatic, story, told and lived by commonplace people, most of them women.

Trite as it may sound, reading The Bean Trees bolsters my belief in an isolated but essentially generous American people. The system will continue to hype us with words and images that systematically distort our sense of world and self. But as long as we retain the capacity to see and feel, as long as the connections are made in our lives and as long as books like this one are written to help us recreate our common memory, we will be able to leave worthy lives to those coming along behind us.

Carol Kleiman (review date 18 May 1988)

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SOURCE: “Loving, Nourishing as a Way of Life,” in Chicago Tribune, May 18, 1988, p. 3.

[In the following review, Kleiman offers positive assessment of The Bean Trees.]

Barbara Kingsolver's first novel is a quietly building, powerfully moving story about a mother's fierce love for her daughter, even if she isn't legally the mother and the child literally was dumped in her car, and even if the mother pretends for the longest time that the little girl isn't of paramount importance.

Taylor Greer, out to conquer the world, leaves her own mother in rural Kentucky, happy to get away and proud that she was one of the few girls in her class who “stayed out of trouble” and finished high school.

“This is not to say that I was unfamiliar with the back seat of a Chevrolet, … but Mamma always said barefoot and pregnant was not my style. … Believe me, in those days the girls were dropping by the wayside like seeds off a poppyseed bun, and you learned to look at every day as a prize.” So Taylor, who avoided pregnancy so adroitly, becomes a mother at 18 to the 2-year-old she names Turtle, a Cherokee Indian. The transaction occurs in Oklahoma while Taylor is en route to her destination and, she hopes, destiny in Tucson.

The instant mother keeps the child fed and cared for, but Taylor is so intent on her own survival—on finding a job, on finding a place in the world—that at first Turtle is just there, silent, unresponsive. Taylor seems no more than her custodian, a senior Girl Scout doing a good deed.

Taylor, who has a phobia about tires exploding, gets a job at, of all places, Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, owned by Mattie, a warm, wonderful woman who gives sanctuary both to tires and to Guatemalan refugees.

The young mother also becomes friendly with another Kentuckian, Lou Ann, and rents a room in her house. All the women become friends, and their circle of warmth is augmented by two more female neighbors, one of whom is blind.

One of the nicest qualities about this absorbing story is that even though it deals with traumatic issues such as child abuse, the sanctuary movement, growing up and growing old, Kingsolver is always entertaining. Her mountain style is reminiscent of the humor of Southern novelist Rita Mae Brown.

Surrounded by love, Turtle begins to speak. But her vocabulary is limited to vegetables. Kingsolver, a biologist, uses her background as the theme of the book and to make a point about Mattie's purple bean vines drying in the sun, which broke Taylor's heart to see but did not faze Mattie.

“That's the cycle of life, Taylor,” Mattie said. “The old has to pass on before the new can come around.”

And so it is with Taylor, who becomes energized after her long metamorphosis and is determined to adopt Turtle. She uses means not quite legal but certainly acceptable to the reader, who is cheering all the way.

She explains the adoption papers to Turtle: “That means you're my kid, and I'm your mother, and nobody can say it isn't so.”

Taylor is now “the main ingredient” in Turtle's life, she says, and vice versa.

Bill Mahin (review date 23 June 1989)

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SOURCE: “Brilliant Stories Test Values, Truth,” in Chicago Tribune, June 23, 1989, p. 3.

[In the following review, Mahin offers positive assessment of Homeland and Other Stories.]

Barbara Kingsolver's Homeland and Other Stories is about community and generations and families and relationships and the passing on of wisdom.

Each story tests values; each is a search for meaning.

In the title story, the father—“a soft-spoken man who sometimes drank but was never mean”—works in the mines; the mother raises the family and sets the standards. “If I have to go out myself and throw a rock at a songbird,” she says at one point, “nobody is going to say this family goes without meat!” They sustain the family, but it is the great-grandmother who is wise. “My great-grandmother belonged to the Bird clan,” the story begins.

“Hers was one of the fugitive bands of Cherokee who resisted capture in the year that Gen. Winfield Scott was in charge of prodding the forest people from beds and removing them westward.”

Her values—“Sometimes a person has got to take a life, like a chicken's or a hog's when you need it. If you're hungry, then they're happy to give their flesh up to you because they're your relatives”—contrast harshly with those in “Rose-Johnny.” “My daddy was white,” the woman in that story confides:

“After he died my mama loved another man and he was brown. … People will tell you there's never been no lynchings north of where the rivers don't freeze over. But they done it. … They lynched him up there, and drowned her baby Johnny in Jackson Crick, and it was as froze as you're ever going to see it. They had to break a hole in the ice to do it. … Poor little baby in that cold river. Poor Mama, what they did to Mama. And said they would do to me, when I got old enough.”

The stories are frequently about mothers and daughters. (An abused infant is central to Kingsolver's highly praised earlier novel, The Bean Trees.) In “Stone Dreams,” a woman having an affair with the man who built their cabinetry finds a note from her daughter acknowledging the affair yet refusing to admit the possibility that it might interfere with their own relationship. The mother in “Quality Time” watches the hands of her 5-year-old and discovers how parents “find the courage to believe in the resilience of their children's lives.” A woman in “Bereaved Apartments” shoplifts an expensive sweater, the way her aunt taught her when she was little.

There are telling images as well as vivid characters. In “Jump-Up Day,” a young girl finds herself enmeshed in a battle between the science of her father and the sorcery of his enemy:

“It was dark before she reached the convent. The stars shone in patches between the clouds rolling up from the ocean. On the deserted banana plantation the long drainage ditches, channels of infected water, shone like an army of luminous snakes marching towards the sea.”

There are flaws. Men play minor roles, are absent entirely, or are too perfect. The overall goodness of her characters—though never cloying—sometimes tests credibility. And sometimes the imagery weakens the narrative: “Lena was a mother waiting to happen.”

Such lapses hardly matter, because Kingsolver is such an extraordinary storyteller. The little girl in “Homeland” slips out her window after going to bed to sit beside her great-grandmother, watching the glow from her pipe in the darkness, waiting for her next story. So do we.

Eleanor J. Bader (review date Summer 1990)

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SOURCE: “They Would Not Be Moved,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 5, No. 4, Summer, 1990, p. 16.

[In the following review, Bader offers positive assessment of Holding the Line.]

When the company began bringing in workers to replace them, striking miners lined up at the mine gates in protest. A few days later, when Phelps Dodge won a court injunction barring the miners from assembling at the gates, women strike supporters began holding mass pickets of their own. When the National Guard and riot troops from Arizona's Department of Public Safety (DPS) were summoned to occupy Clifton and Morenci, no one expected the strike to last much longer. The women organized rallies, pickets and more rallies. They were tear-gassed and arrested. They swore and screamed and sometimes threw rocks, and always they showed up for the picket. Thirteen months later, when they were still on the line, a DPS officer remarked, in what was to become the most famous summation of the strike, “If we could just get rid of those broads, we'd have it made.”

But intrepid they were. For eighteen months, between June 1983 and December 1985, women from the tiny mining towns of Ajo, Clifton, Douglas, and Morenci, Arizona, defied propriety and cultural norms to demand justice, fairness, and decency from the company that ran their lives, Phelps Dodge (PD).

Predominately Mexican-American, these feisty women—many of whom had never before been to a meeting, spoken publicly, or questioned authority—took to the streets and union halls to defend their way of life and clamor for adequate wages and benefits. In the face of Phelps Dodge's intransigence, they railed against the company's demands and exhorted the bosses to recognize their need for equitable recompense. Resistance to their efforts was fierce. The National Guard invaded the four towns, families were evicted from company-owned housing, and individuals were threatened by PD-hired thugs. Soila Bom was jailed for “harassment” after she called a former friend a scab. Although the charges against her were eventually dropped, “being legally in the right did [strikers] no more good than if they had been pedestrians run down in a crosswalk,” writes Barbara Kingsolver in her eloquent, inspiring history of the strike, Holding the Line.

Arizona, Kingsolver reminds us, is one of twenty right-to-work states, giving employees in unionized industries the right to refuse to join the bargaining unit and allowing employers to ignore picket lines, union jurisdiction, or the sanctity of a striker's job. And, given the climate of the early 1980s—the air traffic controllers union, PATCO, had been broken and Greyhound strikers had been forced to concede major contractual losses—the women, and the miners themselves, knew they were facing an uphill battle.

There was a lot at stake. By attempting to bust the union, said Carmina, a member of the Women's Auxiliary, Phelps Dodge was trying to turn back the clock to the days of rampant discrimination. For evidence she brought out a newspaper article describing a brand new PD policy forbidding employees of the company store from speaking Spanish (the preferred tongue of most Clifton residents) either to customers or to one another. “Do you see what I'm saying?” she asked Kingsolver. “The union is the only thing we have that's our own. PD likes to tell us what to do, where to live. But I don't think they're going to run us out of Clifton. This is our home and we are staying, regardless.”

Which is not to say that the thirteen unions on strike against Phelps Dodge always welcomed the women's fire-and-brimstone brand of organizing. When the Women's Auxiliary invited United Steelworkers of America insurgent Ron Wiesen to Arizona, many male unionists felt the Auxiliary had overstepped its bounds and a rift developed, pushing both groups to address questions about female autonomy and sexism before things were patched up.

“These were women,” writes Kingsolver, “raised under the dictum of ‘speak when spoken to,’ and it had taken months for some of them to gather the nerve to express their opinions in their own Auxiliary meetings. Some were still uncomfortable expressing their opinions at the family dinner table. Now they were venturing into the great wide world and standing up before the multitudes.” Harnessing their fears, the women began speaking publicly about their strike and PD's despicable anti-union tactics. Before church groups and labor federations in other cities, at college campuses and on street corners, the women told the truth as they saw it. “Some had the full support of their families, while others were fighting in several war zones at once, but they all kept going,” writes Kingsolver. Many were divorced in the process; for having taken steps toward self-actualization and assertion, there could be no return to prior domestic arrangements.

And in the end individual growth is what mattered. For although the strikers and their supporters won many a moral victory, they lost the war. By the end of 1985, the company's mining and smelting interest in Arizona—once the youthful, healthy giant among the state's industries—was an ailing skeleton. Phelps Dodge had sold a part interest in the Morenci operation to the Sumitomo Company of Japan and had more or less turned its back on the rest of the Arizona mines. The Ajo plant was closed, and the town of Ajo may as well have rolled up its sidewalks. The countdown had begun for closing down operations in Douglas within the year. … Most of the retirees had stayed in Clifton, and some of the younger families kept up the difficult life of divided households, with one spouse driving to a job in some faraway city.

Tragic? Enraging? A callous and preventable outcome? Of course. But somehow, Kingsolver's portrait of these indomitable women, changed forever by standing their ground and demanding to be treated as serious, intelligent thinkers and doers, makes the book uplifting and heartening.

“Just look at us,” laughs Diane as she tells Kingsolver about her new self-image. “At the beginning of this strike, we were just a bunch of ladies.” Anna concurs. “Before, I don't know what we talked about. Who got married, did you go to the last wedding, who's messing around with who. Now we talk about Nicaragua, about apartheid. This is a change for everybody, but especially for us.”

“Before the strike,” adds Cleo, “I did nothing. I just didn't know there could be anything like this. Before, I was just a housewife, now I'm a partner.”

By linking arms with women strike supporters in Arizona, Kingsolver has presented us with a unique, important look at a history often ignored. Feminism's sweep—in subtle ways changing how women across race, class, and ethnic lines see themselves as shapers of destiny—is, she implies, an undeniable reality.

Barbara Kingsolver with Lisa See (interview date 31 August 1990)

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SOURCE: “Barbara Kingsolver: Her Fiction Features Ordinary People Heroically Committed to Political Issues,” in Publishers Weekly, August 31, 1990, pp. 46-7.

[In the following interview, Kingsolver comments on her life, work, and sociopolitical preoccupations.]

Across the scorched desert toward the lower Tucson Mountains, up a gravel-covered dirt road identifiable only by two weather-bleached yellow pillars, lies a house almost hidden by native cacti and scrub. Here Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Bean Trees, Homeland and Other Stories and Harper Collins's soon-to-be released Animal Dreams, weaves her stories of plucky, sometimes downtrodden, characters “ecologically” placed in a world of issues—the U.S. involvement in Central America, Native American traditions, feminism, the environment. Her office is reached through a courtyard draped with grapevines and flourishing with squash. The window looks out across a terrain that to many seems inhospitable but to Kingsolver brings inspiration and solace. On the bulletin board above her computer are several fliers announcing speakers on the underground railroad for South American refugees. On her desk is a paint brush. When the writing gets tough she takes the brush out to the courtyard, where she hand-pollinates her squash blossoms.

Kingsolver and her husband, a chemist at the University of Arizona, have been remodeling this cabin for five years, incorporating original beams into a practical and beautiful modern design. The couple did all the work themselves, consulting how-to's from the local library. Complimented on the extensive tile work, much of which she laid herself, Kingsolver quips, “It represents about 12 nervous breakdowns.”

Raised in rural Kentucky, she grew up among farmers. “Our county didn't have a swimming pool and I didn't see a tennis court until I went to Depauw,” says Kingsolver, 35. “I didn't grow up among the suburban middle-class. If I wrote a novel with that background, I'd have to do research. It's not that I try to write about poor people or rural people, I am one myself. It's important to illuminate the lives of people who haven't been considered glorious or noteworthy.”

Some critics contend that Kingsolver's characters live on the margins of society. “That's a shock to me,” she bristles. “I write about people who are living in the dead center of life. The people who are actually living on the margins of society are those you see on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I like to remind people that there's nothing wrong with living where we are. We're not living ‘lives of quiet desperation,’ but living in the joyful noise of trying to get through life.”

Kingsolver claims she was always a writer. “Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor were the stars in my sky as a child,” she says. Later she was influenced by Doris Lessing and Ursula LeGuin, with Faulkner as the one male admitted into her personal constellation. “But I couldn't figure out how you could manage to get paid for being a writer or that you could do it for a living,” she says. Beginning in college and through two years traveling in Europe, she took a number of jobs: typesetter, X-ray technician, copy editor, biological researcher and translator of medical documents. After graduate school at the University of Arizona, she became a science writer. Armed with a single creative writing course at Depauw and later a class with author Francine Prose in Arizona, Kingsolver “sneaked” slowly into freelance journalism, selling pieces to the Progressive, the Sonoran Review, Smithsonian, and gradually into short story writing for Mademoiselle and Redbook.

In 1983, Kingsolver began a book on the long, bitter copper strike against the Phelps Dodge Corporation in Arizona, focusing on the women—mostly union wives—in the isolated company town of Clifton. “People's internal landscapes turned out to be so interesting. The women earned a sense of themselves and their own value and personal power. When I first interviewed them, they'd say things like they didn't go out of the house without their husband's permission. By the end of the strike, these same women were going on national speaking tours.” A year later, she'd written half of the book, but her agent was having a hard time placing it.

Kingsolver went back to freelance work. In 1985, she found herself pregnant and suffering from terrible insomnia. Her doctor recommended that she scrub the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush. Instead she sat in a closet and began to write The Bean Trees—about a woman who leaves a rural life in Kentucky for the urban world of Tucson, where she encounters the sanctuary movement. “I saw that book as a catalogue of all the things I believe in, and not in any way commercial.” If baby Camille hadn't been three weeks late, Kingsolver observes, she might not have finished the novel. Her agent, Frances Goldin, read the book overnight and called in the morning to say she wanted to auction it. “I look back on that time as a never-never land,” says Kingsolver. “To be able to write with no one looking over your shoulder! Now I try to pretend I'm back in that closet.”

She took her advance from The Bean Trees, finished Holding the Line (published by ILR Press of Cornell University in 1989) and began a book of short stories that she was determined would be different from her first novel. “People always say that a first novel sounds so much like the author,” says Kingsolver. “I think that's certainly true of The Bean Trees. The voice of Taylor, the main character, was very strong, and she wanted to tell all of my stories. I've had to lock her away.” In Homeland and Other Stories, Kingsolver again dealt with many of the same political themes, but seen through the eyes of a menopausal woman, a male biology teacher, an old Native American woman and other so-called “marginal” characters. “In Homeland, I was really stretching my voice and trying to break into the land of real fiction,” she says.

In Animal Dreams, the author has taken all of her previous themes—Native Americans, U.S. involvement in Nicaragua, environmental issues, parental relationships, women's taking charge of their own lives—tossed them into a literary pot and created a perfectly constructed novel. In the book, Codi Noline—bereft of her sister, who's left for Nicaragua to fight for social justice—returns to her hometown where she confronts her painful past, a father afflicted with Alzheimer's, family tragedy and an environmental disaster. “Animal Dreams is about five novels,” concedes Kingsolver. “About two-thirds of the way through I realized I wasn't just a fool; I had jumped out of a plane and the parachute wouldn't open. I wanted to go back to bed, but Harper had already designed the book jacket.” She turned on the answering machine, yelled at her family, pollinated the squash and set about answering the questions she had asked.

While Kingsolver has, in fact, answered all of them admirably, her subjects and themes won't disappear. “Those issues will keep turning up in everything I write. They're central to my reason for living. The only authentic and moving fiction you can write is about the things that are the most urgent to you and worth disturbing the universe over. If you're willing to get up and face a blank page every day for a year or more, then it has to be an idea you're willing to be married to.”

“The issues are fundamentally related, fundamentally the same. I wasn't really trying to drive five horses, but one horse. I don't want to be reductionist, but all of the issues can be reduced to a certain central idea—seeing ourselves as part of something larger. The individual issues are all aberrations that stem from a central disease of failing to respect the world and our place in it.”

In Animal Dreams, Codi learns to place herself within her family, then the community, then the political world. The Stitch and Bitch Club, a group of women who have spent years making hand towels and gossiping, harnesses its talents to save the fictional town of Grace, so much like the real-life strike-stricken community of Clifton. “The women knew how to fight to save their town. They knew how to do ordinary things to maintain life. I like stories about ordinary people doing heroic things that are heroic only if you look close enough.”

Can a novelist truly educate and change the world about man's basic inhumanity to man? “I have to believe that, don't I?” she answers. “What keeps me going is the hope that I might be able to leave the world a little more reasonable and just. I grew up in the '60s when convictions were fashionable. We believed we could end the war just by raising a ruckus. I've been raising a ruckus ever since.” Ten years ago, Kingsolver was writing mimeographed leaflets on the “outright villainy” of what was happening in El Salvador or on the building of the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant; she believes that her job description hasn't changed much. But with fiction, Kingsolver maintains, the author must both refrain from diatribe and respect the reader.

That balance may have its origins in Kingsolver's own choice of physical environment and habitat. After years of what she terms a “rolling stone existence,” Kingsolver—liking the sound of Tucson but knowing absolutely nothing about it—went there for what she thought would be a few weeks. “The Southwest appealed to me on hearsay,” she says. “I thought it would be a wide open place that would allow for some eccentricity.” That was 14 years ago.

“I probably would have become a writer no matter where I was, but the Southwest has informed my subjects. Culturally, the Southwest is so rich. I can drive from here to Albuquerque and pass through a half-dozen nations.” The Central American issues which infuse her work come from living in an area that derives its cultural plurality both from the people who've been there for hundreds of years and from the refugees who come from the south. “A lot of my friends are refugees and they got here because our government dropped phosphorous bombs on their villages. How can you not do something about that?”

Kingsolver's “anthropologist's heart” has compelled her to seek out different world views. “For research, I look for open doors, read what there is, depend on friends.” For Animal Dreams, that meant poring over doctoral dissertations on kinship relations, as well as visiting a pueblo. Kingsolver believes that Americans have a lot to learn from cultures like the Navaho and Pueblo, whose cultural myths have less to do with conquest and more to do with cooperation. “I don't even like to use a word like ‘religion,’ because all Pueblo life is religious. It's about keeping this appointment with humility which reminds us of our kinship with the natural world. I was trained as a biologist, so I know intellectually that human beings are one of a number in the animal and plant family. We are only as healthy as our food chain and the environment. The Pueblo corn dances say the same things, only spiritually. Whereas in our culture, we think we're it. The Earth was put here as a garden for us to conquer and use. That way of thought was productive for years, but it's beginning to do us in now.”

In her new novel, backed by a 45,000-copy first printing, first serial rights to Confetti, and a 15-city tour, Kingsolver isn't about to lose the casual reader over ideas, ideals or philosophy. “If people are provided with information, then they can draw their own conclusions,” she says. “A novel can educate to some extent. But first, a novel has to entertain—that's the contract with the reader: you give me 10 hours and I'll give you a reason to turn the page. I have a commitment to accessibility. I believe in plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want one of my relatives—who's never read anything but the Sears catalogue—to read my books.”

Ursula K. Le Guin (review date 2 September 1990)

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SOURCE: “The Fabric of Grace,” in Washington Post Book World, September 2, 1990, pp. 1, 8.

[In the following review, Le Guin offers positive assessment of Animal Dreams.]

The “search for the father” is so common a theme in American fiction that one might be tempted to wonder why so many sons seem to mislay Pa somewhere, and then have epiphanies when they find him. When it's a daughter that seeks the father lost or disguised, however, we are on less familiar ground.

Cosima/Codi Noline/Nolina (seeking identity, she seeks her true name) comes back home to Grace, Ariz., a canyon mining town, hoping to keep an eye on Dad, who though still the town doctor is in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and to get a handle on herself. The father's voice and memories alternate with Codi's in the narration to create a haunting interplay of revelation, concealment and confusion.

The terms of the daughter's search for selfhood widen gradually and vastly out from the paternal ego-center. In the father-son story, the mother is often dead or negligible. In this story she is dead but vitally present, not a non-quantity but an aching absence. And the central person in Codi's life, the second self, is her sister Hallie—but Hallie too is absent, having gone to Nicaragua. Her voice and presence weave through the book in memories and letters. Then there are the friends in Grace: Emelina who gives Codi a house to live in, Emelina's brood of kids, Loyd the Apache-Navajo-Pueblo friend who never knew Codi had miscarried his baby way back in high school. And there's Emelina's mama Viola, and all the mamas in town, the members of the Stitch and Bitch Club—“the fifty mothers,” Codi begins to call them. It is through the mothers and the grandmothers that she finds her way finally to the father, and so to the mother, and to the truth—a very relative truth.

The story is about relatives, relatedness, relationships. Perhaps all novels are. But I think Animal Dreams belongs to a new fiction of relationship, aesthetically rich and of great political and spiritual significance and power. The writers have been predominantly women of color—African-American, Latina, Native American. In Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, Louise Erdrich's novels, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Paula Gunn Allen's collection Spider Woman's Granddaughters, one can see relationship as the central and motive force of the work. There are relatives, often in large numbers, family all over the place, family that may include coyotes, pecan trees, the dead and other people's children. The imagery underlying the narrative is of networks, bonds, patterns, connections, bodies, the body politic, the web, the weft.

When the weaving is broken the pattern is lost. Things don't make sense. Work defeats itself. The orchards of Gracela Canyon are poisoned by mercury from the mine tailings, the old croplands are salt-white from irrigation and the Black Mountain Mine Company plans a dam that will finish killing the canyon by stopping its river at the source. The men are worn out, defeated. The members of the Stitch and Bitch Club want to act, to try to darn the holes in the fabric of things. How do a bunch of small-town middle-aged housewives stop a dam? By organizing. By getting woven together. Kingsolver's last book was nonfiction: Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983. Her insight into this form of relationship, organizing industrial or environmental action, is keen, and her description of this particular example (which involves artificial peacocks) is vivid and very funny.

The stories in Kingsolver's Homeland are so extraordinary, and her stunning first novel, The Bean Trees, is already so widely loved, that her readers may come with very high expectations. In The Bean Trees the narrator's voice is like Emmylou Harris's, so true it makes your throat ache. Told in that young voice, the terrible has happened before you even recognize it. The main voice in Animal Dreams is that of a grown woman, a loner, highly educated, self-doubting, savvy, scared. She knows the terrible will happen, and it does. The story is slower, weightier. The language is rich, complex, witty. Codi's confusions impede simplicity, and Doc Homer's voice speaks from ever further in the fog of dementia.

Sometimes the patterning seems over-explicit. Doc Homer confuses times and persons, takes Codi for Hallie or her mother or herself 20 years ago, but he never loses her. He always has an emotional thread to follow. My idea of Alzheimer's as a clueless labyrinth struggled with this less dreadful vision of it, half-convinced.

Again, Loyd is a lovely man, a dream-man, with his dream-pueblo—too good to be true? Wishful thinking? Maybe, maybe not. We are too used to novelists who play safe. The celebration of goodness in this book is incredibly, irresistibly courageous. It rises to unforgettable intensity in passages such as the chapter called “Bleeding Hearts.” And the longing for closure, for the “happy ending,” is fulfilled in an absolutely legitimate fictional way: happiness for these particular people, in this particular place and moment. There is no faking, no cheating. The small comedy is seen in the great, tragic perspective of the despoiled West. The web is not mended. And always the wound to the south, the unacknowledged war of the great power against the weak, bleeds and drains and gangrenes. The beloved sister's murdered body is buried in that ground. What then is the home ground, the homeland?

“So you think we all just have animal dreams,” Codi says. “We can't think of anything to dream about except our ordinary lives.” And Loyd answers her: “Only if you have an ordinary life. If you want sweet dreams, you've got to live a sweet life.”

This is a sweet book, full of bitter pain; a beautiful weaving of the light and the dark. This one will be with us for a long time.

Margaret Randall (review date 9 September 1990)

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SOURCE: “Time, Space, and Heartbeats,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 9, 1990, pp. 1, 15.

[In the following review, Randall offers praise for Animal Dreams.]

When Barbara Kingsolver's first novel, The Bean Trees, appeared in 1988, it was deeply moving and also highly successful: a book that addressed a difficult subject matter with delicious humor, yet never trivialized the issues. Readers laughed out loud through page after page, then realized they had just acquired a new understanding of childhood sexual abuse and the grass-roots movement providing sanctuary to those who flee the war zones in Central America.

That book gained an immediate audience for this new writer from Kentucky by way of Arizona. Kingsolver didn't keep her fans waiting long for the next book. She promptly followed The Bean Trees with the well-received Homeland and Other Stories and a piece of nonfiction. Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983.

Animal Dreams, her second novel, solidly establishes Kingsolver as someone who will give her public more than one great book. It is more ambitious than The Bean Trees and the writing achieves a greater intensity, without ever losing the ease and familiarity that made the first novel so appealing. She also has emerged as an important regional writer.

Animal Dreams evokes the powerful cultural mix of the American Southwest, where Native American, Anglo and Hispanic people inhabit a dramatic landscape that has taken on mythic connotations. The spiritual (and power-plant-invaded) Four Corners area comes to mind.

Kingsolver sets the stage when she warns: “Grace, Arizona, and its railroad depot are imaginary, as is Santa Rosalia Pueblo, although it resembles the Keresan pueblos of northern New Mexico. Other places, and crises, in the book are actual.”

Animal Dreams is a story of two sisters, Cosima (Codi) and Halimeda (Hallie), and their father, a small-town doctor. Kingsolver uses two first-person narratives. The main voice we follow is that of Cosima. Her storytelling is interspersed with brief, disturbing commentary by Doc Homer, who develops Alzheimers as the book unfolds. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the novel is the way Kingsolver allows us into the labyrinthine fog of Doc Homer's stumbling, shifting mind. The deepest counterpoint is that which builds between Cosima's frank narrative and Doc Homer's darker mind travels.

Codi, the book's protagonist, is a medical student in her 30s who has worked at a 7-Eleven as well as the usual internships common to her future profession. In this book, she travels from medical school and an uncomfortable relationship with a fellow doctor back home to the remote western town of her childhood. Hallie, who feels vibrantly present despite the fact that she is always offstage, has gone to offer her agricultural engineering skills to the struggling revolution in Nicaragua.

There also is Cosima's ex-lover, Carlo, left behind in an acceptable but meaningless future in the city, and there is Loyd, part Apache, Navajo and Pueblo, who spells his name “wrong” but understands both living and Cosima in ways that help her change how she will walk in the world.

There are the other women of this story: young Emelina, whose husband is mostly off somewhere working the trains; the elders of the Stitch and Bitch Club, Uda Ruth Dell and Dona Althea.

A common story—going home again. A warm and energizing story. But Animal Dreams is much more. It is a story of female vision and courage, of what can happen when a daughter loses her mother and believes she remembers her death. It is a tale of racial and cultural differences as well as commonality, of death and life and what they mean to one another. It is also a book about time and its overlaps, about memory's use of time and our human use of memory. It is a story about the pain of love:

“His two girls are curled together like animals whose habit is to sleep underground, in the smallest space possible. Cosima knows she's the older, even when she's unconscious: One of her arms lies over Halimeda's shoulder as if she intends to protect them both from their bad dreams. Dr. Homer Noline holds his breath, trying to see movement there in the darkness, the way he's watched pregnant women close their eyes and listen inside themselves trying to feel life.”

“He feels a constriction in his heart that isn't disease but pure simple pain, and he knows he would weep if he could. Not for the river he can't cross to reach his children, not for distance, but the opposite. For how close together these two are, and how much they have to lose. How much they've already lost in their lives to come.”

Everyone fully inhabits his or her character: “Loyd and I shared one chair; apparently we were the official lovebirds of this fiesta. He spent a lot of time telling me what I was eating. There were, just to begin with, five different kinds of posole, a hominy soup, with duck or pork and chilis and coriander. Of the twenty or so different dishes I recognized only lime Jell-o, cut into cubes. I gave up trying to classify things by species and just ate. To everyone's polite amusement, my favorite was the bread, which was cooked in enormous, nearly spherical loaves, two dozen at a time, in the adobe ovens outside. It had a hard brown crust and a heavenly, steaming interior, and tasted like love. I ate half a loaf by myself, believing no one would notice. Later, in bed, Loyd told me they were all calling me the Bread Girl.”

And the landscape itself comes alive: “Eventually we stopped in a protected alcove of rock, where no snow had fallen. The walls sloped inward over our heads, and long dark marks like rust stains ran parallel down the cliff face at crazy angles. When I looked straight up I lost my sense of gravity. The ground under my boots was dry red sand, soft and fine, weathered down from the stone. …”

Kingsolver brings to our literary panorama a social consciousness that is bedrock to her rich prose style. In this respect, her work reminds us of some of the important Latin American writers, novelists like Mexico's Juan Rulfo, Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Chilean Isabel Allende. Yet her concerns are rooted in 20th-Century North America: the problems of rampant, ecological destruction, sexual and other abuse issues, our responsibility toward the victims of U.S. foreign and domestic policies, and the grass-roots response to the terror rising about us as society comes apart at the seams. These concerns, evident in her first novel and further developed as well in her second, make Kingsolver a writer who is as profoundly regional as uniquely global.

As I read the last few pages of Animal Dreams, I felt a brief moment of panic. Would this book really end as it seemed it was going to? Suddenly the outcome I had hoped for unwound before my grateful eyes. Things happened as I wanted them to, as I breathed a sigh of relief. This neat wrap up may be the single flaw in an otherwise exceptionally crafted narrative.

Most important for me, however, is my conviction that Kingsolver is giving a new voice to our literature, one that fulfills its promise even as it begins its journey: four books in as many years.

Animal Dreams is one of those rare novels I could not put down. It demanded a single span of my attention, and left me wondering whether to go back to the beginning or simply anticipate the next product from this woman's pen.

Paul Gray (review date 24 September 1990)

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SOURCE: “Call of the Eco-Feminist,” in Time, September 24, 1990, p. 87.

[In the following review, Gray offers positive assessment of Animal Dreams.]

Though routinely maligned as a decade of swinish greed, the 1980s also produced a kinder, gentler brand of storytelling, one that might be described as “eco-feminist” fiction. The central plot of this evolving subgenre has become reasonably clear. Women, relying on intuition and one another, mobilize to save the planet, or their immediate neighborhoods, from the ravages—war, pollution, racism, etc.—wrought by white males. This reformation of human nature usually entails the adoption of older, often Native American, ways. Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home (1985), an immense novel disguised as an anthropological treatise, contains nearly all the quintessential elements, but significant contributions to the new form have also been made by, among others, Louise Erdrich and Alice Walker.

Now comes Barbara Kingsolver, whose second novel, Animal Dreams, is an entertaining distillation of eco-feminist materials. There is the fragile landscape—the fictional town of Grace, Ariz., whose river and Edenic orchards face extinction by the Black Mountain Mining Co. And there is the doughty heroine—Codi Noline, who grew up in Grace and returns home after 14 years of wanderings to teach at the high school and look after her father, the town doctor, who seems to be losing his mind.

Codi certainly does not imagine herself a heroine when she arrives in Grace. “I felt emptied-out and singing with echoes, unrecognizable to myself: that particular feeling like your own house on the day you move out.” Codi believes that the brave one in the family is her sister Hallie, three years younger, who has gone to Nicaragua to help peasant farmers. “I'd spent a long time circling above the clouds, looking for life, while Hallie was living it.”

But Codi also finds herself busier than she expected. She meets Loyd Peregrina, half Pueblo, half Apache, whom she had dated briefly in high school; she never told him of the pregnancy and miscarriage that followed. Now she and Loyd fall into an affair that threatens to turn serious, not to say somber. He drives her about neighboring reservations and takes her to some ancient Pueblo villages. She begins to see a difference between inhabiting the land and trying to conquer it: “To people who think of themselves as God's houseguest, American enterprise must seem arrogant beyond belief. Or stupid. A nation of amnesiacs, proceeding as if there were no other day but today.”

Yes, Codi does have her preachy side, not that it seems to bother Loyd. After she lectures him, he agrees to get rid of his birds and give up cockfighting. There is enough fun in this novel, though, to balance its rather hectoring tone. Codi has a deft way of observing her small, remote home-town, caught uneasily between past and future. When Halloween arrives, she notes, “Grace was at an interesting sociological moment: the teenagers inhaled MTV and all wanted to look like convicted felons, but at the same time, nobody here was worried yet about razor blades in apples.” And the matriarchs who make up the town sewing circle, called the Stitch and Bitch Club, are both amusing and formidable.

It is these women, with Codi's help, who set out to save the town from the mining company. Kingsolver introduces other complications, particularly the fate of Hallie, who has been captured by the U.S.-supported contras. To say everything is resolved happily would be misleading, but one hint may be allowed. Anyone who thinks a giant mining concern is any match for the Grace Stitch and Bitch Club has a lot to learn about eco-feminist novels.

Carolyn Cooke (review date 26 November 1990)

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SOURCE: “Arizona Dreaming,” in The Nation, November 26, 1990, pp. 653-4.

[In the following review, Cooke offers favorable evaluation of Animal Dreams.]

Mark a route from Bobbie Ann Mason's Kentucky through Willa Cather's grainy plains to Georgia O'Keeffe's Southwest, and you will have followed Barbara Kingsolver to the spot on the map where she stakes her literary claim. Kingsolver the Kentuckian has been seduced by the high contrasts of Arizona, by the mythic scale of the landscape: the surreal pinks and red dust, canyons and arroyos, prickly pear and acacia trees, petroglyphs written in the walls of rock, the chalky skulls of buffaloes immortal in the dirt.

Arizona is exotic as the Amazon in Animal Dreams, Kingsolver's second novel and third work of fiction. Just as Cather's hard-baked plains reflect images of corn bent like the backs of so many yellow-haired Norwegians, so is Animal Dreams an elaborate equation between the vibrant landscape and its peoples, the Native Americans whose gentle hands have shaped and lent a rhythm to the land and the later immigrants whose Spanish names Kingsolver slathers on her prose like guacamole on a taco—Emelina and Viola Domingos, Homero, Halimeda and Cosima, Pocha and Juan Teobaldo, Cristobal. Transcending regionalism, Kingsolver makes the Southwest the Garden of Eden, Eldorado and Xanadu rolled into one. It is a state of, well, grace, and she examines the possibilities the town of Grace, Arizona, might imply: being born into Grace, leaving it and returning changed.

Animal Dreams comprises an intelligent, moving chronicle of three lives at different points on a shifting timeline: Cosima (Codi) Noline, the central character, who returns to her hometown of Grace in disgrace, having dropped out of medicine in her first year of residency; her eccentric father, Homero (Doc Homer), who serves Grace both as obstetrician and coroner but suffers from Alzheimer's disease; and Halimeda (Hallie) Noline, Codi's sister, an activist who appears in the novel only in her letters home from Nicaragua. At its best, Animal Dreams resists summary: It aspires to the gluey, webby, inexplicable condition of life. At its weakest, and like Kingsolver's first novel, The Bean Trees (1988), this one flirts with the condition of heartwarming-ness; in celebrating ordinary life, it looks blindly over the occasional meanness or venality that give texture and contrast to our experience of goodness. There are no bad guys in Kingsolver's Graceful universe. Codi's Pueblo-Apache-Navajo lover gives up his brilliant career in cockfighting because Codi—and his mother—ask him to.

The short story is this: Codi Noline has fallen from Grace. She has gone from med school resident to 7-Eleven clerk in one freefall; she has felt the blue pall of the great world, lost her innocence and her empathy in the mountains of Crete, birthplace of Zeus. Sister Hallie, meantime, has become a hero in the classical mode and is off to Nicaragua to save the very soil. Codi, postmodern down to the Billy Idol haircut, tries to save herself. She leaves Carlo, the boyfriend she met back in parasitology, and catches a Greyhound home to Grace, where she spends a year teaching general biology to a gaggle of high school students and chasing down the shadows of her past.

Grace is a town where people roast a goat to make you feel welcome. Everywhere are the brilliant colors of poverty in a warm climate—the reds, oranges and livid purples of the vegetation and women's dresses, the graves meticulously studded with white stones and tequila bottles, “the simplest thing done with the greatest care.” Silver loafers pass as haute couture in the airless windows of the Hollywood Shop; the Baptist Grocery survives to recall a time of more serious spiritual divisiveness; and the semilla besada trees are bedecked hopefully with baby socks and the envelopes of pension checks. When Codi returns to Grace after her years in the great world, everyone remembers how tall she was in seventh grade and her orthopedic shoes.

Those who know Kingsolver from The Bean Trees and her 1989 story collection Homeland and Other Stories will recognize a few familiar riffs. Her characters have a strong sense of science at work in the world and use the plant and animal kingdoms to explain each other. (In a short story called “Covered Bridges,” a young woman who lost a sister to a bee sting devotes herself to saving others via a poison hotline; in Animal Dreams, Hallie Noline grows restless dispensing agricultural advice on the Tucson house-plant hotline and makes a beeline south to help peasant farmers reclaim soil denatured by poverty and politics.)

The symbolism of Grace (the town) is almost hopelessly heavy-handed, but she redeems herself with her clear and original voice, her smart, plucky women, her eye for the nuances of personality and the depth of her social and moral concerns. Kingsolver can help you learn how to live.

Her previous fiction shows her mind migrating westward from Bobbie Ann Mason country (Kingsolver grew up in eastern Kentucky, the setting of her stories and starting point of her first novel). Like Mason's characters, Kingsolver's are sometimes funnier than they mean to be. But although the spunky voice from her earlier fiction remains in characters like Emelina Domingos (“Shoot, you look like a fifty-dollar bill. Where'd you get that haircut, Paris, France?”) and the woman Codi meets on a bus (“‘I'm Alice Kimball,’ the woman explained. ‘I get the worst slugs’”), Kingsolver has here traded some of the raw, hurtling energy of The Bean Trees for a spiraling narrative that interweaves Codi's point of view with her father's in a complex investigation of the relationship between memory and truth.

In Doc Homer, Kingsolver brilliantly delineates the quality of a dissolving but wholly practical mind. Lost in time, Doc Homer lives in an overflowing, eternal present. Seeing his 15-year-old daughter pregnant, Doc Homer does not confront her with what he knows, but suffers alone and lets her suffer.

He feels a sharp pain in his spleen when he looks across the breakfast table each morning and sees this: his wife's face. The ghost of their happiest time returned to inhabit the miserable body of their child. He can't help feeling he has damaged them all, just by linking them together. His family is a web of women, dead and alive, with himself at the center like a spider, driven by different instincts. He lies mute, hearing only in the tactile way a spider hears, touching the threads of the web with long extended fingertips and listening. Listening for trapped life.

Doc Homer has not lost his memory to Alzheimer's, he is drowning in its waves and crosscurrents. Even Codi isn't sure where her father ends and disease begins. Seeing his forceps on the kitchen drain-board, she admits: “This didn't signify any new eccentricity on his part. He'd always had a bizarre sense of utility. I could picture him using the forceps to deliver a head of cabbage from a pot of boiling water. Holding it up. Not in a showoff way, but proud he'd thought of it, as if he were part of a very small club of people who had the brains to put obstetrical instruments to use in the kitchen.”

Word gets around that Codi is a doctor bent on amazing Grace—come to save Doc Homer with a miracle cure she learned in Paris, France; come to save the river, which is contaminated by the Black Mountain Mining Company's excretions of sulfuric acid and copper sulfate. Codi demurs. It's her sister Hallie who is the hero, she insists. Hallie is the one who is saving what's worthwhile—rain forests, farmers, the earth itself.

But in Grace heroes are made, not born. They are driven by exigency, by being needed. Even the housewives in the infamous Stitch and Bitch club get serious about saving Grace when events prove dire. (It isn't giving away too much to say that the town, plagued by a toxic river, is saved by a few hundred peacock-feather piñatas.)

What impels us to right action? Kingsolver seems to be asking. How do we know what to do? Codi suffers from chronic insomnia and occasional, lurid dreams. Her Native American lover, Lloyd Peregrina, articulate in the high language of legend, tells her, “Animals dream about the things they do in the daytime, just like people do. If you want sweet dreams you've got to live a sweet life.”

Like all good novels, Animal Dreams is a web of interlacing news. It is dense and vivid, and makes ever tighter circles around the question of what it means to be alive, how to live rightly and sweetly even as we feel the confining boundaries of the skin, the closing walls of past and present, with memory like a badly wired lamp, spitting sparks and shorting out.

The Arizona pueblo of Malpais is the last refuge of free life in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World—a little nation of outsiders, savages so backward they still believe in history and take their morality from Shakespeare. Grace, Arizona, is Codi Noline's refuge from anonymity and empty life. In Grace she discovers the comforts of tradition and obligation, and migrates from the shapeless melancholia of youth to a deeper humanity—living, as Huxley's savage hopes to, painfully and richly and well.

Marc W. Steinberg (review date March 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, in Contemporary Sociology,Vol. 20, No. 2, March, 1991, pp. 236-8.

[In the following review, Steinberg offers positive evaluation of Holding the Line.]

Occasionally we look beyond the myopic confines of academic writing, and find a book that enriches our understanding of the phenomena we study. Holding the Line is just such a volume.

Ostensibly this is a chronicle of the role of miners' wives (and female miners) in the eighteen-month strike against the Phelps Dodge mining company. Foremost, however, it is a story of women's empowerment and of the struggles and triumphs of a collective transformation. The strike, conducted from June 1983 to December 1984, was waged by copper miners and smelter operators in several mining communities in southern Arizona in reaction to Phelps Dodge's insistence on wage and benefit reductions and the dissolution of pattern bargaining in the copper industry.

Barbara Kingsolver's recounting of this struggle centers on the Morenci mine in the southeast and its neighboring community of Clifton, a “company town” in the classic sense. Her artful narrative is anchored in her observations of the strike over a year-and-a-half period, and seventy-five in-depth interviews with participants, most of whom are women. To provide context she also frames this story with an introductory chapter on mine work and mining communities of Arizona, with much material being drawn from other anthropological and historical investigations.

The heart of the volume, however, is the narrative of the tenacious struggle between Phelps Dodge with its state allies and the mining families of Clifton. Kingsolver documents in captivating detail how the women of the community were able to construct and maintain an effective strike organization and a militant class consciousness in the face of Phelps Dodge's continued operation and protracted scrutiny and harassment by the state Department of Public Safety. With the largely male work force legally restrained from protest, perpetuation of the strike fell into the hands of their wives at an early point. Initially their participation was conducted through the union's women's auxiliary. However, the women rapidly learned that their prosaic knowledge of domestic maintenance was fertile material for organizing the strike community. With their consciousness and organizational acumen expanded, they moved beyond the supporting role of the auxiliary, becoming quintessential actors, frequently to the consternation of union officials and their husbands. The emigration of the men in the search for work cemented the control the women exercised over the strike through their vigilance.

A product of these women's evolving control was a widening consciousness of their collective empowerment. Their participation arose out of an abiding belief in the union, nurtured in the struggles of earlier generations. Through their increasingly expansive efforts they experienced a feminist transformation. Concepts of rights and justice—the fount of their initial resolve—were revamped in challenging an intransigent company and resistant husbands. Traditional domestic and community roles were cast aside in their commitment to continue the strike, for themselves and their children as well as their husbands. As one of the main combatants recounts, “the strike has completely remolded my mind.” Indeed it has. Radiating from their feminist rebirth of self and collectivity are re-evaluations of politics and government, the dynamics of industry in an international economy, and the meaning of their ethnic, mostly Mexican, heritage. Parochial visions of life are gradually shed, left behind in the desert dust as so much ore scrap.

Kingsolver's extensive field research and meticulous exposition make this book as rich an ethnography as the discipline can offer. This is not a volume designed to test the mettle of a theory via a case study. However, those interested in gender dynamics, labor relations, collective action, and community studies will find a wealth of empirical material to put to such a use. The superb writing makes it excellent material for courses in any of the above fields.

Several reservations can be expressed about Kingsolver's account. My principal concern is the waning attention to ethnicity as the story unfolds. As Kingsolver prominently notes at the start, these copper mines were built and operated through the exploitation of Mexican and Native American labor. The history of the union and the community shows an attempt by these workers to break ethnic barriers. The strike itself transparently divided Clifton along ethnic lines, with white workers serving as strike breakers who kept Phelps Dodge in operation. Yet the role of this ethnic cleavage in rending the community and perpetuating the strike on both sides receives insufficient attention in the greater part of the narrative. Additionally, readers may question whether the large strike community shared the leaders' view of the strike as a great moral victory, given its ultimate dissolution. Some may also wonder about the strike's lasting effects on the women's lives, but that is largely beyond the author's scope.

Kingsolver makes no secret of her support for the strikers in her account. To be sure, this is a partisan account of the best kind, and the pathos she exhibits for the women and their families is part of what keeps her account tightly focused and engaging. In Holding the Line Kingsolver has tapped a mother lode on gender, class, and collective action, and many should delight in mining its contents.

Rosellen Brown (review date Spring 1991)

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SOURCE: “The Year in Fiction: 1990,” in Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 123-46.

[In the following excerpted review, Brown offers qualified praise for Animal Dreams, finding fault in the novel's idealized characters and resolution.]

Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams, on the other hand, is a book almost too perfectly made. This is a wonderfully capacious novel that was easy to enter and to stay in, and I was delighted with its gemmy treasures of insight and phrase. And yet when I'd finished it I felt the ingratitude that wishes artfulness to be roughed up into art, wants intelligence and moral earnestness to be shaken a little bit more by uncertainty: wants, I suppose, at least a little of the willful improvisatory quality I have just found in excess in [John Edgar] Wideman's book [Philadelphia Fire]. John Gardner called it “raggedness.”

Animal Dreams asks its questions as straightforwardly as a child: How should one live? Of what shall our souls be made? In pursuit of our own fortunes or for the liberation of the oppressed? For the sake of the earth that is being ransacked by the greedy? By the hard light of “modern” intelligence or in the profound shadows of an ancient wisdom? The characters and situations that embody these clear-voiced challenges have a good deal more charm than this litany lends them, but the questions don't turn out to be quite as open as they seem; their answers feel, in the end, predetermined. If this were painting, what we'd have on the canvas is something decorative and symmetrical, rather than agonized, torn from the depths, free to find its own shape.

Codi (Cosima) Noline, a young woman so depressed by the mysteries and deprivations of her motherless childhood that it never occurs to her that she's depressed, comes home from an aimless life to her small half-Indian town in Arizona where her father, the local doctor, is disappearing into an Alzheimer's fog. As she's reclaiming this territory, old and new, her younger sister Hallie (Halimeda) is travelling hard in the opposite direction, from self to selflessness, to work as an insect specialist-cum-liberator in Nicaragua. Codi has led such an adventurous life, geographically speaking, that she complains “people took me for an adventurer,” but she knows she is only lost. Her sister, grounded, knowledgeable and passionate about social justice, does what she's convinced she must and regrets none of her losses. The story is entirely Codi's—by the end it's clear that Hallie is only her other half; for all her detailed reality she is almost a projection. (Whether Kingsolver intends that or not, it's the effect she achieves; I suspect she could animate a stone.)

Along the way Codi (with some intervening chapters in her father's voice) encounters neighbors, a perfect Apache boyfriend who drives a train, a save-this-poisoned-river movement which she accidentally originates, and an intense attachment to the lore of the Indian pueblo, from which the novel's title is derived: “Animals dream about the things they do in the daytime, just like people do. If you want sweet dreams, you've got to live a sweet life.” With one large exception—a necessary sacrifice—everything in the novel works out for the best, except for the past, which can only be redeemed by taking it into oneself.

There is real sadness, there are comings-to-terms with unpleasant realities, and through all of it, thick and thin, Codi has the most appealing narrative voice I've run into in a long time, amused and amusing, capable of intricate and engaging detail. This is a rich book, generous in its perceptions and judgments. But its single failing is a serious one in spite of the satisfactions Kingsolver provides: the characters are so good and bad (mostly good) that you can hear the celebratory music even as they approach. You know Codi's lover will be without flaw, and so, in spite of her initial suspicion—hers, not ours—he turns out to be. Just about every “native” is without stain, and a few of the scenes in which everyone pulls together to save the dying river feel like Hollywood: Unanimous Effort music (flutes, bassoons) followed by Triumphant (trumpets).

I don't want to condescend to Animal Dreams because it gave me ample pleasure. But I wish Barbara Kingsolver would unlearn a little of her admirable professionalism and next time let her book take her out into an uncharted place where she can discover, rather than lead us surefootedly, to her truths. Worse than her tendency to idealize her characters is the feeling that (in spite of some truly painful acknowledgements) the existential pain that dooms us is not larger than we are, and more persistent, that it can be neatened up at the end—that the perfect-circle form that resolves the novel is a fair reflection of the resolution of sorrow in the world. This is what happy endings are, even those that are achieved through tears. Kingsolver seems to me both smart and wise. For her next book I wish for her some salutory surprises, and even a few untied loose ends.

Dorothy Sue Cobble (review date April 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, in Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 44, No. 3, April, 1991, pp. 585-6.

[In the following review, Cobble offers favorable evaluation of Holding the Line.]

“Used to be a confrontation and I'd want to cry. Now I can fight back. I'm not going to make any excuses for who I am or what I think.” These spirited words of a female strike-supporter, reflecting a new sense of entitlement and self-knowledge, came in the wake of a disastrous two-year battle between the predominantly Mexican-American copper miners of Southern Arizona and Phelps Dodge Copper Corporation. Barbara Kingsolver's new book offers an absorbing blow-by-blow account of the “great Arizona mine strike of 1983,” raising disturbing questions about corporate power and the neutrality of the state in labor-management affairs. Yet, paradoxically, against a backdrop of economic decline, family dissolution, and the downward-spiraling fortunes of the local union, Kingsolver also provides a compelling, even inspiring, portrait of female activists—women for whom the strike was “an opportunity” for profound transformation and personal growth. “A new bunch of confident women came rolling hell-for-leather out of the strike, for the norms of Arizona's old, stagnant mining camps had been turned upside-down and dumped like a laundry basket.”

In 1983, Phelps Dodge balked at the pattern settlement agreed to by the other major copper producers, provoking a confrontation not only with the miners and their union, the United Steelworkers of America, but with their families and communities. As Kingsolver vividly portrays, the striking unionists bit back again and again “like fleas,” but they were no match for the combined force of the employer and the state. After an initial 10-day cooling off period—called by Arizona's Governor Bruce Babbitt following the successful shutdown of the Morenci mine by a massive picket line—Phelps Dodge reopened with the help of four hundred state troopers, armored personnel carriers, Huey helicopters, and seven units of National Guard.

The mining communities reeled under marshal law, the wholesale violation of their civil liberties—hundreds of strikers were arrested but few were ever convicted or even prosecuted—and the unrelenting surveillance of strikers, their children, and anyone living in the mining towns. Yet, the small local and its supporters hung on for eighteen months, bolstered by meager strike benefits and a fiercely union heritage. Grandparents had survived the infamous 1917 assault on the IWW in nearby Bisbee. Parents boasted of their militant days in the red-baited Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union of the 1930s and 1940s or their union-supported efforts to end job and housing discrimination against Mexicans in the late 1960s.

For the female activists, “what began as an extension of domestic servility”—slapping out tortillas for the picketing male strikers, organizing clothing exchanges and other barter networks to save household expenses, helping their husbands in the union office—“became a contradiction of it in the end.” When court injunctions prohibited striking miners from picketing, the women set up their own mile-long, all-female picket line. Soon they were going to the local bar with other women, traveling to California and New York on speaking tours, corresponding with union activists in Latin America and Europe, and having opinions of their own concerning strike strategy, politics, and the proper role of Hispanic women. Kingsolver argues that this strike permanently altered women's perceptions of “what was important, worthwhile, and within their power to do.” They had “crossed the Rubicon” and would never go back.

Although Kingsolver never quite acknowledges fully the bittersweet nature of her story—a story of the rise of women set against the receding fortunes of their class (and to some extent their male compatriots)—her book is nonetheless an impressive achievement. She has produced a stirring, densely documented narrative that works both as drama and as social history. Rich ethnographic passages detailing work life in the mines for the female pioneers of the 1970s and the culture of Mexican-American workers alternate with evocative descriptions of clashes between miners and police or analyses of union-management strategy. Her book deserves a wide audience among scholars as well as the general public. In particular, it would be an exceptionally fine book to use in undergraduate classes on collective bargaining, work and work organization, or labor and women's history—or in any other course concerned with the fate of minorities, women, and workers in 1990s America.

Lorraine Elena Roses (review date July 1992)

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SOURCE: “Language and Other Barriers,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. IX, Nos. 10-11, July, 1992, p. 42.

[In the following review, Roses offers qualified praise for Another America.]

This is the first volume of poetry for Barbara Kingsolver, whose previous books include The Bean Trees (1988), Animal Dreams (1990) and the short-story collection Homeland and Other Stories (1989). The first thing one notices about this collection is that each poem comes with a Spanish translation by the Chilean writer Rebeca Cartes. There's no preface to tell us how the bilingual arrangement came about or for which audience it was designed, but it's clear from the outset that Kingsolver feels a deep connection to the Spanish-speaking lands that begin before the Rio Grande and stretch all the way to the windswept limits of Tierra del Fuego.

Kingsolver knows that a political gulf much wider than the river separates North from South. Often there is no welcome for those who flee northward, seeking sanctuary. Ironically, the regimes that force them into exile enjoy aid from the US. Over the last century our policymakers have seldom understood populist or revolutionary leaders, but have chosen to support the authoritarian “stability” of military regimes and their protection against “subversion.” This disquieting knowledge gives rise to many of the poems of Another America/Otra America.

These are, for the most part, highly political poems by a committed human rights activist who seeks to stir our consciences and enlist us in the cause of social justice and pacifism. Taking the high moral ground, she draws inspiration from two Latin American beacons: José Martí, the Cuban patriot-poet, and Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan poet-priest and Minister of Culture. A particular closeness binds Kingsolver, born in rural Kentucky, to Father Cardenal, who as a novice in 1957 entered the Trappist monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky. In “The Monster's Belly” Kingsolver wishes she could have shared the comfort of knowing Cardenal and his nurturing God:

Now, Father Ernesto, I find you were there all along
with the monks at Gethsemane, Kentucky.
I could have walked there
in my blunt shoes, could have visited you
and your laughing Lord who made the best rain fall
on beans and rice.

Though aspiring to Cardenal's quiet joy and theology of love and liberation, she feels caught “in the belly of the monster,” a phrase coined by Martí at the turn of the century to describe the United States (“Conozco al monstruo / He vivido en sus entraflas: I know the monster. I have lived in its belly.”) Kingsolver contrasts Cardenal's “laughing Lord” with the forbidding, apocalyptic one of her own religious training:

… What a difference
to have known this Lord,
or at least to know
he shared the same small sky with mine, who promised only
that the horned and headed monster
would come out of the sea
for the purpose of ending the world.

Leaping from a spirituality that she envies to Cardenal's unsympathetic view of America, Kingsolver arrives at a picture of herself, too, as a victim of her country's aggression:

You and I were no closer than the living and the dead
who share a cemetery on a Sunday afternoon.
Father Ernesto, you were a citizen of the domain
of your profound desire to kill the monster,
and I was already in its belly.

How does she construct this image of a poetic self devoured by her own country? Her experiences are surely not commensurate with those of Martí, who witnessed US annexationist fever, nor of Cardenal, whose country was invaded and occupied by the US. For Kingsolver the issue is a psychological one. Born in 1955, she recalls a childhood when mock air-raids and civil defense drills instilled fear of the supposed Soviet peril, implanting an enduring xenophobia that she detects everywhere, especially in the anti-Communist rhetoric still alive in the 1980s:

The television says McAllen, Texas
is closer to Managua than to Washington, D.C.
and housewives in McAllen check their own
possibly Bolshevik eyes in the mirror
and lock the windows.


Fear of “the other” is what Kingsolver seeks to denounce. The allusion to intimidated Texas housewives (from whom the poet distances herself as much as she can) also furnishes us with a key to Kingsolver's perspective on Latin American victimization as paralleling that of women. Time and again she imagines the female body as a house invaded, robbed and sullied, a magnet for violence. In “Refuge,” dedicated “to Juana, raped by immigration officers and deported,” the Latin American female is a metaphor for double oppression. The poem's narrator speaks to a woman wetback just as she arrives at the border:

Give me your hand,
he will tell you. Reach
across seasons of barbed wire
and desert. Use the last
of your hunger
to reach me. I will
take your hand.
Take it.
First he will spread it
fingers from palm
to look inside
see it offers nothing.
with a sharp blade
sever it.
The rest he throws back
to the sea of your
blood brothers.
But he will keep your hand,
clean, preserved in a glass case
under lights:
he will say
of the great
of my country.

That amputated hand, the officer's trophy becomes a searing and memorable emblem of cruelty, a symbol intended to arouse our indignation at official callousness. It also signifies suffering, sacrifice, the desperate bravery of a woman rejected at the threshold of redemption.

But can lyrical poetry bear the weight of politics? Can the leap from spiritual identification to militancy bridge the gap between the Latin American experience and our own? Not, I think, when the poet demonizes US history. My sense, reading these poems, is that Kingsolver believes that if the US didn't conjure up enemies there would be none. Perhaps it is an illusion that a progressive, pacifist American can join ranks with militant Martí and priest Ernesto Cardenal, two Latin American male patriarchs dedicated to their countries' sovereignty and self determination who have given little thought to machismo, sexual oppressions and gender in equalities. Mixing poetry and politics is a volatile business, and given the demonological assumptions that run through these poems, I suspect they will appeal primarily to those who seek to commemorate and mark political occasions.

The last two sections of Another America/Otra America transcend both hemispheric differences and programmatic politics. Here, Kingsolver's tone becomes celebratory, as she wrests serenity from personal and collective suffering, and embraces trust as an acceptable substitute after love has failed. In haunting and telling natural images, she memorializes people she has known (“Poem for a Dead Neighbor,” “Your Mother's Eyes”), moments of grace (“Bridges”) and witness to survival (“Remember the Moon Survives”). She excels particularly in poems about the female condition and our spiritual connection to animal life, either wild or free. “Apotheosis,” for example, is on the order of a Pablo Neruda ode, but, unlike Neruda's, hers is female-centered, affirming daily life, creativity and personal autonomy:

There are days when I am envious of my hens:
when I hunger for a purpose as perfect and sure.
as a single daily egg.
If I could only stand in the sun,
scratch the gravel and blink and wait
for the elements within me to assemble,
asking only grain I would
surrender myself to the miracle
of everyday incarnation: a day of my soul
captured in yolk and shell …
. …
And yet I am never seduced,
for I have seen what a hen knows of omnipotence:
nothing of the miracles in twelves,
only of the hand that feeds
daily, robs the nest.


The North-South gap—political, economic, and cultural—is as unbridgeable as ever, but in these poems Kingsolver creates room for coexistence through her bilingual format and fruitful collaboration with a Latin American woman. Cartes' graceful translations often enhance the originals. This arrangement encourages Anglos to cross over and discover the pleasures of the Spanish text; Latin American readers, regularly ignored by mainstream publishers, are addressed at the same time. If Spanish and English can be made to coexist on the facing pages of an open book, Kingsolver seems to say, then a cultural dialogue between North and South can be brought into being as well. That is something to look forward to, even if only in the sanctuaried space of more literary texts like this one.

Antonya Nelson (review date 4 July 1993)

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SOURCE: “Heaven in Oklahoma,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 4, 1993, p. 2.

[In the following review, Nelson offers tempered assessment of Pigs in Heaven, praising Kingsolver's prose and intelligence though finding fault in the novel's “cheery” tone and unrealistic plot.]

Barbara Kingsolver's new novel, Pigs in Heaven, takes up where her first novel, The Bean Trees, left off, with the abandoned Cherokee girl, Turtle, and her adopted white mother, Taylor Greer, living in Tucson. Turtle is 6 years old now, still vaguely damaged from the abuse she suffered as an infant and toddler, but getting along fine in the world.

Turtle and Taylor wind up on the Oprah Winfrey show, which is where tribal lawyer Annawake Fourkiller sees them; he decides to reclaim the obviously Cherokee Turtle for the Nation.

The premise of this novel is wonderfully timely, drawing on two issues that have recently compelled America: the rights of adoptive parents as opposed to biological ones, and the rights of jurisprudence in tribal matters—especially those concerning children adopted off the reservation. The book painstakingly details these issues by making them personal and familial: These are two mothers battling for the best interest of the child. The two women are complex, their passions persuasive. And the stakes are high. The reader is quietly educated on the benefits of tribal life and, by extension, the loss all America has suffered of its own extended families. The writing is lovely, especially in the first half of the book, where images and observations are breathtaking; the author's intelligence and great care show in nearly every line.

Kingsolver has tossed into this novel several other topical concerns for us to look at: the scourge of eating disorders, as illustrated by the minor character Barbie, a life-size fashion doll, complete with wardrobe and pathologies; the danger of television; the difficulties of single motherhood; and the inevitable breakdown of the American family. I think many of us would agree with Kingsolver's observations concerning white America: We are driven by image rather than substance, we consume rather than give back. We have lost our sense of community and family. We watch too much television. We underestimate and undervalue women. We do not know how to care properly for our children, how to make them feel connected to the world and, therefore, engaged in it. We are not good parents.

But the book's tone is perhaps too cheery, its characters perhaps too good-natured and forgiving, too plucky and wise. A few coincidences fuel the plot, pushing the focus away from the tremendous moral quandary, finally making the novel a bit frustrating. The persecution Taylor feels, as a mother whose child can be taken from her without her permission, is diluted by two implausible decisions she makes early on. The first is her agreeing to appear on Oprah (and unwisely reporting on how she came by her child). The second is her illogical road trip.

True, the road trip allows Taylor to be physically separated from her own world and thereby receptive to understanding the separation Turtle might feel later concerning her culture, but it is a trip her character takes unconvincingly. Taylor is smarter than both missteps; had the writer pulled her aside and consulted her, Taylor might have explained that she would never make her life public on national television, and, once threatened, would sit tight until there was real menace—then move. Once on the road, Taylor must meet Barbie, a larcenous bimbo whose aspiration is to purge herself into the proportions of her namesake: 36-18-33. A victim of the sexist marketing campaigns of our body-obsessed culture, Barbie is shallow, self-absorbed, stupid and heartless. What role does she play? She is the nightmare white girl. Why does Taylor need to pick her up and carry her around in this already character-heavy novel? It's difficult to say. She appears to fill space in the story the way a marshmallow does in the food chain: empty calories.

Taylor's mother, Alice, a woman separating from her long-time husband because he won't turn off the TV, also joins Taylor on the road. Alice is a civilized Southern woman, part Cherokee herself, and her husband is pushed aside in order to make room for the romance that later emerges. The convenience of these event suggests that this is not meant to be read as a realistic novel. This would not be disappointing if the reader weren't fascinated by the issues the book hints at but then refuses to debate.

The book wishes us to condemn the vicarious experience television provides in favor of the real experience of our lives. But the lives the book presents are idealized ones. True, there's darkness in the past: Turtle was abused, her mother killed. But there's no darkness in the present, not in the events of the novel, not in the minds of the characters. The “mothers” involved are the principals in the legend of King Solomon, who had to determine which mother most loved a disputed child. In this telling, however, the mothers decide they all like each other enough to just settle in as one big happy family, brown and white, old and young, “Cowboys and Indians.” The dispute dissolves; the complex issue of tribal jurisdiction over the lives of its members can be put aside as a distressing one; we can stop weighing the arguments in favor of adoptive family over biological family. Because the reader is invited to believe that the world is inhabited by moral, ethical folks who get along socially, the genuine controversy of community versus individual rights is trivialized.

Barbara Kingsolver is a gifted stylist with a keen eye toward America's political preoccupations. However, in Pigs in Heaven, the United States she offers up contains a benevolent corner for all her characters' various trajectories to intersect and come to rest, an ideal place that looks and feels like, and is even named, Heaven—a place that, unfortunately, Kingsolver can't make us believe in.

Hilma Wolitzer (review date 11 July 1993)

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SOURCE: “Child of Two Cultures,” in Chicago Tribune Books, July 11, 1993, p. 4.

[In the following review, Wolitzer offers positive assessment of Pigs in Heaven.]

Fictional characters can continue to live inside a writer's head long after a novel is written, sometimes for so long it seems they ought to pay rent. And sometimes the only way to evict them is to imagine where fortune might have taken them since last encountered on the page and write about them again.

Barbara Kingsolver's charming first novel, The Bean Trees (1988), contained a bunch of such memorable squatters, including Taylor Greer, a spunky young single woman; her adopted daughter, Turtle; Taylor's hilariously wry mother, Alice; and her hypochondriacal friend, Lou Ann Ruiz. In The Bean Trees, these women without men (for the most part), struggled against poverty and other adversities with valor and wit. Now, in that novel's sequel, Pigs in Heaven, the characters, with a few inspired additions, are the same, the Southwestern milieu is similar, but the writing and the story's reach are far greater.

In The Bean Trees, Taylor is heading west alone from Kentucky to Tucson in search of the future when she finds herself in sudden possession of an abandoned child. The child's age is indeterminate—she doesn't speak or walk or respond in any way except to cling tenaciously to Taylor, reminding her of a snapping turtle and thereby earning her that unconventional name.

What is soon discovered, during a medical examination, is that Turtle is an approximately 3-year-old Cherokee Indian who has been severely abused. Under Taylor's patient mothering, the little girl gradually learns to relate to others and to speak; her first words are the names of vegetables, as if the world is a kind of soup in which she's been immersed. Most importantly, the bond between Taylor and Turtle is firmly forged. As Taylor observes at the end of The Bean Trees, she is her new daughter's “main ingredient.”

At the beginning of Pigs in Heaven, Turtle is 6 years old, and she and Taylor are tourists at the Hoover Dam, when the girl witnesses a freak accident. This brings her into modest celebrity; she and Taylor wind up as guests on Oprah Winfrey's talk show, and there they come to the attention of Annawake Fourkiller, a lawyer representing the Cherokee Nation.

The white mother/Cherokee child image alerts and disturbs Annawake. Her own family disintegrated during her childhood, and her twin brother, Gabriel, was adopted-“stolen”—by a white family. Their good intentions were overcome by ignorance of Gabriel's unique needs, and he's grown up to become an habitual criminal.

Annawake questions both Taylor's moral and legal claims to Turtle. As we've learned in The Bean Trees, the adoption was carried out, by necessity, with fabricated information. Still, by virtue of her fierce love, Taylor considers herself Turtle's true and irrevocable parent. Annawake, however, worries about Turtle's forfeited heritage, her rights of access to her tribe, as well as the tribe's rights to her.

It is the author's particular achievement that both sides of the issue are wholly sympathetic, and that in the midst of this compelling story we're given a undidactic, historical overview of the oppression and deconstruction of the Native American family. As a bonus, there are thought-provoking riffs on aging, pop culture, art and the ego, tribal vs. individual instincts, and the nature of sexual fidelity.

Kingsolver crosscuts nimbly among her considerable cast of players, entering everyone's heart and mind with curiosity and courage. Annawake, propelled into the pursuit of Taylor by her ongoing grief about her lost brother, observes that she “has spent years becoming schooled in injustices and knows every one by name, but is still afraid she could forget the face.” Taylor doesn't hesitate to flee with Turtle as soon as she feels threatened by Annawake's interest in them. Yet even in flight, her racial consciousness is raised, and she begins to notice images of Indians everywhere: “the Indian-chief profile on a Pontiac, the innocent-looking girl on the corn-oil margarine, the hook-nosed cartoon mascot of the Cleveland Indians.”

Taylor's mother, Alice, who joins her in exile, is escaping, too, from a husband whose “idea of marriage is to spray WD-40 on anything that squeaks.” Taylor's boyfriend, Jax, a musician with a band called the Irascible Babies, is left on his own after her sudden departure. His response to her absence—a mixture of comical, philosophical acceptance and pure yearning—makes him one of the most appealing characters in recent fiction. And Barbie, a waitress obsessed with the doll for whom she's named herself (including the trademark symbol), is one of the funniest.

Even quiet Turtle is indelibly rendered, especially by those buried memories of abuse that begin to surface whenever her current security is threatened: “Somewhere else in the old place was that shine of angels or stars too close, the underwater, shoes on the floor and no light and a man's voice across your mouth and you can't get air.”

Things are resolved rather neatly at the end of Pigs in Heaven, but that seems less a literary copout than a model for diplomatic negotiations. One feels that the characters of Pigs in Heaven are lucky to be living inside Barbara Kingsolver's head and that her readers are lucky to be able to visit there for a while, too.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 12 July 1993)

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SOURCE: “Community vs. Family and Writer vs. Subject,” in New York Times, July 12, 1993, p. C16.

[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt offers tempered assessment of Pigs in Heaven, praising Kingsolver's prose and humor though finding fault in the novel's lack of moral tension.]

“Women on their own run in Alice's family. This dawns on her with the unkindness of a heart attack and she sits up in bed to get a closer look at her thoughts, which have collected above her in the dark.” So begins the appealing homespun poetry of Barbara Kingsolver's new novel, Pigs in Heaven, about a moral conflict between the claims of mother love and the needs of a community.

What Alice Greer sees above her in the dark are the thoughts that her latest marriage has gone dead and that she longs for the company of her daughter, Taylor, who lives in Tucson, Ariz., with Turtle, her adopted 6-year-old Cherokee girl, and Jax, the charming leader of a band called the Irascible Babies. The trouble is that when Taylor and Turtle were visiting the Hoover Dam, Turtle happened to notice a man falling into a spillway.

After Turtle convinces the authorities that she didn't imagine what she saw, the successful rescue of the man brings her national celebrity. This catches the attention of Annawake Fourkiller, an idealistic young lawyer for the Cherokee Nation who lives in Heaven, Okla.

Annawake insists that Cherokee children can only survive if they are reared in a community of their people. She illustrates this by explaining that to Cherokees the Pleiades are known as the Six Pigs in Heaven, after six bad boys who were turned into pigs by their mothers for not being civic-minded.

In response, Taylor Greer points out that she didn't seek out Turtle for adoption; the child was abandoned in Taylor's car after suffering abuse that left her traumatized. The three-year healing process has left Taylor and Turtle deeply attached to each other. When Annawake gently warns Taylor that she may press her community's claim, Taylor runs away with Turtle.

The author of The Bean Trees, to which this is a sequel; other works of fiction and Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, Ms. Kingsolver writes with down-home humor that never patronizes her characters but rather underlines their generosity and spiritedness. Unfortunately, there isn't much conflict or tension in her story. On the one hand, Taylor and Turtle have a terrible time trying to survive the American rat race by themselves. On the other hand, even adolescent boys are polite and considerate in the Cherokee community. There are in fact no pigs in Heaven, Okla.

The case for community is so one-sided and the outcome so predictable that the reader begins to suffocate in all the sweetness. You begin to cringe at treacly lines like “Heaven's on down the trail a little bit” and “I oftentimes have communication problems with my heart.” Ms. Kingsolver is oftentimes a talented, funny writer in Pigs in Heaven, but after a while you begin to wish she would invent a Hell, Okla., and make a case for living there, too.

Barbara Kingsolver with Sarah Lyall (interview date 16 September 1993)

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SOURCE: “Novel Beginning,” in Chicago Tribune, September 16, 1993, p. D13.

[In the following interview, Kingsolver discusses her life, literary beginnings, and Pigs in Heaven.]

Barbara Kingsolver arrived for lunch so promptly as to be early, a refreshing gesture from someone who was soon casually confessing that her writing career began with an enormous white lie.

The lie occurred some years ago, before Kingsolver had published her three novels and one book of short stories, and before her latest book, Pigs in Heaven, made its gently opinionated author a bona fide literary success. Back then, Kingsolver was a graduate student at the University of Arizona, studying the social life of termites.

“It's a very interesting question if you're in this special filed of population biology,” Kingsolver said. “But if you're not, and most people aren't, it's very difficult to understand what it has to do with the state of the union.”

Her thesis was to have been called “Kin Selection Among Heterotermes Aureus,” but the whole thing was making her increasingly dispirited, she said.

She was growing tired of the grinding lab work, the academic back-stabbing, the struggles to keep her subjects alive (termites are very sensitive to temperature changes). So she decided to quit and take her first writing job, as a science writer for the university. Fine for her, dismaying for her academic advisers.

“My thesis committee was really mad at me—they all thought I had great potential—so I felt under great pressure to come up with a legitimate excuse,” said Kingsolver, 38.

“I can't say what it was—I'm too with a family member who is still embarrassed—but it had to do alive. I made up a terrible lie involving a car accident and a permanent disability, and said I needed to take another job to support my unnamed, maimed relative.”

Until now, Kingsolver's career has been quietly successful, gaining momentum with each book. Independent booksellers have nominated her three times for their Abby Award, which they give to the book they most enjoyed recommending and selling to their customers.

Pigs in Heaven is her first book on the New York Times best-seller list. The novel tackles so many personal and public issues that it defies easy description. But at the heart it is an account of a custody battle between a white woman who adopted an abused, terrified little Indian girl left behind at a roadside rest stop, and the Cherokee nation, whose members identify the girl as one of their own and fight to get her back.

It ends with a Solomonic compromise that is either fatally contrived or wonderfully creative, depending on how you see it.

Women are undeniably Kingsolver's biggest fans. Some men seem puzzled by her appeal, pigeonholing her as a touchy-feely women's author even as their sisters, mothers, girlfriends and wives read, reread, borrow, lend and discuss her books.

Kingsolver, who lives in Tucson, writes books with strong idealistic messages, about the environment, the working poor, Central American refugees, single motherhood, and Indian rights.

Her books show a droll wit and an intricate understanding of the almost imperceptible subtleties of relationships. They feature exceptionally strong women who act unexpectedly, if emphatically, and who aren't so sure they need men around. This seems, in part, to be wishful thinking on Kingsolver's part: she has just undergone a wrenching divorce from her husband, a chemistry professor.

“I don't much enjoy being single,” she said, her voice cracking a little and becoming even more measured. “I hear it's supposed to be fun, but what it means is that you fix dinner and you do the dishes and you bring in the groceries and you balance the checkbook, and you do it all while you're on a book tour.”

Being a novelist seems to have been the remotest of career possibilities for Kingsolver when she was growing up, gawky and string-bean thin and different from everyone else, in rural Kentucky.

“I wanted to read Anna Karenina and everybody else wanted to do stuff in the back of cars,” she said. School was decidedly unchallenging. She recalled that the only math and science courses offered were called “Math” and “Science” and so, rather than stay home and become a tobacco farmer's wife, she fled to DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., winning a music scholarship.

“I was trained in classical piano, but it dawned on me that classical pianists compete for six job openings a year, and the rest of us get to play ‘Blue Moon’ in a hotel lobby,” she said. So she switched to biology.

After arriving in Arizona, embracing and then abandoning her termite studies, Kingsolver took the science-writing job, addressing such topics as the potential of gopher weed as a fuel crop for the university. All the while, she wrote poetry and short stories, showing them to no one.

About a decade ago she entered a short-story contest held by a Phoenix newspaper, The New Times, which she described as “one of those free weekly alternative papers that's arts oriented and does investigative pieces like uncovering the dirt on the city council.”

Months passed by and nothing came of it, until more than a year later, when a friend congratulated her—she had won and nobody had told her.

More short stories were published (a compilation is called Homeland); then in 1988 came The Bean Trees, which she wrote during the chronic insomnia of pregnancy, and Animal Dreams.

She says that she writes easily and fluidly, as if writing a screenplay for a movie in her head, and that she thinks of her characters as house guests who have come to stay for a spell. Her daughter, Camille, 6, was a big help with Pigs in Heaven, providing her mother with useful child's-eye-view observations.

Kingsolver said that she had expected some questioning of the adoption issues in her Pigs in Heaven, but she seemed taken aback later on in the day when two enraged women got up at a mostly cozy reading at Shakespeare & Company on the Upper West Side to noisily condemn her book for, they said, endorsing the notion that adoption is bad for children.

But she says she is used to taking criticism, even from the most unexpected sources. Early in the summer, for instance, she appeared on a television call-in show to discuss her book and her work. “One guy in New Mexico was listening in his pickup truck,” Kingsolver said.

“He pulled over to the side of the road to call and tell me that I was all wrong.” He didn't say exactly what he meant.

“What could I say? ‘Get back in your pickup truck, sir, and have a nice day.’”

Travis Silcox (review date Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: “Welcome to Heaven,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 4, 42.

[In the following review, Silcox offers positive assessment of Pigs in Heaven, though notes that “the novel suffers from a midpoint flatness.”]

Barbara Kingsolver, in the acknowledgments to her new novel, Pigs in Heaven, writes: “Other people would tell this story differently, and none of them would be wrong.” The same generosity of spirit and down-to-earth wisdom that we have come to expect from a work by Kingsolver is evident in Pigs in Heaven, a novel confronting some of the thorniest of contemporary issues.

A sequel to her much-loved and much-loaned The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven picks up the story of single mom Taylor and her adopted Cherokee daughter, Turtle, three years after we left them in Tucson, Arizona. A no-frills, self-confident wordsmith from a working-class Kentucky background, Taylor has settled into her life with Jax, her new boyfriend, and Turtle. Her loving, seat-of-the-pants mothering has helped the formerly abused Turtle to open up and begin expressing her six-year-old's view of the world.

While on a trip to Hoover Dam, Turtle is the only witness to a man's fall into the dangerous waterworks. Taylor's belief in Turtle and her perseverance (the local paper calls it “perseverance”) bring about his rescue. As a result, Turtle appears on the Oprah Winfrey show, and her adoption story comes partly to light. Watching the program is Annawake Fourkiller, a recent law school graduate and attorney for the Cherokee Nation, who, citing the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, begins proceedings to remand Turtle to the Nation. Kingsolver directly confronts this situation, making the focus of Pigs in Heaven the dilemma facing King Solomon: Whose claim to the child is greater? Thus, the novel places itself at the center of contemporary debates about identity politics, cultural heritage, nationalism and multiculturalism, and individualism.

The title is derived from the Cherokee story of Anitsutsa, “The Six Bad Boys.” Where Euro-Western eyes see the seven sisters of the Pleiades, Cherokee eyes see the six boys turned into pigs and cast into the firmament for lacking respect and not being “civic-minded.” This guiding myth comes to represent a Cherokee way of seeing the world, one with which the white characters clash as surely as they “see” the constellation differently.

The novel is the same blend of sharp political engagement and old-fashioned storytelling that Kingsolver delivered in The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams. She bridges what has been seen as the gap between politics and fiction by spinning committed stories that hinge on family relationships, making the connections between our civic and personal lives. What is “politics” after all, but a series of complex social relationships?

With painful family stories at the root of this novel, only family resolutions are possible. Pigs in Heaven comes to be as much the story of Alice, Taylor's mother, as it is the story of Taylor, Turtle, or Annawake. Through shifts in narrative point of view, many of the possible stories are told, creating a meditative work. Kingsolver's prose bathes us warmly, with characters who remind us that the United States is not populated solely by middle-class white suburban and urbanites.

Despite its action, the novel suffers from a midpoint flatness. Taylor and Turtle are on the lam, and the consumerism and related bulimia of the waitress Barbie (named after the doll) feel like filler, a Thelma and Louise road chase with a grandma and a child in tow.

Kingsolver's other supporting characters enrich the story. Jax, Taylor's anarcho-punk musician boyfriend, threatens to steal the show whenever he is on stage and is a vehicle for Kingsolver's irrepressible humor. We also meet Gundi, the European painter who forms an open-minded commune in the desert, and Cash Stillwater, who quietly returns to the Cherokee reservation to face his losses.

With a cast to rival any Shakespearean comedy, the novel's romantic resolution and plot coincidences tie Pigs in Heaven to the tradition of 19th-century romance novels, which also expressly addressed rapid social change and the imperatives of race, class, and national tensions. Noisy, full of life and chaos, open to change and revelation, even improbable, Pigs in Heaven reminds us that this is what the lives of real people are like: dynamic, a bit crazy, and certainly—crucially—interdependent.

Mary Scott (review date 10 December 1993)

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SOURCE: “Solomon's Wisdom,” in New Statesman and Society, December 10, 1993, p. 40.

[In the following review, Scott offers favorable assessment of Pigs in Heaven.]

The pigs in question are stars. Six of them were bad Cherokee boys to whom their parents, to teach them a lesson, fed pig food. The children became pigs, then stars. The spirits anchored them in the sky, “to remind parents to love their kids, no matter what”. The seventh star in the cluster is the mother who wouldn't let go.

It's a neat central image for a novel that reworks Solomon's judgment on two women who claim the same child.

Turtle is Cherokee. She has been abused by her uncle and is wont, when distressed, to lie speechless in a dry bathtub with a blanket over her. Taylor, her fiercely loving adoptive mother, is white. Taylor is fortunate in her own mother, the redoubtable Alice, raised on a hog farm and ex-wife of a man who is wedded to his TV. They are a family without men: a man, pronounces Alice, is “somebody who won't go out of his way for you”.

Taylor's lover, gangly musician Jax, is not of this breed. The entire weight of his edgy intelligence is bent on Taylor. Dialogue between the two of them is shot through with the self-irony of a man who knows his woman is her own woman; and that his only sensible course is patience and restraint. It is also elliptical, wry, smart and very funny.

Turtle's quick eyesight leads to nationwide celebrity. She is spotted on TV and identified as Cherokee by chip-on-her-shoulder Indian lawyer Annawake Fourkiller. Annawake's efforts to return the child to the Nation prompt Taylor into flight; mother and child's odyssey across middle America in the company of a real-life bulimic Barbie doll is by turns glorious farce and—as Taylor loses both money and job—a tragedy of despair.

On the way, she learns the realities of mixed-race adoption; and her return to negotiate with Annawake becomes inevitable. Rather less inevitable is Alice's involvement with the Cherokees and the final, utterly whacky resolution of Turtle's custody by the Nation's council.

There are many small delights from a cast of alternately dippy and super smart people. Taylor plays rock music in her peach tree to frighten the birds; Jax dallies with a landlady who talks like a 19th-century romance; the town lunatic sticks empty bottles over the branches of a tree. The minor characters are as vivid and as numerous as the family of which everyone—Alice, Taylor, Turtle and Jax—eventually find themselves to be part.

In other hands, the heartwarmingly happy ending could have become sentimental tosh. But Kingsolver maintains throughout the delicate balance between irony and tenderness that makes this novel a real treat.

Maureen Ryan (essay date Winter 1995)

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SOURCE: “Barbara Kingsolver's Lowfat Fiction,” in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 18, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 77-82.

[In the following essay, Ryan provides an overview of the major themes and critical reception of Kingsolver's novels. According to Ryan, Kingsolver's “aggressively politically correct” fiction is undermined by elements of sentimentality and implicit reversions to traditional values.]

The world of contemporary American fiction must be a bewildering circus for many readers, though sales figures indicate that we're buying tickets at a record rate. Venues range from the intimate neighborhood bookshop where the owner knows your tastes and puts aside a choice new morsel that she's sure you'll love, to the new discount book megamarkets that always stock 5,000 copies of Danielle Steel's latest, at 25٪ off. The reading choices—just in contemporary American fiction—are staggering: mysteries—hundreds of mysteries; Stephen King and the other scary guys; sexy vampires; countless romances; as well as the latest from Robertson Davies and William Gass, and (always) Joyce Carol Oates. Serious; popular; experimental; postmodern. It's an exciting time to be a reader. But how does one know what to buy?

Somehow a great many readers have learned to choose the fiction of Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver's novels and short stories—The Bean Trees, 1988; Homeland and Other Stories, 1989; Animal Dreams, 1990; and Pigs in Heaven, 1993—are commercial and critical successes, books that enjoy numerous, almost invariably glowing reviews that attest to their status as serious literature, even as they sell impressively at all those bookstores.

Kingsolver's work (and here I will concentrate on her three novels) 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 fiction, generally welcoming her mobilization of political themes and her dissimilarity to the ostensibly clever, narrow, MFA-burdened writers—the Absurdists and Neo-Fabulists and Minimalists—that Wolfe and so many others decry. Karen FitzGerald, for instance, finds The Bean Trees to be “refreshingly free of cant and the self-absorption of … overrated urbane young novelists” (28). Diane Manuel applauds The Bean Trees for giving readers “something that's increasingly hard to find today—a character to believe in and laugh with and admire” (20). Margaret Randall likes the novel because “it is one of those old-fashioned stories, thankfully coming back onto our literary scene, in which there are heroines and anti-heroines … ordinary humans [who] go places and do things and where they go and what they do makes sense for them … and for us” (3). Russell Banks detects in the characters of Homeland “a moral toughness … a determination to find value and make meaning in a world where value and meaning have all but disappeared” (16). Karen Karbo, in her New York Times Book Review review of Pigs in Heaven, maintains that Kingsolver's “resounding achievement” is that “she somehow manages to maintain her political views without sacrificing the complexity of her characters' predicaments” (9).

Kingsolver herself makes clear that her commitment to tackle the social issues of our day is conscious—and central to her undertaking. “I only feel it's worth writing a book if I have something important to say,” she asserted in a 1989 interview. And she, like Wolfe, dismisses the fashions of contemporary fiction, claiming that she sees “a lot of beautifully written work that's about—it seems to me—nothing” (Contemporary Authors 287). One of the generation that came of age in the 1960s, and consequently believes that “we can make a difference in the world,” Kingsolver too laments the “divorce” between “politics and art” in our culture. (Farrell 29). “I am horribly out of fashion,” she boasts. “I want to change the world. … I believe fiction is an extraordinary tool for creating empathy and compassion” (Contemporary Literary Criticism 68). Kingsolver 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. This is fiction for everyone. “I have a commitment to accessibility,” she asserts. “I believe in plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want one of my relatives—who's never read anything but the Sears catalogue—to read my books” (Publishers Weekly 47). In fact, Barbara Kingsolver's books do appeal to both the literary scholar and the Sears shopper. And why not? The problem is that for all their apparent attention to the pressing social problems of our time, Kingsolver's light and lively books—which purport to give us food that's both nourishing and appetizing—leave all of us feeling just a bit too fine.

Kingsolver's critically acclaimed first novel, The Bean Trees, introduced the elements of her fictional world, which she develops in the recent sequel, Pigs in Heaven. When plucky, ingenuous Taylor Greer leaves Kentucky and “lights out for the territory” at the beginning of The Bean Trees, she sets out on a physical and spiritual journey that thrusts her into a world fraught with danger, evil, and the unexpected. In Oklahoma, enroute to Tucson, Taylor has found herself entrusted with the care of a silent, abused three-year-old Native American child who clings to Taylor with such ferocity that she christens the girl “Turtle.” Like it or not, Taylor becomes an instant mother, a “bewildered Madonna,” with a new understanding of the hazards of contemporary life (The Bean Trees 75). An afternoon at the zoo promises “stories of elephants going berzerk and trampling their keepers; of children's little hands snapped off and swallowed whole by who knows what seemingly innocent animal” (The Bean Trees 124). Taylor wonders “how many … things were lurking around waiting to take a child's life when you weren't paying attention” (The Bean Trees 45).

Of course, the trip to the zoo is a pleasant afternoon in the park, but there are real dangers in the world that Taylor encounters in her new life. When she first bathes Turtle and discovers the child's “bruises and worse,” Taylor acknowledges that “I thought I knew about every ugly thing that one person does to another, but I had never even thought about such things being done to a baby girl” (The Bean Trees 23).

The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven are Taylor's story, and they present Taylor's education into the perplexities of contemporary society, as she ventures out of her small, rural Kentucky hometown into a heterogeneous, confusing world. But Taylor's lessons are finally less of the hazards and atrocities of the world than they are about its consolations and strategies for survival. For despite the peril and attendant vulnerability that pervade these characters' lives, real danger is displaced and diffused by the characters' resilience and the inherent goodness of the world. The indifferent aunt who abused, then abandoned Turtle is, for example, only a fleeting, fading presence in The Bean Trees (just as Barbie, the amoral waitress in Pigs in Heaven, is written out of the novel before she can do much damage). And Taylor, whose commitment to and competence at motherhood develops throughout both novels, puts her worried friend Lou Ann's anxieties into proper perspective: “The flip side of worrying too much is just not caring. … If anything, Lou Ann, you're just too good of a mother” (The Bean Trees 156).

The threats of everyday life are less obvious in Pigs in Heaven, but here, two years later, Taylor confronts her most threatening crisis when Annawake Fourkiller, an earnest young attorney who works for the Cherokee Nation Headquarters, learns of Turtle and her bogus adoption and resolves to return Turtle to her family and her heritage. Years earlier, Annawake lost a twin brother to the racist social system that allowed Native American children to be removed from their reservations and placed in the care of white families, and she intends to see to it that Turtle is returned to her home.

The plot of Pigs in Heaven discloses Taylor's attempts to flee with Turtle, then finally her compromise with Annawake and the Cherokee nation that will allow her to remain Turtle's mother while immersing the child in the culture that claims her. Annawake, for all her righteous insistence that Turtle belongs with her nuclear and Indian families, since only they can “tell that little girl who she is,” is feminized by the force of Taylor's love for Turtle (Pigs in Heaven 68). As her short, spiky hair grows into a “glossy, earlobe-length bob,” Annawake, who experiences a “crisis of faith” about her determination to take Turtle away from Taylor, develops into a caring woman and a skilled negotiator, who proposes an unbelievable plan that will let everyone live happily ever after.

The Cherokee community that welcomes Turtle, Taylor, and her mother Alice in Pigs in Heaven adores and nurtures its children, values its culture, and preserves its myths, all of which “add up more or less to ‘Do right by your people’” (Pigs in Heaven 88). The extended Indian family of Heaven, Oklahoma, is incapable of producing the indifferent aunt and her abusive boyfriend who have abandoned Turtle in the earlier novel; here, they have been replaced by Turtle's grandfather, Cash Stillwater, a sexy, sensitive, communicative man who deserves—and gets—a second chance at happiness.

Taylor and Turtle begin the novel essentially alone, but by the denouement, they have been embraced by an extended family including the perfect grandfather; Taylor's newly-enlivened mother, Alice; and all of Heaven, Oklahoma. In her review of Pigs in Heaven, Sybil Steinberg notes, correctly, that one of the strengths of the novel is Kingsolver's ability to “mak[e] the reader understand and sympathize with” both claimants on Turtle's life—the Cherokee Nation and Taylor (652). It is, therefore, all the more unrealistic—and dishonest—that this disquieting dilemma is resolved so neatly. For once again, hazards and unpleasantness are neatly vanquished by the end of the novel. Over and over, Kingsolver has her characters recognize, grapple with, and finally overcome hazards large and small. Her keen awareness of the tenuousness of contemporary society, its vulnerability to everything from MTV to failing farms, is a theme that runs throughout her fiction. In Pigs in Heaven Alice discards a husband who watches television with “perfect vigilance” because she believes that TV “promises whatever you want, even before you knew you wanted it” (Pigs in Heaven 4, 116).

In Kingsolver's most recent novel, Taylor teaches her daughter how to choose the fastest line in the grocery store: “As a general rule I say go for the oldest. Somebody that went to school in the days when you still learned arithmetic” (Pigs in Heaven 99). Modern life is fragile, changeable, and uncertain. And for Kingsolver, the only antidote for the perilous fragility of our world is the preservation of traditional values and time-honored customs.

In Pigs in Heaven, it's the Native American community that maintains old-fashioned values—polite teenagers, tribal ceremonies, and extended families. When Cash decides to return home from his injudicious journey to Wyoming, he envisions a home “where relatives will always move over to give you a place at the table” (Pigs in Heaven 112). Kingsolver's second novel, Animal Dreams, interjects a Latin American influence into her contraposition of the old world and the new. In her mid-thirties, Codi Noline returns to her childhood home of Grace, Arizona (as pointedly and heavy-handedly named as Heaven, Oklahoma) to come to terms with her ailing, distant father; her miscarried child; her sense of isolation from the community that nurtured her as a motherless child. Codi's sister Hallie is a distant yet compelling presence in the novel, whose letters from Nicaragua, where she is an agricultural adviser to the peasants who resist the U.S.-backed Contras, offer guidance to the aimless Codi.

Grace is a dangerous world, too. The local mining company is poisoning the water and soil and threatening to dam the river altogether, thus cutting off the town from its water supply. A baby chokes on a pinto bean. And Hallie is kidnapped, then murdered, in Nicaragua. But the consolations in the life of old-world Grace are considerable. The women and children still tend the graves of their dead relatives and, on all Souls' Day, festoon the cemetery with chrysanthemums and picnic food. “The unifying principle was that the simplest thing was done with the greatest care,” Codi marvels. “It was a comfort to see this attention lavished on the dead. In these families you would never stop being loved” (Animal Dreams 163).

Each of the protagonists in Kingsolver's novels must come to acknowledge the authority of seasoned customs, which is variously embodied in an appreciation for continuity, a sense of place, and family—values that prevail over danger and instability in their fictional world. Of course, aware as she is of the exigencies of modern life, Kingsolver defines family in the broadest possible terms.

In The Bean Trees, after she hears political refugee Estevan's horrid story of life in Guatemala, Taylor remembers the paper dolls that she played with as a child. She knew then that the “Family of Dolls,” which consisted of Mom, Dad, Sis, and Junior, was an unrealistic dream, and she knows that now; but she can't help thinking that in “a different world” she and Turtle, Estevan and his wife Esperanza, “could have been the Family of Dolls” (The Bean Trees 138). Instead, in this mercurial world, families are composed of any people who come together to care for each other. Taylor and Lou Ann recognize that they and their children are a family; so are their neighbors, blind Edna Poppy and cantankerous Virgie Mae Valentine Parsons. In Pigs in Heaven the Cherokee community of Heaven offers the model for non-traditional families. Identifying her numerous grandchildren to Alice, Cousin Sugar explains that her young grandson is raised by her son Junior though he was born to her daughter Quatie. “She already had six or seven when he was born, so Junior adopted him. You know how people do. Share the kids around” (Pigs in Heaven 223). Annawake challenges Alice's insistence that Taylor has a right to keep Turtle because no one in her family wanted the child. The entire Cherokee nation is Turtle's family, according to Annawake: “We don't think of ourselves as having extended families. We look at you guys and think you have contracted families” (Pigs in Heaven 284).

Perhaps Taylor has always known that a father and mother and 2.3 children don't necessarily make a family, but she has an important lesson to learn about families nonetheless. When the much-loved Turtle innocently tells a social worker that she has no family, Taylor is astonished and hurt, until she figures out that feeling like a family isn't enough; she tells Alice,

She's confused, because I'm confused. I think of Jax and Lou Ann and … of course you, … all those people as my family. But when you never put a name on things, you're accepting that it's okay for people to leave when they feel like it.

They leave anyway, Alice says. My husbands went like houses on fire.

But you don't have to accept it, Taylor insists. That's what your family is, the people you won't let go of for anything. (Pigs in Heaven 328)

Taylor learns what Codi must discover, too; that family—blood or found—must be claimed.

Taylor is right, but so is Alice. Men do leave in Kingsolver's world; and in fact, her protagonists are nearly always women, women confronting the vicissitudes of being women in late twentieth-century America. Kingsolver's feminism is unassailable. Writing about her failure to appreciate the current men's movement, she notes that “women are fighting for their lives, and men are looking for some peace of mind. … The men's movement and the women's movement aren't salt and pepper; they are hangnail and hand grenade” (“His-and-Hers Politics” 70). Kingsolver's novels are set in an unpredictable, baffling, imperfect world that is always a women's world.

It's not that men are cruel or boorish in The Bean Trees; they're simply irrelevant. Taylor's father is “long gone,” and Taylor suspects that she's all the better for his absence (The Bean Trees 2). Lou Ann's husband slides quietly out of her life, and the novel, as Taylor pulls into Tucson. His absence doesn't matter much either; Lou Ann listens to him packing up his belongings and notices that “his presence was different from the feeling of women filling up the house. He could be there, or not, and it hardly made any difference” (The Bean Trees 63).

Taylor has spent her life avoiding the likely prospect for a girl like her in Kentucky, getting “hogtied to a future as a tobacco farmer's wife.” She knows that “barefoot and pregnant” is not her style (The Bean Trees 3). And her (and the novel's) attitude toward men is best articulated by the Valentine's card she sends her mother: “On the cover there were hearts and it said, ‘Here's hoping you'll soon have something big and strong around the house to open those tight jar lids.’ Inside was a picture of a pipe wrench” (The Bean Trees 82).

The perspective on men changes in Pigs in Heaven. Alice, who on the first page of the novel walks out on her taciturn second husband because “his idea of marriage is to spray WD-40 on anything that squeaks,” discovers life, when she ventures to Heaven to help her daughter, and love, when she meets Cash Stillwater, a Robert James Waller dream of the perfect aging man (Pigs in Heaven 3). And Taylor, who throughout the novel is unable to commit to her quirky, rock-n-roll boyfriend, Jax, decides (rather inexplicably) by the end that she wants “to start thinking of me and Jax as kind of more permanent” (Pigs in Heaven 327).

There is a place for men in the family-driven world of Pigs in Heaven, but here, too, it is women who can be counted on, women who endure, “Isn't that the dumbest thing, how the wife ends up getting filed under the husband?” Alice asks, as she struggles to contact her long-lost cousin in Oklahoma. She knows that “the husband is not the most reliable thing for your friends to try and keep track of” (Pigs in Heaven 182).

Grace, Arizona, the setting of Kingsolver's second novel, Animal Dreams, is a matriarchal community dominated, and finally preserved, by the elderly Mexican-American women of the Stitch and Bitch Club. When the community's very survival is threatened by the mining company that has long controlled the town, as the men squabble about lawsuits and get sidetracked by football games on television, the women mobilize a clever, and successful, campaign against big business. And Kingsolver's protagonist, Codi Noline, who has just returned after fourteen years to the community in which she always felt like an outsider, gradually comes to understand that those same women, twenty years before, were “fifty mothers who'd been standing at the edges of my childhood, ready to make whatever contribution was needed at the time” (Animal Dreams 328).

Kingsolver's is a world, not simply of women, but, significantly, of women and children, mothers and children. When Taylor steers her '55 Volkswagen west at the beginning of The Bean Trees, she leaves behind her beloved Mama (the Alice who discovers her independence, acquires her own name, and becomes an important character in Pigs in Heaven). Mama has struggled to raise Taylor alone, and has always let her daughter know that “trading Foster [Taylor's father] for [her] was the best deal this side of the Jackson Purchase” (The Bean Trees 5). All of the women in The Bean Trees raise children alone; in fact, child-rearing and marriage seem mutually exclusive.

Apparently, the newly domesticated men, Jax and Cash, will help to raise Turtle in her life after Pigs in Heaven, but this novel, too, is adamant about the sanctity of motherhood. Annawake's male law partner is less certain than she that Turtle should be wrested away from Taylor; and Annawake accepts his suspicion that she cannot understand Taylor's feelings about her daughter because “she isn't a mother” (Pigs in Heaven 67). Alice, reunited with Taylor, notices that her daughter is wearing pink, a color that the exuberant Taylor has always disliked. And Alice knows then that Taylor is truly Turtle's mother, since “she has changed in this way that motherhood changes you, so that you forget you ever had time for small things like despising the color pink” (Pigs in Heaven 138).

Motherhood—and its concomitant values: family, community, sacrifice, caring—are sacrosanct in Kingsolver's world. In the “different world” that she envisions throughout her fiction, we'd all care for everyone's child; in our world, exhausted, selfless mothers get the nod—and the approbation. Indeed, Kingsolver's apparent appreciation for non-traditional families is compromised by her unrelenting admiration for mothers. And though undoubtedly she means to suggest a vision for improving society; in fact, her privileging of family values works to compromise her message about the injustices of our society, which finally just don't seem all that ominous.

Barbara Kingsolver wants to say something important in her fiction about contemporary society and our responsibility to try to make the world a better place. She wants to challenge us to confront and do something about child abuse, the Native American Trail of Tears, and the American-backed crimes in Central America. Finally, she wants to tell us (through Hallie) that though “wars and elections are both too big and too small to matter in the long run[,] [t]he daily work … goes on, it adds up. … Good things don't get lost” (Animal Dreams 299). Hers is a considerable and admirable undertaking. As Jack Butler writes in his review of The Bean Trees, “who can be against the things this book is against? Who can help admiring the things this book is for?” (15). “But,” Butler continues, “reality suffers. … At one point late in the book, Turtle experiences a frightening reminder of her early horrors, and much is made of the damage this sort of recurrence can do—but then the subject is dismissed” (15). The problem with Barbara Kingsolver's fiction is that the big subjects, the looming dangers, are always dismissed. Everyone in her books turns out to be inherently good and well-meaning; the men sensitive and sexy, the women intrepid and resilient (and always perfect mothers). Karen Karbo raves about Pigs in Heaven in her review, but she unconsciously articulates the unease that Kingsolver's books inspire. “Her medicine is meant for the head, the heart, and the soul—and it goes down dangerously, blissfully, easily” (9). The dangers in Kingsolver's novels are not the challenges and perils that her characters all too easily overcome; they are the soothing strains of that old-time religion, lulling us into oblivion with her deceptive insistence that if we love our children and our mothers, and hang in there with hearth and home, the big bad world will simply go away.

It's a seductive, seditious message. We get to feel good about ourselves for crying over Turtle's scars and Hallie's murder, and we end up like Annawake, who settles herself sentimentally under her three quilts, “remembering from her childhood the noisy aunts who made [them]; they lived in one house, and could never agree on anything in this world except that love is eternal” (Pigs in Heaven 179).

The conventions of traditional realistic fiction that Wolfe and Kingsolver's reviewers miss in so much contemporary writing are the meat of Barbara Kingsolver's writing, which she serves with a soupçon of sentimentality for seasoning; and for dessert, the funny, slick patois of so much of that very hip recent fiction. She even gives us a healthily helping of vegetables: we may not like learning of Nicaraguan Contras and child abuse, but we know it's good for us. Finally, however, Kingsolver's work is contemporary American fiction lite. It's what we're supposed to eat these days, and it's even fairly tasty, but it's not very nourishing—and we go away hungry.

Works Cited

Banks, Russell. “Distant as a Cherokee Childhood.” Rev. of Homeland and Other Stories. Barbara Kingsolver. New York Times Book Review. 11 Jun 1989: 16.

“Barbara Kingsolver.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 55: 64-68.

Butler, Jack. “She Hung the Moon and Plugged In All the Stars.” Rev. of The Bean Trees. Barbara Kingsolver. New York Times Book Review. 10 Apr. 1988: 15.

Farrell, Michael J. “In Life, Art, Writer Plumbs Politics of Hope.” National Catholic Reporter. 22 May 1992: 21, 29-30.

FitzGerald, Karen. “A Major New Talent.” Rev. of The Bean Trees. Barbara Kingsolver. Ms. Apr. 1988: 28.

Karbo, Karen. “And Baby Makes Two.” Pigs in Heaven. Barbara Kingsolver. New York Times Book Review. 27 June 1993: 9.

Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal Dreams. NY: HarperCollins, 1990.

———. The Bean Trees. 1988 NY: HarperPerennial-Harper & Row, 1992.

———. Homeland and Other Stories. 1989 London: Virago, 1990.

———. “His-and-Hers Politics.” Utne Reader Jan.-Feb. 1993: 70-71.

———. Interview. Contemporary Authors. Vol. 134: 284-89.

———. Interview. Publishers Weekly. Lisa Lee. 31 Aug. 1990: 46-47.

———. Pigs in Heaven. NY: HarperCollins, 1993.

Manuel, Diane. “A Roundup of First Novels about Coming of Age.” Rev. of The Bean Trees. Barbara Kingsolver. Christian Science Monitor. 22 Apr. 1988: 20.

Randall, Margaret. “Human Comedy.” Rev. of The Bean Trees. Barbara Kingsolver. Women's Review of Books. May 1988: 1, 3.

Steinberg, Sybil S. Rev. of Pigs in Heaven. Barbara Kingsolver. Publishers Weekly. 5 Apr. 1993: 62.

Wolfe, Tom. “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” Harper's Nov. 1989: 45-56.

Barbara Kingsolver with Robin Epstein (interview date February 1996)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6005

SOURCE: “Barbara Kingsolver,” in The Progressive, Vol. 60, No. 2, February, 1996, pp. 33-7.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in December of 1995, Kingsolver discusses High Tide in Tucson,her literary and social preoccupations, and critical reception.]

In a chapter in her new book of wide-ranging essays, High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver describes a trip to Phoenix's Heard Museum with her daughter, Camille, who was five years old at the time. One of her hopes for the visit, she writes, is that Camille will shed the notion that Native Americans are “people that lived a long time ago,” an idea she picked up from the dominant culture even though it contradicted her own experience with Tohono O'odham and Yaqui playmates. Thanks to the museum's mission of appreciation for modern Native American life as well as history, Camille gleans some understanding of Native American reality outside spaghetti westerns. Indians, she tells her mother as they leave the museum, are “people who love the Earth, and like to sing and dance and make a lot of pretty stuff to use.” Then she adds, “And I think they like soda pop. Those guys selling the fry bread were drinking a lot of Cokes.”

Barbara Kingsolver's work takes readers on a similar journey. It makes real the daily lives lived by people who are seldom presented with all their smarts and sorrows. Among the people we meet in Kingsolver's novels (all published by HarperCollins) are, in The Bean Trees, working-class white women from Appalachia and Central Americans fleeing death squads; in Animal Dreams, Mexican-American grandmothers fighting to save the river that nourishes their town's orchards, a garden-pest hotline worker who joins the Sandinistas' agricultural efforts in Nicaragua, and a part-Apache train engineer with a penchant for cockfighting; and in Pigs in Heaven, a Cherokee lawyer who tries to resolve a conflict over a child adopted out of the tribe.

Thanks to her gift for creating characters we care about, for giving them voices that situate them firmly in time and place, and for taking them through plots that unfold inside their hearts and minds as well as out in the world, Kingsolver has been nominated three times for the ABBY award, a booksellers' prize that goes to the author they most love to recommend to customers.

She is also the author of Homeland, a collection of short stories (HarperCollins again); Another America/Otra America, a book of poems in English and Spanish (Seal Press); and Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (ILR Press), an oral history of the women in three small towns who for eighteen months sustained a picket against the Phelps Dodge Copper Corporation despite arrests, evictions, and excoriation from some union bosses and some men in their communities who thought they should stick to making tortillas.

In early December, I spent a day with Barbara Kingsolver in Sabino Canyon on the outskirts of Tucson. Though I had only been in Arizona all of two days, I thought I had figured out the weather—hot during the day and cold at night. It was daytime, so I didn't wear many layers. Well, I didn't know from canyons. I shivered as we rode the Forest Service tram that takes you in. Though she had hoped we would stay in the “v” of the mountains, near the running water that reminds her a tiny bit of the landscape of her childhood in Kentucky, Barbara agreed right away to hike a short distance up the slope to where the sun would reach us faster. We found a suitable rock just off the trail and plopped ourselves down to talk. Nourished by good conversation and Barbara's homemade raisin bread, I warmed up in no time.

[Epstein:]Some of the essays in your new book read like a kind of Feminine Mystique for a new generation. Were you especially trying to reach women with the information in those essays? I wonder whether they've prompted some heated dining table conversations between women and the men in their lives.

[Kingsolver:] I think so. I've heard about a few. I've heard from women who said, “I gave this to my husband with underlines.” But when I'm writing I don't really think, “Who's going to read this?” I don't feel my books are mainly for women. When students ask, “Is this a chick book?” I say, “Moby Dick is a whale book, but I don't think only whales should read it.”

You know, John Updike writes about penises and lusting after women, and he's really one of the most male writers that I read. His point of view is so deeply male. And when he's writing, does he think, “Oh, women aren't going to be able to relate to this?” I don't think it crosses his mind. So there's a role model for me, right?

I do think we can learn so much from reading the perspectives of people we are not. I can learn a lot from John Updike. I'm never going to have a penis in my whole life, so I can read John Updike and I can get some clue. I mean, that's sort of reductionist, but that male ego that's his focus, that's the eye of his storm, is very interesting. It's kind of heady to read it and get a glimpse of what it would be like to live in the eye of that storm instead of dancing around it all the time saying, “Are you OK? Are you OK?”

I grew up learning about women by reading men and becoming convinced at a pretty early age that they were getting a lot of it wrong. I felt usurped by Lady Chatterley's Lover. But a lot of people did it right, too. Look at Anna Karenina; look at Emma Bovary. So I will never say men have no right to represent women. That would be absurd. What I will say is I think our first responsibility, and also our first treasure as writers, is to represent ourselves. So women are always dead center in my novels. And my novels are about the things women most think about, like keeping our children fed, and how to manage on not very much income. I think it's important to do that, because it's not traditionally been the main stuff of literature. And it needs to be.

A lot of what I also do is tell people, “Look, you're noble. The things you do in your life, from day to day to day, which you have probably never thought of as the stuff of literature, are heroic. And if it's not you, it's your mother, or your neighbor, or your sister. And think about that. Think how wondrous that is.” I think it really might be the main thing I do. And that's crossing a new street. It's looking at yourself and looking at heroism in a new way. Forget about Power Rangers, Power Mongers, Power Bombs, Power Suits, for just one minute of your life. All those icons we associate with power are hard to leave behind. It's hard to build a new iconography of heroism, but that's kind of my bailiwick. I owe that to the people I grew up with.

Do you mean your family or your community?

Both. Just to see people survive. Survival itself, in certain circumstances, is heroic. To live through mean times without becoming mean-spirited is heroic. I saw a lot of that.

In the new book, you explore our anti-child policies on the political level, and imply we also have some anti-child practices on the family level.

The “terrible twos” is an excellent example. I asked all my Latino friends, “How do you translate terrible twos?” “What?” they said. “There's no terrible twos.” They didn't even know what I was talking about. Not only is it not in their language, it's not in their thinking. To define individuation from the parent as terrible is an anti-child mindset. Now, I'm not saying it's not difficult to have a two-year-old, but it's a cultural difficulty. We expect our two-year-olds to fit smoothly into adult schedules.

I think the reason that my friend Carmen was baffled when I said “terrible twos” is that the children in her household don't have to punch a clock. They're with her or there's other people in the household. There's this troupe of kids coming in and out, and always adults to take care of them. They don't have to get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, and get strapped into the car seat by 7 o'clock, which is a schedule that would make any two-year-old cranky. Think about if you had to crawl around and play with blocks all day. You'd be cranky; you'd be a terrible whatever-you-are.

And that's not the fault of the parents. Obviously many, many mothers have no choice but to bundle their kids off to daycare, so I'm not blaming them. What I'm saying is our culture doesn't make allowances for kids; it doesn't give parental leave. Children are an aberration in late capitalism. They're also a liability, because they're not productive. So that's why capitalism treats them like toxic waste.

Where did you get the desire to learn about different cultures?

I went to school with African Americans and whites. It was a segregated town. When I went to first grade, it was an all-white school. Second grade, the kids who had gone to school in the CME church came down to our school. I remember thinking, “They must be so scared,” and wanting to ask, but being afraid. Marilyn and Karen were the two African-American kids in my class. I wanted to be friends with them and I didn't know how. I was a little bit scared, not because my parents said, “Stay away,” nothing like that. Just that I knew that they came from a different world, and I knew that they were outnumbered.

It impressed me, because I was also an outcast. I think one of the great pluses is that I grew up as a social outsider. And that had to do with being really skinny and really tall, and physically not blending in, which is so important in pre-adolescence and adolescence—it's sort of the main thing.

But also my family was different. My parents just expected me to do things like read books—big, good books—and one day go to college. Nobody else I knew had that sort of expectation. Nobody in my class was going to college. Everybody kind of had the plan. They'd get married and they'd have kids and they'd stay right there. There was something in my training that was telling me, “You're going to go away.”

And then you lived for a while in Africa as a kid?

Yes, my dad was a physician, and he wanted to go where he could be extremely useful. So we ended up living in St. Lucia for a while in a convent hospital, and we lived in Central Africa. The people in our village had not seen white kids. I had really long hair that I could sit on, and people didn't think it was hair, because hair doesn't look like that, and they'd try to pull it off. My mom would explain to me, “They're not trying to hurt you. They just think you're wearing something weird on your head and they're trying to get you to quit showing off.”

So you were an outsider?

Very much. I got a real extreme look at what it's like to be a minority. It was an enormous adventure that let me know at the age of seven that there's a great big old world out there that I don't know anything about, that I'm going to see, and that I'm going to know if I can.

Was your connection to small-town life one of the things that led you to write Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, about the small towns of Morenci, Ajo, and Clifton?

Yes, even though I didn't grow up in a mining county. Nicholas County is not mining, it's agricultural. It's a tobacco town, so it's deeply depressed. Times have been tough there for as long as I've known about, and I think they're tougher still now that tobacco doesn't have the economic base it did. So, there are all these divisions. There was black and white. There was merchant and farmer. That was a very clear distinction in my school. The popular kids—the ones with new clothes every year—were the merchants' kids, the ones whose parents owned the dime store or the men's clothing store, or were the county attorney. And then all the other kids were farm kids, and they didn't get to wash their hair every night because they didn't necessarily have hot water. They had to walk through mud to get to the school bus, so they had mud on their shoes.

I was in that group, not because we were farmers but because we lived in the country, and my parents didn't believe in new clothes. They didn't value spending lots of money on superficial things, which of course really irritated me when I was fourteen. But I somehow lived through that and learned to appreciate it.

So in high school I learned about class, and I didn't even know the words. I never read Marx until I was about eighteen, but the first time I read Grundrisse and Capital I said, “I know this stuff. I grew up with this stuff.” Kentucky is such a laboratory of class consciousness because you have really oppressed workers shoulder to shoulder with big capital, which is not something you see necessarily in other parts of the country. Maybe the rust belt, maybe the auto belt, though I still don't know if it's as clear as mining bosses and the way they sort of own their workers wholesale. So it's very clear whose side everyone's on. And add to that, Nicholas County is right in between, it's sandwiched.

You see the wealth of Lexington?

It's just one county away. Nicholas County holds a really interesting geographic position between the wealth of Lexington and the poverty of Appalachia, and people define themselves depending on which way they're facing. In our county we didn't have a swimming pool, not in the whole county. And we would go to Lexington once in a while, and pass through these horse farms. And there was a horse farm where—I swear this was true—the horses had a swimming pool. It was for therapy or something. I remember driving by that every time and smashing our faces against the glass of the window and hating those horses for being so rich. It was so unfair.

One thing that comes through so much in your writing is that people, like those you grew up with in Nicholas County, can understand power. I guess some liberal people would say they know that, but they don't really believe it at a gut level.

That's really wrong. That's a huge underestimation. I think certainly in Kentucky people understand class and power relations. And that's why Kentucky—and Arizona, too—has a history of radical class action, and radical labor organizing. And that's of course what drew me to the strike.

My first national publication was in The Progressive and it was about the strike. I started going down there with a friend of mine, Jill Fein. We were activists and organizers and we went there in solidarity with the strikers. I figured I'd write about it, but I didn't at first have an assignment. I loved The Progressive, so I wrote a query. We wrote the article together and they published it and it was an enormous thrill when it arrived. Seeing it in print was even more important than the check. There it was, with the photograph we'd taken of the women on the picket line. I remember just standing by the mailbox holding it in my hand and thinking, “All over the country people are reading about this.” That's the power of being able to get the word out. After bonegrinding years as an activist, a door opened. I got some sense of the possibilities and of the power of this kind of writing. It was really a turning point for me.

Some people criticize your work as being too political. They try to erect a huge wall between art and politics. There's this idea that political art is bad, and that a divider between the two can actually exist. Where does this idea come from?

I'm not sure. My personal theory is it has a lot to do with McCarthyism. Because if you go back before the 1950s you find great political writers like Steinbeck, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Henry Thoreau. And then that stopped; things just sort of ground to a halt in the 1950s.

I don't know whether it's cause or effect. I don't know whether it was because of McCarthyism, or whether there was some evil humus in this country from which sprang Joe McCarthy and people who supported him and this idea that art and politics should separate themselves. For whatever reason, it's with us now and we haven't recovered from that time.

What can we do about it?

It's being done to us. Artists are losing the minuscule amount of support that we had. The NEA, I heard Christopher Reeve say when he was in town years ago, gives out each year less money than the money for military band uniforms. So, there wasn't an enormous amount of public or federal support for artists to begin with, and it's dwindling. And there's a hue and cry, and artists are looking around and saying, “Why doesn't the public support us?”

Well, I have a clue about that. Look to some of the poorest countries in Latin America. They revere their poets. Their poets do not starve. They elect their poets to public office. Their poets are talking about important stuff. Their poets have their finger on the pulse of the human-rights situation, the core of economic oppression, where it's going and where it's coming from. They write about power relations and the common good. They write about all of this stuff that in the United States many artists avert their faces from as being too political. Well, if we write and paint and film things that people understand to be vital to their lives, we'll get public support. Any artistic commission that has Jesse Helms on it is scary. Censorship of any kind is scary. But I don't think we're really talking about censorship here. I think we're talking about a responsiveness of artists to their public that's sort of waning.

It's waning, but it has the potential to come back?

I think if artists can speak of things that matter, then they will be supported. I feel like I say stuff that people really don't want to hear. I write about child abuse, and about sexism and racism and illegal immigration laws, and I think, “Nobody's going to read about this,” and yet, they do. I think that you can say difficult things, but do it artfully, and you'll be heard.

And the critics may say, “Oh, this is too political,” but people are reading the books.

The gatekeepers of art are the ones who are saying this is too political. I don't hear that from many people. One letter in 100, or even less, will say, “I don't think you should be writing about this stuff.”

I think we also have in this country a rare phenomenon in which people are very uneducated about art. I think the average African in Africa, let's say the average citizen of Cameroon, understands more about the art of Cameroon than the average Tucsonian understands about the art of Tucson. Understanding and appreciating art is something you learn from other people who do it, and historically it's been part of oral tradition. You appreciate stories because you sit around in groups where people tell them. You appreciate dance because you participate. You grow up seeing other people moved to tears by the events, and you learn what that's about.

Do you think the people who criticize your work are people who already know about the issues and have decided they're on the other side? Or are they people who have so much of their personal and professional identities invested in the idea that they don't take stands that they feel threatened by the fact that your characters do?

Usually when people say, “You're too political,” what they mean is, “I don't agree with you.” In High Tide in Tucson, I wrote about that anecdote at the mall, where the managers decided that the people passing out yellow ribbons and WE KICK BUTT bumper stickers were not political, and the people who were passing out anti-war propaganda were political. That's come to be a significant definition of the word political in this country, and it's something I don't agree with. The people who have panned my work as being political are people who are not on my side, so I feel kind of proud of that.

Do you think the popularity of your fiction speaks to people's hunger for the acknowledgement of the political in their lives, in addition to the fact that they're drawn in by the great stories and great characters?

Yes, I don't think it's necessarily things people would define as political, although sometimes it is, explicitly. I hear from activists who say, “We've been trying and trying to tell people about Nicaragua and finally what a relief to pick up a book that does it, a real book that people are reading.”

You've said a novel can move people in a way a newspaper article can't, because it gets in their heart and because they can't switch to the sports pages. But your new book is nonfiction. Did you want to speak in your own voice instead of through your characters?

I've been writing essays all along, but to write a book of them that all added up to something was really wonderful. This is a really scary thing to say, but it has worried me at times that my work is so popular. Sometimes I think, “Are they just reading the love story and didn't notice the part about Guatemala?” I think people do, on some level, understand the politics of my fiction. Even if only to be awakened to the possibility that the government is doing something not right in Central America and maybe they'll be more open to reading stuff that's more explicitly about that subject. Or sort of an attitude about the environment, or an attitude about women that comes through. You can hear on the left sometimes an elitism of unpopularity. I don't know how many times I've heard people say, “Well, I write, but my work will never be popular because it's so political,” and I think, “Well, am I chopped liver? Are you saying that I sold out, or what?”

I felt that I did at this point in my life have a chance to be more direct. Everything in High Tide in Tucson I think I've said before behind the mask of fiction, but this time I stepped out from behind the mask and said, “I, Barbara Kingsolver, believe this.” And it sold more in the first four months than all six of my other books combined in their first four months.

So you're probably reaching people who haven't heard about these issues from your perspective before.

I have to think so. I can't get over that I get to do this. It also comes with a certain responsibility. You know you get handed in your life this chance to go all over the country and talk and talk and talk, and answer and answer and answer questions, and go on McNeil/Lehrer and national shows. I would much rather not do that. I would much rather stay home and bake bread and write another book. That's what I do. That's what I love. And I do have my limits. I'll do it for a few months after a book comes out, and try to make the most of that time.

The reason that I do it at all is that I can still remember how recently it was that I was cranking out leaflets about the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Plant, or whatever was the crisis of the week in Tucson, Arizona. And I don't mean to demean these crises; they are all very real.

It's very hard to criticize this country, our domestic or our foreign policy, or our attitude, or our Americanism. And so, given the chance to do that, given this strange moment that I have, little old socialist me, to go talk to David Gergen and be in everybody's living room, I have to do it. And I have to do it right. I have to say the important stuff, not just smile and nod and say, “Oh, yes, I have written another book.”

I don't imagine you have time to crank the mimeographs anymore.

No, and it wouldn't be a good use of my time. But I'm still involved locally. It used to be I was the one who would organize the events. Now I go to them. Or I'll go and read a poem. They put my name on the list to draw a different crowd. I find that I can be an effective activist in very different ways, but I feel like I still believe exactly the same things I did when I was twenty.

It seems to me that as disparate as they are, all the essays in the new book fit together. What's the unifying theme?

I didn't title the book, Barbara the Marxist Takes on Life, but that's what it is. Let's face it. I steered clear of the M word, because people are so ignorant. Even though we're a secular state, we're deeply religious about the religion of America. We rely on so many things on faith, without having to have any evidence. Like this belief about how anyone can make it in America if you're smart and you work hard. Well, for how many generations now has that been untrue? In some families, a lot. And in almost all families, my generation is not as well off as our parents, even though we worked just as hard, and more of us got more of an education than they did. It's staggering to me to read statistics of how many people in this country live in poverty: 20 percent of kids, right? Yet turn on the television and you still see rich people idolized. Popular culture reflects a population that still identifies with the ruling class.

You weave your scientific training into your writing, which is pretty unusual.

There's this whole realm of natural history metaphors and symbols you can use if you know about them that gives a kind of freshness to your writing, because most writers haven't studied science. People think it's sort of funny that I went to graduate school as a biologist and then became a novelist, but the process is so similar. What I learned is how to formulate or identify a new question that hasn't been asked before, and then to set about solving it, to do original research to find the way to an answer. And that's what I do when I write a book. It's very similar. I think I might be a lot more process-oriented than a lot of writers are. I've never talked with another writer about process who does it exactly the same way I do it. It used to make me certain I was doing it wrong. Now I just figure it's as good as any way. It works for me.

In the essays you let on that there have been days when you didn't think you could keep going, when you questioned your abilities as a writer.

I still have them. Beginning a book is really hard. I'm trying to begin one now and I just keep throwing stuff away and thinking, “Can I do this? I don't think I'm smart enough.” But it has to be hard. You have to have a reverence for the undertaking. And I think reverence implies a certain lack of self-esteem, doesn't it?

If you're reverent towards something, you feel …

Lowly. You feel daunted and unworthy. But in this age of glorifying the individual and self-esteem, I think there's something healthy about being daunted. Cockiness doesn't lend itself to good writing. It really doesn't.

How was your recent book tour?

This book tour just took me from city to city to city, into hotel rooms out of whose windows I would look and see the same skyline. One of the things that was psychologically and emotionally tiring was that it was all city, and I was surrounded continually by people who took their city so seriously. I don't mean just their city, like. “Oh, this is Pittsburgh.” But people who look around at the city and say, “This is what's real.” For me, this is what's real. [As she said this, she gestured emphatically to the saguaro-studded canyon rising all around us.] We're just a blink in the eye of this. We haven't been around very long, and we're probably not going to persist. And it's sort of laughable that we take all of our stuff so seriously. We've had two hundred-year floods here in the last ten years, and both times the city was completely cut off, for days and days. You couldn't go anywhere. It was roaring water. And some things happened that were deeply reinforcing on the human level. For the first day you're still trying to get to work, or get to your appointments, and then slowly you give it up, and you realize that this whole schedule—all these things in our date book—are just little scratches on the surface of this old Earth, and she doesn't much care.

How do we build more awareness of that?

I think urban life is a big part of the problem. If people could just get out and look. And to just sit still and be. Ed Abbey, who was my neighbor, said something that continues to impress me in new ways. I told him I'd been to Zion, and I said, “It's enough to make you religious.” And he said, “Those mountains don't inspire religion. They are religion.”

In your new book, High Tide in Tucson, in the essay, “The Spaces Between”, you write, “I'm drawn like a kid to mud into the sticky terrain of cultural difference.” You say, “I want to know, and to write, about the places where disparate points of view rub together—the spaces between. Not just between man and woman but also North and South; white and not-white; communal and individual; spiritual and carnal.”

The reason I'm attracted so much to those places and those moments is you can learn so much. You go through the world on some kind of search, and you take so much for granted. And when you run up against somebody else who's moving right beside you but looking for completely different stuff, it can stop you in your tracks, and you can start thinking. “Why am I looking for this?”

So few of us examine our motives and our mythology, the things that we believe in without question. Like humans are more important than any other species. Most people with your background and mine go through their whole lives without questioning that. I am more important than a Kirtland's warbler. Don't even think about it. And, so when you run up against somebody who says, “Of course the Kirtland's warbler is just as important as I am,” that can throw you for a loop.

In Pigs in Heaven I wanted to choose a high-profile event in which a Native American has been adopted out of the tribe and in which that adoption is questioned and challenged. Because it brings into conflict two completely different ways of defining good, of defining value. The one is that the good is whatever is in the best interest of the child; the other is that the good is whatever is in the best interest of the tribe, the group, the community. What I really wanted to do in that book was not necessarily write about Indians. I wanted to introduce my readers to this completely different unit of good and have them believe in it by the end, have them accept in their hearts that that could be just as true as the other.

Your fiction, you've made clear, is not autobiographical, but the essays …

Are. It used to be people thought they knew all about me because they thought I was my characters. Now they do. I didn't really reveal anything that intimate in that book. I included a lot of details about where I live and so forth, only as kind of a springboard to issues or ideas. For example, I wrote about divorce. I didn't really write about my divorce. It seems like I did, but I didn't.

That it happened, yes.

That was sort of part of the public record already, anyway. Also, we moved right before the book came out, so people think they know all about my house, but they don't.

Including details about your life made the book more accessible?

That's the idea. It was so much like writing fiction. You use the same techniques. You create characters and you have a plot. All of the essays really are little stories that mean something, and what they end up being about is not the events but some larger ideas. It just happens that I used real people or real events or incidents in my life as the starting points. You can't just put the ideas there. You have to put clothes on them and make them walk around. I keep coming back to the term creative nonfiction to describe this book, because it really was more creative writing than journalism. You can look at the same event fifty different ways, so the story I chose to tell from a particular event was the creative part.

The choosing how to tell it?

And, I suppose before that, deciding what it means. What can you make of someone telling you, “Love it or leave it, bitch?” That can be at the starting point of a lot of different stories.

In that same essay you came back and said that guy could think critically.

I speculate that if I asked him, “Do you think patriotism means turning your back on evidence that your country has done immoral acts?” I think he would say, “No.” Then he'd say, “Prove it.” I think “my country right or wrong” is not such a common slogan as “my country always right,” and “by God I want to believe that, and so don't mess with me, don't confuse me with the facts.”

But it's suspect to be a writer whose purpose in part is to change the world.

Oh, yeah. And it's funny that I still shock people when they say, “Why do you write?” and I say, “Well, to change the world.” It's like heresy. It's like absolute heresy for an artist to say that. That's why I say it. Seven or eight years ago I couldn't.

You couldn't?

I thought it, but I couldn't admit it because I was afraid of not being taken seriously. Now I'm pretty confident of being taken seriously. Shocking but true. And so I feel I have an obligation to tell truths like that. You like what I write? Well, get this: I'm a pinko and I want to change the world.

Karen M. Kelly and Philip H. Kelly (essay date December 1997)

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SOURCE: “Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees: A New Classroom Classic,” in English Journal, Vol. 86, No. 8, December, 1997, pp. 61-3.

[In the following essay, the Kellys discuss the major themes, symbolism, and literary style of The Bean Trees,arguing that the novel holds excellent instructional value for high school students.]

Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Bean Trees, has produced three national bestsellers, and we realize that using bestselling writers in the high school classroom carries some potential hazards. Nonetheless, we, secondary school teachers with some experience, think The Bean Trees has the earmarks of becoming a new classroom classic.


Barbara Kingsolver is an award-winning writer whose works have been published in more than 65 countries around the world. Her works are available in a range of media: she has recorded her novels and personal essays on audio tape, and she has at least one story on the World Wide Web (“Fault Lines” at It sometimes seems that she is everywhere.

Kingsolver is multidimensional. To her credit so far she has two books of nonfiction: the gripping neo-journalism of Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (1989), a story of the role that women played in the Phelps Dodge Copper Company labor dispute, and High Tide in Tucson (1995), a collection of personal essays that made the New York Times Bestseller list. She has a volume of poetry, Another America/Otra America (1992), featuring Kingsolver's English poems interleaved with translations by Rebeca Cartes, a volume of short stories, and three novels, two of which have been national bestsellers.

Barbara Kingsolver is obviously not an unknown, undiscovered writer. Nonetheless, she is one of the fresh new American voices whose work could find a comfortable niche in the curriculum canon for high school literature classes.


The Bean Trees is a “teachable” text, a meaningful novel that wrestles with significant personal and social issues while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls that frequently incur the wrath of censors. These characteristics may sound like a prescription for blandness, but the bright vision and loving wisdom of Barbara Kingsolver coupled with the wit and absolute audacity of the central character combine to make The Bean Trees an eminently usable text for faculty and an engaging novel for students.

The story begins with Taylor Greer's determination not to become pregnant in high school and thus face a premature marriage that would likely result in her being stuck in Pittman County, Kentucky, the rest of her life. The story is positive, uplifting, never depressing or even sad, yet the subject matter is substantial and varied, ranging from the long-term effects of child abuse to the plight of Guatemalan political refugees and the struggles of Native Americans. All of this subject matter is presented amidst a general atmosphere of care and concern for others.

The characters are admirable and engaging, and almost all are women. Yet, though this is basically a woman's novel, it is not a story bereft of men; both Taylor and Lou Ann exhibit interests in the opposite sex. Furthermore, the character of Taylor is tough enough to elicit admiration from even the most macho males in the class. And Taylor's independent, adventuresome spirit appeals to their yearning to go into the world. This is an engaging novel for many high school students.

To fit the needs of the classroom setting, The Bean Trees also lends itself to chapter-by-chapter teaching. The first two chapters may be treated almost as short stories. In fact, in a Contemporary Authors interview (1984, Detroit, MI: Gale Research, Vol. 134, 287), Kingsolver points out that she originally wrote the first chapter of The Bean Trees as a short story but was encouraged to reconceptualize it as a novel. Approaching the first two chapters as short stories may be an effective strategy for engaging more reluctant students.


While The Bean Trees features family values, these values work themselves out in a nontraditional setting. Taylor's mother raises her alone, Taylor's father having cleared out long ago. Taylor's mother supports and encourages Taylor in all that she does—not heroically but clearly and consistently—so that Taylor's recollections are of a mother who felt all the positive things Taylor did were grand achievements. The result is that Taylor apparently regards herself as capable of grand achievements, some of which we see in the course of the novel. The support from her mother probably contributes to Taylor's determination to avoid an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, a plight that seems all-too-common among her high school classmates. Clearly, the support from her mother sustains Taylor throughout the novel: it serves her when she seeks a job at the Pittman County Hospital; it sustains her in her cross-country travel; and it strengthens her in her decision to adopt Turtle, an abused and abandoned Cherokee baby.

But maybe the most impressive expression of nurturing values comes from the nontraditional extended family in Taylor's Tucson neighborhood. Taylor becomes an integral part of that neighborhood community. In fact, Taylor seems to crystallize that community's bonding. It is a community of mutual support and interdependence consisting of two single mothers, Taylor and Lou Ann, living together each with an infant; two older neighbor women (one of whom is blind); Mattie with her tire store and residence which doubles as a safe-house for Central American refugees; and two of the refugees themselves, Estevan and Esperanza.

The novel pictures an underside of life: independent women with children scratching out a meager existence. They are able to do so because of their mutual interdependence, and that's a lesson in living.

Among other things, The Bean Trees is a lesson in the maturing process. As Taylor's confidence waxes and wanes, students may come to understand maturing as a process, not as an on/off proposition.

There are no depictions of sexuality. There are some urgings toward adultery (between Estevan and Taylor), but Taylor resists them, albeit for practical rather than for any inherently moral reasons. It is important to note that we see Taylor's interest in or at least infatuation for Estevan, but we do not have any substantial, positive indicators from Estevan regarding his inclinations.

A central element in the novel is the sexual and physical abuse that Turtle has experienced. We see none of the abuse itself, but do see the consequences, both physical and psychological. Taylor discovers bruises on Turtle the first time she changes her. Later in the novel, a doctor checks Turtle and discovers her now-healed broken bones and detects her “failure to thrive.” In addition, we witness her clinging behavior; in fact, that's how Turtle got her name: her tenacious grip reminded Taylor of the myth that once a turtle locks its jaws onto something it supposedly holds on until the next thunder. It seemed as if Turtle's grip was that tenacious. We also witness Turtle's reticence about talking and later her seemingly compulsive talk about seeds, plants, and vegetables.

In teaching the novel, we can effectively encourage students to become aware of alternate perspective on an issue by asking them to rethink the adoption of Turtle. When we finish The Bean Trees, we feel relieved that Taylor has in fact secured adoption papers for Turtle. As readers, the adoption feels right to us and brings a satisfying closure to the novel.

But a letter in Pigs in Heaven (1993, New York: HarperCollins, 148-150), the sequel to The Bean Trees, invites us to rethink that ending. The letter is from Annawake Fourkiller, a Native American who becomes aware of Taylor's adoption of Turtle and recognizes its irregularities. Annawake's letter comes three years after the close of The Bean Trees with Turtle now six years old. In it, Annawake asks Taylor to consider the plight of the Native American child raised in white society. Sharing that letter with students a week or so after having completed The Bean Trees is an excellent tool for encouraging both reflection and an alternate way of viewing what happens in the novel. The letter admits to the charm of raising a cute little Cherokee infant and appreciates the advantages of that upbringing, but it also articulates the grim reality of the racial discrimination that Turtle is likely to face in adolescence, and the fact that she will have to face that discrimination without any of the cultural supports or reinforcements that she might otherwise have if she were living among her people on a reservation. In addition, this letter on discrimination might be an excellent opening for a lesson on prejudice.


From the perspective of literary techniques, this novel is, again, eminently teachable. Lessons on character come easily, especially in the case of Taylor because she is an inherently engaging persona. Lou Ann, Angel, and Turtle are also strong character studies.

Lessons on plot profit from the inherently engaging nature of the story. The classic plot construction builds the story effectively as it combines basic conflicts, both external and internal, in a model of plot development.

In addition to plot and character, lessons on symbol and irony are readily available and accessible for most students. For example, The Bean Trees features strong instances of irony. Two things that Taylor was intent on escaping by leaving Kentucky were tires and babies. When she was about twelve years old, she witnessed Newt Hardbine's father being hurled through the air when an overinflated tire he was working on exploded. That experience impressed on Taylor an inordinate fear of tires. Ironically, by the time Taylor gets to Tucson she has a baby, Turtle, and in a matter of weeks, she finds herself working around tires daily in Mattie's used tire store.

Some standard symbols are also readily apparent. To symbolize embarking on a new life, Taylor changes her name as she starts her journey westward. The fact that she journeys westward, the direction of new frontiers in the U.S., makes use of another standard symbol. Finally, for name symbolism, the Hardbines seemed continually on hard times.

The symbol with the best potential for development is rhizobia, the microbe that lives on the roots of the wisteria and provides a direct infusion of nitrogen to the plants, allowing them to grow in the most hostile of environments. In addition to an opportunity to teach a little lesson in biology, the rhizobia is a fitting symbol for systems of mutual support that constitute the thematic life blood of the novel.


The Bean Trees offers the opportunity to teach a range of lessons in geography (by tracking Taylor's travels during the novel), biology (through the study of rhizobia), sociology (the sociology of single-parent families), psychology (the effects of child abuse as borne out in Turtle), and world politics (in terms of the story of Estevan and Esperanza as political refugees from Guatemala). All of that is in addition to the opportunity to teach The Bean Trees simply as good literature.

Jeanne Ewert (review date 11 October 1998)

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SOURCE: “Shadows of ‘Darkness,’” in Chicago Tribune Books, October 11, 1998, p. 6.

[In the following review, Ewert offers tempered assessment of The Poisonwood Bible, citing weaknesses in Kingsolver's “heavy-handed” interpretation of events.]

In 1890 Joseph Conrad traveled to the Congo in the employ of a Belgian trading company, under contract as a steamboat pilot. He made only one trip upriver before returning to England, desperately ill with dysentery and sick also of what he'd seen in the Congo. What he'd seen—gross cruelty inflicted by European colonists on the Congolese—became the subject of his novel Heart of Darkness. But Conrad's own conflicted position on race makes his novel notoriously resistant to interpretation. Do its most famous words, “The horror, the horror,” refer to the hypocrisy of the Belgians who preached Christian enlightenment while profiting from the enforced slavery of millions, or to “unspeakable rites” Conrad thought were practiced by the Congolese?

Shadows of Conrad's book run through Barbara Kingsolver's newest novel, The Poisonwood Bible. Based on Kingsolver's childhood experience in the Congo, the novel takes the reader to a 20th Century Congolese village to show precisely where the horror lies—in the act of colonizing: white men taking over the Congo, husbands taking over their wives' minds and lives, one culture taking over another. Her novel floods light on the darkest consequences of those acts, although Kingsolver's outrage sometimes overpowers her narrative.

The Poisonwood Bible recounts the misfortunes of Nathan Price and his family. Price is an American missionary on a holy crusade who arrives in the Congo in 1959 without knowledge of the country's language or the least understanding of its culture. He sets out to evangelize his village by insulting its leaders, tries to baptize children in a river he fails to realize is full of crocodiles, and mangles the language so badly that he refers to Jesus as “poisonwood,” a local plant that causes hives and intense itching. The novel is not a wholesale indictment of Western missionary efforts in the Congo, although it's merciless in its critique of the sort of missionary who lacked interest in the distinctive culture and history of the region, or was even able to admit that it had a culture and a history separate from his own egotistical efforts.

Kingsolver is careful to present another kind of missionary also, those who “organize hospitals under thatched roofs, or stoop alongside village Mamas to plant soybeans, or rig up electrical generators for a school.” And Nathan himself is only one culprit. Behind him stand the hundreds of other white men who made decisions about the Congo without consulting any Congolese (American and Belgian trading companies, the CIA and an American president); who conspired to murder its first democratically elected president and keep it enslaved to the International Monetary Fund through costly, pointless projects it couldn't afford; and who maintain a greedy and utterly amoral leader who helped them rob his country of its extraordinary natural resources.

The story, however, is not told by any of these, but by the five women that Nathan enslaves in his own household. His wife, Orleanna, has been carefully taught by her husband that God rewards virtue, and that their lifelong poverty and misery were God's punishments for a failure of virtue—a failure that could only be hers, as Nathan himself is perfectly righteous. “Lodged in the heart of darkness,” is how Orleanna describes her marriage.

Out of that darkness come four daughters: Rachel is a budding Barbie, who looks disdainfully at the Congo's sacrificial victims and thinks, “I refuse to feel the slightest responsibility. I really do.” The twins, Leah and Adah, are in many ways the moral center of the novel. Leah worships her father until her innate sense of justice forces her to reject him, and to spend her life saving a Congo he never even observed. Adah is the novel's most complex character. Born with a damaged brain and a crippled right side, she reads backwards and forwards and prefers her name spelled Ada to accommodate that. (Readers of Nabokov will appreciate the reference to his masterpiece of linguistic legerdemain, Ada.) Her isolation in a crippled body leads Adah to sympathize with the plight of the Congolese under Nathan's gospel: Would God condemn children to eternal suffering merely for having been born out of earshot of the gospel, she asks her American Sunday school teacher before the family departs. She is sent to the corner and forced to pray while kneeling on grains of rice for an hour for daring to even question God's plan. The baby in the family, Ruth May, is too young to know how to judge the Congo, and merely accepts it as it is. She is the only one mourned in the Congolese village when the missionary effort goes awry.

These women's narratives—especially in the first half of the novel, as they anticipate the tragedy that marks the end of the mission—are compelling, lyrical and utterly believable. As Congolese independence approaches, however, Kingsolver's writing becomes more heavy-handed, insisting on interpreting the meaning of the events for us in ways that the most sympathetic reader may find intrusive.

The parrot Methuselah, for example, is a potent symbol of the Congo, pre- and post-independence. Captured from the wild and kept in a tiny cage, Methuselah learns too well the discourse of his white masters, mechanically repeating their prayers, but also their secret curses. Nathan throws him back into the jungle for this crime, but the bird's wings are too stunted to fly far, and he hangs around the compound, begging for scraps. The analogy is clear enough, more so when he is slaughtered by a rapacious civet cat on the very morning of independence. Yet Kingsolver insists on also providing the obvious interpretation, as though her readers could not quite be trusted to get it right: “At last it is Independence day, for Methuselah and the Congo. … After a lifetime caged away from flight and truth, comes freedom. … This is what he leaves to the world: gray and scarlet feathers strewn over the damp grass. … Only feathers, without the ball of Hope inside.”

The second half of the novel, which traces the adult lives of Nathan's daughters, is too often characterized by this sort of heavy-handed exposition and plot summary, and we begin to lose track of the women's daily experience. Kingsolver's outrage over what happened “the day a committee of men decided to murder the fledgling Congo” is historically justified, but her novel is weakest when she begins to use her protagonists to merely vent that anger, rather than letting them speak (as they do in the first half) to the rich complexities of their personal experience.

Verlyn Klinkenborg (review date 18 October 1998)

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SOURCE: “Going Native,” in New York Times Book Review, October 18, 1998, p. 7.

[In the following review, Klinkenborg offers positive evaluation of The Poisonwood Bible.]

The phrase “heart of darkness” occurs only once, as far as I can tell, in Barbara Kingsolver's haunting new novel, The Poisonwood Bible. When it does, it falls from the mouth of Orleanna Price, a Baptist missionary's wife who uses it to describe not the Belgian Congo, where she, her husband and their four daughters were posted in 1959, but the state of her marriage in those days and the condition of what she calls “the country once known as Orleanna Wharton,” wholly occupied back then by Nathan Price, aforesaid husband and man of God. Joseph Conrad's great novella flickers behind her use of that phrase, and yet it doesn't. Orleanna is not a quoting woman, and for the quoting man in the family, her strident husband, there can be only one source—the Bible, unambiguous and entire, even in a land that demonstrates daily the suppleness of language. “Tata Jesus is bangala!” he shouts during his African sermons. It never occurs to him that in Kikongo, a language in which meaning hangs on intonation, bangala may mean “precious and dear,” but it also means the poisonwood tree—a virulent local plant—when spoken in the flat accent of an American zealot.

The Prices are Nathan and Orleanna and their daughters: Ruth May, the youngest; Rachel, the oldest, a pale blond Mrs. Malaprop of a teen-ager; and the twins, Leah and Adah. Both twins are gifted, but Adah suffers from hemiplegia, which leaves her limping and nearly speechless. The female members of the family narrate The Poisonwood Bible in turn. Orleanna does so in retrospect, from her later years on Sanderling Island, off the coast of Georgia. The girls, however, tell their story from the Congo as it happens, on the precipice of events, like an epistolary novel written from a place with no postal service and no hope of pen pals.

Nathan Price narrates nothing. And yet his certitude—and the literal-minded ferocity with which he expresses it—is the altar around which these women arrange themselves. We already know his story, Kingsolver implies. Most of what we have always heard, she suggests, are stories told by men like him. The Poisonwood Bible thus belongs to the women, and it is a story about the loss of one faith and the discovery of another, for each woman according to her kind. As Adah, so bright, so willing to torque the mother tongue, puts it, “One god draws in the breath of life and rises; another god expires.”

The Prices travel from Bethlehem, Ga., to a village called Kilanga on the Kwilu River in the summer of 1959, just a few months before Patrice Lumumba becomes Prime Minister of the newly independent Republic of the Congo—not long, therefore, before he is arrested and murdered with the complicity of the United States and its President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose photograph Orleanna hangs in the kitchen hut behind their mud house: “I'd cut it out of a magazine and nailed it over the plank counter where I kneaded the bread. … I remember every detail of him; the clear-rimmed glasses and spotted tie, the broad smile, the grandfatherly bald head like a warm, bright light bulb. He looked so trustworthy and kind. A beacon from home, reminding me of our purpose.” The irony in Orleanna's words is the same irony she uses to describe the early days of her marriage, when there was still room for laughter in her husband's evangelical calling, before her pregnancies embarrassed him, before he returned from World War II a different man—a man who planned “to save more souls than had perished on the road from Bataan.” Nathan Price escaped that road by sheer luck, and knowing it curled his heart “like a piece of hard shoe leather.”

In Conrad's novella, the heart of darkness is both Kurtz's despoiled purpose and the terrain in which that purpose is worked in Kingsolver's novel, the heart of darkness belongs only to men like Nathan Price and a local pilot named Eeben Axelroot, a figure from Graham Greene who shuttles spooklike in and out of Kilanga. The Congo is a hard place for the Price women, and its people are unfathomable at first, but Kilanga contains no Conradian darkness. Army ants, drought, hookworm, hunger, pestilential rain, diseases and still more diseases and green mamba snakes, yes, but no darkness. What all the Price women discover—all except Rachel, “whose only hopes for the year were a sweet-16 party and a pink mohair twin set”—is the near-perfect adaptation of the Congolese to the harsh conditions of their existence, a fittedness that is beautiful in itself. With that knowledge comes the discovery of the Prices' own profound ignorance. Once the comedy of colliding cultures ends, the tragedy begins. As Leah says: “Everything you're sure is right can be wrong in another place. Especially here.

The Congo permeates The Poisonwood Bible, and yet this is a novel that is just as much about America, a portrait, in absentia, of the nation that sent the Prices to save the souls of a people for whom it felt only contempt, people who already, in the words of a more experienced missionary, “have a world of God's grace in their lives, along with a dose of hardship that can kill a person entirely.” The Congolese are not savages who need saving, the Price women find, and there is nothing passive in their tolerance of missionaries. They take the Americans' message literally—elections are good, Jesus too—and expose its contradictions by holding an election in church to decide whether or not Jesus shall be the personal god of Kilanga. Jesus loses.

And yet, for all its portraiture of place, its reflexive political vitriol, its passionate condemnation of Nathan Price, The Poisonwood Bible is ultimately a novel of character, a narrative shaped by keen-eyed women contemplating themselves and one another and a village whose familiarity it takes a tragedy to discover. Rachel is the epitome of America's material culture, a cunning, brainless girl who parodies television commercials and says of Eeben Axelroot, “I'm willing to be a philanderist for peace, but a lady can only go so far where perspiration odor is concerned.” Ruth May, the baby, is the innocent whose words betray the guilty; she is the catalyst that splits the Price family apart. When Orleanna speaks of the Congo, many years later, she does so by addressing Ruth May, whose questioning eyes watch over Orleanna's life with more compassion than ever fell from the burning gaze of her husband's God.

These are precious creatures, but none are as precious to the reader as Leah and Adah, the twin and the niwt, as Adah calls herself, referring to her backward condition. Limping, nearly silent, Adah is a verbal gymnast, a dedicated diarist, a profound skeptic. Her father, she reports, probably interpreted her twisted newborn state “as God's Christmas bonus to one of His worthier employees.” Adah's wit bristles throughout this novel; it is wit of a kind that Leah, a tomboy who eagerly seeks her father's approval, would never use. Leah's, instead, is an entirely ethical understanding.

The Poisonwood Bible turns on several axes, and one of them is Leah's struggle to rebalance herself morally when she finally realizes exactly who her father is. Once she had said, “My father wears his faith like the bronze breast-plate of God's foot soldiers, while our mother's is more like a good cloth coat with a secondhand fit.” But when the armor fell, she saw that Nathan Price's “blue eyes with their left-sided squint, weakened by the war, had a vacant look. His large reddish ears repelled me. My father was a simple, ugly man.”

All the Prices adapt to the Congo, in their way, but Adah and Leah are carried farthest in their adaptation. Rachel accomplishes this by not adapting at all. “The way I see Africa,” she says, “you don't have to like it but you sure have to admit it's out there. You have your way of thinking and it has its, and never the train ye shall meet!” For Adah, adaptation comes in the form of unforgiving self-discovery, the realization that “even the crooked girl believed her own life was precious.”

Leah, the conscience of this striking novel, is forever measuring the distance she must travel before her adaptation is made perfect. It was so when her father owned her, in her mother's words, “like a plot of land,” and it is still so in her maturity—wed, so to speak, to the continent. In the end, she explains: “I am the un-missionary, as Adah would say, beginning each day on my knees, asking to be converted. Forgive me, Africa, according to the multitudes of thy mercies.

John Skow (review date 9 November 1998)

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SOURCE: “Hearts of Darkness,” in Time, November 9, 1998, p. 113.

[In the following review, Skow offers positive assessment of The Poisonwood Bible.]

A forest: monkeys, army ants, poisonous frogs. Below, on a path, a woman and four girls, all in shirtwaist dresses. “Seen from above this way,” writes novelist Barbara Kingsolver at the outset of The Poisonwood Bible, “they are pale, doomed blossoms, bound to appeal to your sympathies. Be careful. Later on you'll have to decide what sympathy they deserve.” Fair warning, though what the reader must decide before finishing this turbulent, argumentative narrative goes beyond judging four white American daughters and their mother, set down deep in the Congo in the precarious year 1959.

What follows would shame the gods, if any were paying attention. Here's the mother, back in the U.S., in old age: “Now that every turn in the weather whistles an ache through my bones, I stir in bed and the memories rise out of me like a buzz of flies from a carcass.” The memories, eloquently relived and regretted, are of grotesque cultural arrogance, unraveling in a very small place. Rumblings of the Congo's struggle for independence from Belgium—and U.S. plotting to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the new nation's first Prime Minister—are distant thunder in Kingsolver's tale. Her story, a symbolic parallel to the national upheaval, takes place in an isolated village. Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist preacher, fanaticism in bitter parody, lugs his wife, daughters and rigid preconceptions to Kilanga, a small jungle settlement, where faith plays out as farce. To the hospitable but puzzled tribesmen, he rails against nakedness and multiple wives, and he insists on river baptisms though crocodiles lurk in the river. Fittingly, though he does not understand this, the Congolese word batiza means both baptism and, pronounced differently, terrify. Worse, “Tata Jesus is bangala,” as Price mispronounces it, means not Father Jesus is precious but Father Jesus is a poisonwood tree.

The preacher is an engine driving the novel toward chaos, a man who obstinately and relentlessly refuses to change ideas that do not suit the time or place. But in terms of portraiture, he is a stick figure, dismissed by his older daughters as “Our Father.” Mother and daughters, on the other hand, are fully drawn. As the months go by, they come to understand what Price cannot, and they tell their stories in sharply distinct voices. Orleanna, the mother, at first an obedient 1950s wife who does not question bringing salvation to the heathens, struggles with remorse in her musings years later: “You'll say I walked across Africa with my wrists unshackled, and now I am one more soul walking free in a white skin.” Sixteen-year-old Rachel, a teen queen who yearns for pop music and beauty aids, squawks, “Jeez oh man, wake me up when it's over.” Ruth May, who is six and fearless, plays mother-may-I? with the village kids.

But a pair of 14-year-old identical twins, Leah and Adah, are the author's most vivid characters. Leah is a thoughtful, idealistic beauty who at first idolizes her father, then sees through his pious bluster. Adah, crippled at birth, is a wry, inward-turning genius who refuses to speak but silently reshapes the world in bitter palindromes: “amen enema,” and “evil, all; its sin is still alive.”

A writer who casts a preacher as a fool and a villain had best not be preachy. Kingsolver manages not to be, in part because she is a gifted magician of words—her sleight-of-phrase easily distracting a reader who might be on the point of rebellion. Her novel is both powerful and quite simple. It is also angrier and more direct than her earlier books, Animal Dreams and Pigs in Heaven, in which social issues involving Native Americans remained mostly in the background. The clear intent of The Poisonwood Bible is to offer Nathan Price's patriarchal troublemaking as an example in miniature of historical white exploitation of black Africa. Kingsolver, 43, lived in the Congo in the early '60s, and fondly remembers the people and the terrain. But this is a novel, not travel writing salted with guilt. The author's strong female characterizations carry a story that moves through its first half like a river in flood.

It must be said that Kingsolver's men are less interesting. One male African teacher, in particular, is so patient and virtuous that he seems—cultural bias alert here—almost Christ-like. Perhaps that is because unlike the women, whose thoughts we hear, the men are observed only from the outside. It is also true that the novel's second half is subdued in tone. The author has made her point, and the rest is told almost as afterword. The rapacious Mobutu Sese Seko is in power, thanks to U.S. influence. And the Price women, their calamitous adventure mostly behind them, do what people do: get married, or not; follow a profession, or not; grow older.

John Leonard (review date 11-18 January 1999)

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SOURCE: “Kingsolver in the Jungle, Catullus and Wolfe at the Door,” in Nation, January 11-18, 1999, pp. 28-30.

[In the following review, Leonard offers favorable evaluation of The Poisonwood Bible.]

Out of a child's game of Mother May I, looked down upon by a green snake in an alligator-pear tree, Barbara Kingsolver has dreamed a magnificent fiction and a ferocious bill of indictment. The mothers so solicited are white American and black Congolese and matriarchal Africa herself. In their turn, on their knees, keening like birds in a rain of blood, these mothers beseech some principle of naming and knowing, some macrohistorical scale of justice and some mechanism of metamorphosis to console them for their lost children. As in the keyed chords of a Baroque sonata, movements of the personal, the political, the historical and even the biological contrast and correspond. As in a Bach cantata, the choral stanza, the recitatives and the da capo arias harmonize. And a magical-realist forest sings itself to live forever.

To be less lofty about it, Kingsolver, whose own public-health-worker parents took her to the Congo when she was a child, who has been thinking about that season for thirty years while she wrote other, quieter, less ambitious books like Animal Dreams and The Bean Trees, has gone back to Africa and somehow transfigured it. The Poisonwood Bible is not a Safari Novel. Her village, her river, her forest and her snake aren't symbol dumps or Rorschach tests or manhood rites or local-color souvenirs—nor a pilgrim's gasbag progress past Pygmies to afflatus. An intelligence in transit will invest itself in and be exacerbated by particulars of place; the North American is unmoored, unmasked, astigmatic and complicit; the woman is decoupled, unchosen, rewound; a shadow world of the geopolitical and the clandestine rolls over domestic scruple. Not Conrad's heart-of-darkness lapel pin, Graham Greene's crucifix, Hemingway's penis fetish or Evelyn Waugh's slice of Hamlet on wry toast is powerful enough to protect these tourists from the mamba eye of Kingsolver up an alligator-pear tree, all-seeing, all-knowing …

From the peanut plains of Bethlehem, Georgia, in the peach-blossom summer of 1959, on a twelve-month mission to baptize and civilize the animistic heathen, the Rev. Nathan Price, his wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters arrive in a Congo still Belgian (though not for long)—to be greeted by bare breasts and goat stew. Before they can extricate themselves from Kilanga, they will have endured a year and a half of hunger and disease, ants and snakes, wars and witchcraft, Lumumba and Mobutu, Ike and the CIA. For their incomprehension, a Price will be paid: a portion of their sanity, all their arrogance and one of their girls. On the day the child dies, so does Lumumba.

The Price women, all remarkable, take contrapuntal turns telling the story:

Orleanna, whose dreams are full of eyes in the trees, of rivers of wishes, of animal teeth, blames herself for failing to protect her children from Africa and their father: “No wonder they hardly seemed to love me half the time—I couldn't step in front of my husband to shelter them from his scorching light. They were expected to look straight at him and go blind.” And: “I wonder what you'll name my sin: Complicity? Loyalty? Stupefaction? … Is my sin a failure of virtue, or of competence?” And: “Poor Congo, barefoot bride of men who took her jewels and promised the Kingdom.” And: “Maybe I'll even confess the truth, that I rode in with the horsemen and beheld the apocalypse, but still I'll insist I was only a captive witness. What is the conqueror's wife, if not a conquest herself?” Finally: “And now I am one more soul walking free in a white skin, wearing some thread of the stolen goods: cotton or diamonds, freedom at the very least, prosperity. Some of us know how we came by our fortune, and some of us don't, but we wear it all the same. There's only one question worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it?”

Rachel, the oldest daughter at sweet 16, “the most extreme blonde imaginable,” a Queen of Sheba in her green linen Easter suit, batting her white-rabbit eyelashes, painting her fingernails bubblegum pink to match her headband, is shocked to be anywhere with “no new record album by the Platters” but capable of entertaining her sisters with imitation radio commercials: “Medically tested Odo-ro-no, stops underarm odor and moisture at the source!” She's also the mistress of the delicious malaprop: “feminine wilds,” “sheer tapestry of justice” and, best of all, “Who is the real Rachel Price? … I prefer to remain anomalous.” Tata Ndu, the village chief, asks for her hand in marriage, and Eeben Axelroot, the Afrikaner bush pilot, diamond smuggler and CIA mercenary, bargains for the rest of her. If Rachel never imagined the Congo to be more than a story she'd someday tell “when Africa was faraway and make-believe like the people in history books,” she still knows how to bounce: “Honestly, there is no sense spending too much time alone in the dark.” And so she won't.

Ruth May, the youngest—“my little beast, my eyes, my favorite stolen egg,” her mother calls her—populates the village with the “Lone Ranger, Cinderella, Briar Rose, and the Tribes of Ham”; teaches Tumba, Bangwa, Mazuzi and Nsimba to play Mother May I; refuses to take her quinine tablets; is so thin-skinned that she suffers Africa like a bruise; and carries around a magic matchbox with a picture of a lion on it and a chicken bone inside and a tiny hole with a tiny peg, in order to disappear herself. One of her sisters, pushing Ruth May in a swing, thinks this:

She flew forward and back and I watched her shadow in the white dust under the swing. Each time she reached the top of her arc beneath the sun, her shadow legs were transformed into the thin, curved legs of an antelope, with small rounded hooves at the bottom instead of feet. I was transfixed and horrified by the image of my sister with antelope legs. I knew it was only shadow and the angle of the sun, but still it's frightening when things you love appear suddenly changed from what you have always known.

Leah, “the tonier twin,” the tomboy Goddess of the Hunt, only ceases to be desperate for the approval of her father when she decides he's insane. And keeps a pet owl even though owls are known to devour souls. And is called “Leba” by the villagers, which means “fig tree” in Kikongo, instead of “Léa,” which means “nothing much.” And is called “béene-béene” by the schoolteacher/revolutionary Anatole, which means “as true as the truth can be.” And will be taught by Anatole to shoot arrows from a bow he carves for her from greenheart wood. And has read enough Jane Eyre and Brenda Starr to realize she's fallen in love with this Anatole who “moves through the dappled shade at the edges of my vision, wearing the silky pelt of a panther.” This is how Leah will end up:

I rock back and forth on my chair like a baby, craving so many impossible things: justice, forgiveness, redemption. I crave to stop bearing all the wounds of this place on my own narrow body. But I also want to be a person who stays, who goes on feeling anguish where anguish is due. I want to belong somewhere. … To scrub the hundred years' war off this white skin till there's nothing left and I can walk out among my neighbors wearing raw sinew and bone, like they do.

Most of all, my white skin craves to be touched and held by the one man on earth I know has forgiven me for it.

And finally Adah, the damaged Quasimodo twin: speechless and limping, she is always left behind, even by her mother in the plague of ants; “I have long relied on the comforts of martyrdom.” She was born “with half my brain dried up like a prune, deprived of blood by an unfortunate fetal mishap. My twin sister, Leah, and I are identical in theory, just as in theory we are all made in God's image. … But I am a lame gallimaufry and she remains perfect.” In the Congo, though, nobody stares at her misshapenness; most of them have something missing, too. In Katanga she is called “white little crooked girl.” And in her crooked mind, from phrases she's found in Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, she will make wicked palindromes: “Amen enema,” “eros, eyesore,” and “Evil, all its sin is still alive!”

There is nothing Adah doesn't notice, bringing up the rear: the bodies of dead children wrapped in layers of cloth “like a large goat cheese,” under a funeral arch of palm fronds, with the howling sweet scent of frangipani; her father's First Evangelical Church of the Lost of Cause, full of lepers and outcasts, who try Jesus on for size because nothing else has fit; the fact that “bangala” pronounced one way means “precious,” but pronounced as her father does (“Jesus is bangala!”) means “poisonwood”: The Lord will make you itch. It is Adah who learns in Africa that “the transition from spirit to body and back to spirit again” is a “ride on the power of nommo, the force of a name to call oneself.” Nommo rains from a cloud, or rises in the vapor from a human mouth: “a song, a scream, a prayer.” And it's Adah who echoes her mother: “All human odes are essentially one. ‘My life: what I stole from history, and how to live with it.’”

The history they steal from belongs to their family (an abusive and cowardly father, gone mad for the second time in a Third World jungle: the missionary position as a form of rape); the village (which refuses baptism because the river is full of crocodiles, although Mother May I is another matter); the Congo of the Belgians (where white occupiers cut off the hands of black workers who failed to meet their rubber-plantation quota); a Congo briefly free to elect its own future (independent for just fifty-one days in 1960, before Eisenhower authorized the murder of Lumumba for the greater glory of rubber, copper, Katanga's diamonds and the cold war); all of Africa; and all of empire. As Orleanna understands in retrospect:

We aimed for no more than to have dominion over every creature that moved upon the earth. And so it came to pass that we stepped down there on a place we believed unformed, where only darkness moved on the face of the waters. Now you laugh, day and night, while you gnaw on my bones. But what else could we have thought? Only that it began and ended with us. What do we know, even now? Ask the children. Look at what they grew up to be. We can only speak of the things we carried with us, and the things we took away.

How they live with what they stole involves frogs, monkeys, thatch, mud, a parrot named Methuselah and a chameleon named Leon. It includes mosquito netting and malaria pills, breadfruit and manioc, bushbuck and gecko, elephant grass and bougainvillea, tarantulas in the bananas and hookworms in the shoes. It engages a six-toed nanga, Tata Kuvudundu, who leaves bones in a calabash bowl in a puddle of rain and his guilty footprints in the white dust around the chicken house, where “a basket of death” waits in ambush. It will take us up a colonial watchtower, into a circle of fire, as far away as Angola, Jo'burg and the Great Rift Valley, all the way back to Atlanta, for graduate work in viruses and whiteness. It will seek some sort of balance—“between loss and salvation,” damage and transgression—and settle for … what, precisely? A forgiving song instead of a punishing Verse? Some “miracle of dread or reverence”? An okapi like a unicorn? As once upon a time there had been the four American daughters of Nathan and Orleanna Price, “pale, doomed blossoms … bodies as tight as bowstrings,” so in the future there will be the four African sons of Leah and Anatole, “the colors of silt, loam, dust, and clay, an infinite palette for children of their own”—suggesting to their mother “that time erases whiteness altogether.”

In case I haven't made myself clear, what we have here—with this new, mature, angry, heartbroken, expansive out-of-Africa Kingsolver—is at last our very own Lessing and our very own Gordimer, and she is, as one of her characters said of another in an earlier novel, “beautiful beyond the speed of light.”

Aamer Hussein (review date 5 February 1999)

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SOURCE: “Daughters of Africa,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 5, 1999, p. 21.

[In the following review, Hussein offers favorable assessment of The Poisonwood Bible.]

The Poisonwood Bible, the fourth and the most ambitious novel by Barbara Kingsolver, begins in 1959 and proceeds to cover three decades of the turbulent and tragic history of Zaire: before, during and after independence. History, to many contemporary writers, has meant the nostalgic reworking of canonical texts; others, like Margaret Atwood and Timothy Mo, have renamed countries and personages in the Caribbean or in South-East Asia, claiming fictional licence to unveil true stories. Kingsolver takes the risk of locating her book in the real terrain of documented events; she includes at its end an impressive bibliography. Though the offstage rise and betrayal of Patrice Lumumba adds a crucial moral element to the construction of the novel, the author nevertheless succeeds in making the human dimension of her story its most compelling feature.

The wife and four daughters of Nathan Price take turns to narrate. Fired by missionary zeal, Price, an American Baptist, moves with his family to Kilanga in the Belgian Congo. He thinks the word of Christ will transcend all barriers of culture and race, while Orleanna, his wife, gets on with the job of living and feeding her offspring in a strange and often hostile land. Kingsolver draws on their beliefs to present contrasting visions: the intransigence of evangelical Christianity pitted against a gentler humanitarian faith that embraces difference. For each of the daughters—Rachel, the twins Leah and Adah, and the baby of the family Ruth May—the experience of Africa is far removed from the Christian duties they are exhorted to propagate. Ruth May is absorbed into Africa with a child's innocent fervour. For Rachel, terrified by the disasters around them, the Congo is hell on earth; she longs for the comforts of her lost American girlhood. Adah, handicapped at birth and locked in wilful silence, creates for herself a world of subversive palindromes.

Leah, driven, passionate, oddly influenced by her father's doctrinaire spirit which in her case translates into political commitment, is the novel's central presence. Her growing consciousness absorbs decades of African history. She also inherits the burden of American guilt which she feels her white skin proclaims. She delivers the novel's poignant and at times polemical critique of her country's neocolonialist interventions in the destinies of “backward” nations; she articulates Kingsolver's concern for ancient cultures threatened by capitalist trajectories and Western hegemonies. But Leah's is primarily a story of abiding love, and her idealism born of this love—for the revolutionary Anatole, for the continent she adopts as her own, and for her part-African children. Her righteous anger finally gives way to compassion; she learns that “time erases whiteness all together”.

Kingsolver uses other perspectives as an ironical counterpoint to Leah's ideological passions. The framework of the family's life collapses when the country is decolonized; the structure of the novel, too, becomes fragmentary about halfway through, exchanging chronological sequence for an elliptical view of time and a frenzied interweaving of voices. Orleanna sounds a distant echo; yet it is she who succinctly chronicles America's hideous role in the defeat of Lumumba. Rachel, with her malapropisms and retrograde notions, represents prejudice and clichéd Western fears of the Third World's oppressive poverty; but she, like Leah, stays on in Africa, exemplifying the eternal expatriate, exploitative and upwardly mobile, unable to identify but always fearful of return. Ruth May dies young. Adah's eventual release from her mute and crippled state of being reveals, in retrospect, a tracery of symbolism—almost allegory—woven delicately into this naturalistic novel. The damaged twin finds a destiny of her own in America as a scientist, linking her life to Leah's and to Africa. “To live”, she learns, “is to be marked. To live is to change, to die one hundred deaths.”

Then, distanced by the third person but not peripheral, there are the men. Nathan is, for all his flaws, an oddly heroic figure, whose foolhardy desire to divert the Congolese from their age-old beliefs by appropriating and misusing their language gives the novel its title. Anatole is the democratic conscience of post-colonial Africa; his constant conflicts with oppressive regimes force Leah into exile, but his love continues to give her a reason to live and believe.

Barbara Kingsolver's prose is both precise and lyrical, soaring at times like the sermons she parodies or inverts, at others immediate and sensuous—particularly in the descriptions of African village life. Her art is proof of the way today's fiction is traversing new boundaries in its ability to engage with conflicting realities. She can be didactic, and occasionally risks idealizing and mythologizing Africa's precolonial past (as she has done with Native American culture in Animal Dreams). But this is in keeping with the impassioned sensibilities of her protagonists. She finds in Africa an ultimate message of survival and reconciliation. For the Price women, the weight of memory, too, will in time become a gift. “You are afraid you might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember. … Move on. Walk forward into the light.”

Lee Siegel (review date 22 March 1999)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7709

SOURCE: “Sweet and Low,” in New Republic, March 22, 1999, pp. 30-37.

[In the following review, Siegel criticizes the exploitation of personal suffering in contemporary literature and offers negative evaluation of Kingsolver's fiction, including The Poisonwood Bible. Siegel condemns Kingsolver's popular and uncritically received style of “Nice Writing” as disingenuous and self-righteous.]


Barbara Kingsolver is the most successful practitioner of a style in contemporary fiction that might be called Nice Writing. Nice Writing is a violent affability, a deadly sweetness, a fatal gentle touch. But before I start in on Kingsolver's work, I feel I must explain why I feel that I must start in on it.

I do so for a younger version of myself, for the image that I carry inside me of a boy who was the son of a sadistic, alcoholic father, and of a mother who was hurt but also hurtful, and abusive. And I do not feel the need to make a pretense of sweetness or gentleness as I confess this.

“She told me that maybe one out of every four little girls is sexually abused by a family member. Maybe more,” says Taylor, the protagonist of Kingsolver's first novel, The Bean Trees, reporting her conversation with a social worker; but in her “Author's Note” to The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver writes that she herself was “the fortunate child of medical and public-health workers, whose compassion and curiosity led them to the Congo. They … set me early on a path of exploring the great, shifting terrain between righteousness and what's right.” It is easy for Kingsolver, then, to spin such tragic conceits. But I remember my father's heavy hand on my face and the door slamming behind him, as if the slap were a firecracker and the slamming door its echo in some grotesque celebration of violence.

The flesh has its own memory, and sometimes my skin heats up before the flashback lays its heavy hand across my consciousness. It is the opposite of when you touch something hot and it takes a second to feel the pain. I cannot really talk about all the ways my father hurt me. Later, when the door slammed for the last time, and my father left for good, I lay in the dark with my older brother and younger sister and listened to my mother and her boyfriends. Sometimes the men she brought home stayed the night, and sometimes they didn't. I can remember my little sister, Mandy—my brother and I called her “Ostrich” because of the way she buried her head in the bedclothes when she heard the strangers' voices—crying herself to sleep.

I also remember my mother storming into the bedroom that we shared, and screaming at Mandy to shut up. Sometimes my mother kissed me very hard on the mouth, a kiss that no mother should ever give to a son. Then she returned to the bedroom where her boyfriend of the hour, or her crazy solitude, waited for her. Those nights are like sudden breaks in a film at a dingy porn-house. They are desolate lapses in a desolate movie that no one should ever have to see.

Since she was born with Gibson's syndrome and was mentally impaired, Mandy might have had in her unlucky brain an avenue of escape from all the pain. I don't really know. She went to live in a special place when I was fifteen. As Gibson's got worse and worse, she lost all recollection of me. I remember a strange girl-woman sitting in a big chair, wearing a white blouse, a pleated navy-blue skirt, and a plaid bow tie. She would stare for hours at art books that she held upside down in her lap. Her small bare legs hung motionless off the chair and looked like skittles. They made me wince.

The plaid bow tie had belonged to my maternal grandmother. It was the only one of her husband's things that she was able to bring to this country. David Schnorr, my grandfather, died in a concentration camp. So when I read the portrait of a Native American woman named Annawake in Kingsolver's Pigs in Heaven, I think of my mother's father, because Kingsolver approvingly has Annawake make a historical analogy: “That's us. Our tribe. We've been through a holocaust as devastating as what happened to the Jews. …” (David Schnorr had been a minor literary figure in Odessa. He was not as lucky as Barbara Kingsolver.) And when I read no less than two novels by Kingsolver centered on a cringingly cute little girl named Turtle—The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven—I think of the real little girl we called Ostrich.

This hurts me. I really don't want to use my family to make a point. But when Kingsolver writes so facilely about lost people, I think of my brother's drug addiction, and the hand that he lost in Nicaragua to the machete of a contra, and his psychotic breakdown in the offices of The New Yorker, where he was a frequent contributor. And I think of my father coming back to live with us after a car accident left his entire right side paralyzed. Once I cried from rage and shame after he hit me; now, whenever I saw him in his wheelchair, I cried from rage and guilt.

That was during my first year of college. In my third year, my mother became gravely ill. Fortunately, my brother had straightened his life out, and he returned home with Luisha, his black wife, who had been his nurse in the psychiatric hospital. Together they tended to my mother. It was Luisha, having grown up hearing stories about the lynching of her great-grandfather, who taught my reckless brother lessons about dignity in adversity. She had seen her own teenage daughter shot dead before her eyes by drug dealers in her neighborhood. We were all very proud of Luisha.

After a while, my uncle Jeremiah came to help out with Tobey, who had been his lover and was now his friend and companion. Jer had been in jail in the '60s and had the soles of his feet beaten so badly by prison guards that he could barely walk. Tobey was HIV-positive and too depressed to work. I admired Jer, and I loved Tobey's spirit. Eventually I took a couple of years off from school and came back home to look after people who had so injured my young life. At night, my mother cried out, my father whimpered, my brother banged his fist against the wall, Luisha screamed in her sleep, Jeremiah sobbed, and Tobey wept. Sometimes I could not make sense of what I was doing there. But somehow I stayed.

I have a pretty good life now, but I cannot forget those nights. They, and all the history behind them, are why I write criticism. I write for the little boy that I was, the little boy crushed by untruth. He was surrounded by facts, but they were inaccurate facts. They did not correlate with the reality of human freedom. They were not true, or beautiful, or good. So these facts might just as well have been fiction; and any fiction that preserved their raw unreality would be an emaciated lie. It would not be true fiction at all.

Thus whenever I see the promulgation of such illusions by two fraudulent Russian artists, or by sanctimonious academic theorists, or by icily virtuous novelists, I sit down and I write for the little boy who craved the truth. I write for all the young boys and young girls who crave the truth. I strike for the children, and for their children's children. And I hope that anyone who takes exception to the ferocity of my tone will think of my father's hand across my face, and of my cruel mother, and of my dying mother, and of poor Ostrich, and of what the Nazis did to David Schnorr. And I hope, cherished reader, that you will not be angry about what I have to confess to you next.


By now you will have realized, I hope, that nothing that I have written here is true, except for the quotations from Kingsolver and the references to her work. I made everything up; I meant it to be satire. I have passed beyond the boundary of good taste, and I apologize to anyone I have offended, since I know that the situations I described happen, and I know how much pain and sadness they bring. And though I have my own portion of pain and sadness, I also know that there are degrees of suffering. But the actuality and the complexity of suffering: that is precisely my point.

For at least the past decade, American writers have been pouring forth a cascade of horror stories about their condition or the condition of their characters. The Holocaust, ethnic genocide, murder, rape, incest, child abuse, cancer, paralysis, AIDS, fatal car accidents, Alzheimer's, chronic anorexia: calamities drop from the printer like pearls. These are elemental events of radically different proportions, and the urge to make imaginative sense of them is also elemental. Some contemporary writers treat these subjects strongly and humbly and insightfully, but too many writers engaged in this line of production turn out shallow and distorted work. They seem merely to be responding to a set of opportunities created by a set of social circumstances. In their hands, human suffering goes unimagined, and the imagination goes hungry and deprived.

There are a handful of reasons behind this trend. For a start, we live at a uniquely prosperous time in a uniquely prosperous society, a moment in which tragedy and catastrophe seem all the more confusing and inexplicable, and so their depiction is all the more gripping. Also, we are fortunate to inhabit a culture in which practical techniques for mastering life's hardships have become so successful that it is perhaps natural for writers to develop a technique—a Calamity Style—for the conceptual mastery of life's inevitabilities.

Maybe we also feel, in our increasingly freewheeling culture, less protected as the forms of gratification multiply. The more gratification you seek, after all, the less stable and constant you are, whether you consciously feel yourself shifting or not. In this sense, these catastrophic tales are the emblems of a faintly enveloping anxiety. Then, too, since we live in such flush and tranquil times, more and more people have the privilege of shunning conventional work-routines and taking up creative labors. Writing, which requires no special training, holds out the promise of the freest kind of life. The problem is that not everyone who takes up the occupation of writer has the writer's gift. Thus extremity becomes an aid to straining imaginations.

But I think there is one reason for Calamity Writing that looms much larger than the others: it advances the amoral pursuit of a virtuous appearance. This is where Calamity Writing blossoms into the plastic flower of Nice Writing. The portrait of people doing evil things to each other, or of someone sick and dying, or of a person psychologically hurt, flatters the portraitist. It can enfold the writer in a mantle of invincible goodness. The artistic worth of the portrait fades away as an issue. What remains is the invaluable appearance of goodness.

I am not talking about hypocrisy. I am talking about the mere appearance of goodness as a substitute for honest art. The trend is everywhere. It is to be found, for example, in Lorrie Moore's short stories, especially “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the longest tale in Birds of America, her acclaimed new collection. The story is about a newborn baby dying of cancer. That is, the story's emotional register begins, from the very first paragraph, far beyond the reader's capacity to develop his or her own response to it. The effect is to place the supremely empathetic author in a protected niche, far beyond the reader's capacity to criticize. In this way Nice Writing fosters Nice Criticism. Anyone who writes nice writes with impunity.

Barbara Kingsolver can be a very funny writer; her infrequent outbursts of humor make up her best quality. And those plots: when they do not hit patches of dense cuteness and saccharine emotion, they unfurl swiftly and engagingly, as the newspaper reviewers like to say. Still, if it were not for professional purposes, I would never read her. The loveliness becomes unbearable. From The Bean Trees:

But it didn't seem to matter to Turtle, she was happy where she was. … She watched the dark highway and entertained me with her vegetable-soup song, except that now there were people mixed in with the beans and potatoes: Dwayne Ray, Mattie, Esperanza, Lou Ann and all the rest.

And me. I was the main ingredient.

From Animal Dreams:

Sure I remember when we almost drowned in a flood. Plain as day. God, Codi, don't you? We found those abandoned coyote pups, and the river was flooding, and you wanted to save them. You said we had to.

From Pigs in Heaven:

Taylor puts up her hand, knowing what's coming. “Mama, I know I wasn't nice, but she's a kook.” She glances at Turtle, who is using Alice's ballpoint carefully to blacken the entire state of Nevada.

“A kook in need of kindness.”

From “Paradise Lost,” an essay in the collection High Tide in Tucson:

I went to the Canaries for nearly a year, to find new stories to tell, and to grow comfortable thinking in Spanish. Or so I said; the truth is closer to the bone. It was 1991, and in the U.S. a clamor of war worship had sprung like a vitriolic genie from the riveted bottles we launched on Baghdad. Yellow ribbons swelled from suburban front doors, so puffy and ubiquitous as to seem folkloric. But this folklore, a prayer of god-speed to the killers, allowed no possibility that the vanquished might also be human. I grew hopeless, then voiceless. What words could I offer a place like this? Five hundred years after colonialism arrived in the New World, I booked a return passage.

“An easy book to enjoy,” The New Yorker said about Kingsolver's first novel, The Bean Trees; “rich fodder,” said the Denver Post, meaning well, about her second novel, Animal Dreams; full of “issues that are serious, debatable and painful,” said the Los Angeles Times Book Review about Pigs in Heaven, her third novel; “delightful, challenging, and wonderfully informative” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle about High Tide in Tucson. The standard congratulations are especially appropriate for Kingsolver's work, for they echo her work's self-congratulatory quality. Still, if these smug and trivial books do any violence to clarity or to reality, it is a minor aesthetic crime. It is a matter for the local authorities. Let Elle or Allure handle it. When they are praised for their seriousness, well, that is another matter.


Kingsolver does not exactly outrage me, because she is so damn nice; but she is becoming outrageous. With the publication of The Poisonwood Bible, this easy, humorous, competent, syrupy writer has been elevated to the ranks of the greatest political novelists of our time. The New York Times Book Review praised The Poisonwood Bible as a “profound work of political, psychological, and historical understanding.” An obtuse profile of the writer in The New York Times Magazine declared that “perhaps only Kingsolver, of all contemporary novelists, has the expertise to pull off” The Poisonwood Bible's portrayal of white Europeans and Americans confronting black Africans in the 1950s and 1960s. In The Nation, John Leonard anointed Kingsolver as “our very own Lessing and our very own Gordimer.”

Nearly all the reviews that I have read of The Poisonwood Bible have praised it in approximately the same lofty terms. Those who found something to criticize in the best-selling novel couched their criticism in the most anguished idiom, as if they were forced by circumstance to leave litter in a National Park. Writing in The Washington Post, Jane Smiley rightly observed that Kingsolver's portrait of Nathan Price, an abusive father and fanatical Baptist missionary, is so flat and one-dimensional as to be totally implausible as a fictional construction. But this is not, Smiley adds, Kingsolver's fault. No, Kingsolver's admitted “failure” is the fault of American culture.

And yet. Nathan's enigmatic one-sidedness reflects our culture's failure to understand the humanity of those who seem to be the source of evil. … The author loses interest in Nathan, tries to compensate by giving him a dramatic death that seems pale in the telling. This failure goes right to the heart of who we are as a culture and how we look at ourselves: Yes, there are those who hurt others and show no remorse, who do not acknowledge the damage they have done. But they, in the end, are us. They should be acknowledged, allowed to say who they are, recognized. Loved, even, if not by readers and citizens, then at least by their own creators.

Smiley's peroration on self-abnegating goodness is the bonus of virtuous appearance that Nice Critics instantly reap when they nicely review Nice Writing. Since Kingsolver is the queen of Nice Writing, she has been the constant beneficiary of this kind of criticism. You can find a representative example of her niceness in a talk that she gave in 1993 called “Careful What You Let in the Door.” It appears in High Tide in Tucson, which came out that same year.

Three years earlier, Kingsolver had published Animal Dreams, a novel that was partly about American involvement in the Nicaraguan civil war during the 1980s. Its dedication reads “in memory of Ben Linder,” a reference to Benjamin Linder, a young American engineer working in Nicaragua whom the contras killed in an ambush. In her essay, Kingsolver writes:

It matters to me … that we citizens of the U.S. bought guns and dressed up an army that killed plain, earnest people in Nicaragua who were trying only to find peace and a kinder way of life. I wanted to bring that evil piece of history into a story, in a way that would make a reader feel sadness and dread but still keep reading, becoming convinced it was necessary to care.

There is something characteristically fishy about Kingsolver's language here. Why are all the good, murdered Nicaraguan people “plain” and “earnest”? If some of them had been complicated and ironic, then would caring readers have regarded killing them as a public service? And if the Nicaraguan peasantry really had been behind the Sandinista revolution, would it have been because they were trying to find “a kinder way of life,” and not because the revolution offered peasants ownership of their land and the freedom to decide for themselves whether to be kind or unkind? The surfeit of sentiment rings with an absence of true conviction.

This does not bode well for fiction. You can fault Kingsolver for not knowing—or refusing to know, or not caring—that the mass of impoverished Nicaraguans astutely saw the Sandinistas as elites trying to steal their land and impose their will; or for not acknowledging that the Sandinistas were displacing and murdering Nicaragua's Miskito Indians; or for not knowing—or not caring, or not being convinced of the fact—that “Ben” Linder, whom Kingsolver never met, was carrying a rifle when he was cut down. But the writer has her politics, and she is entitled to believe that her advertisement of virtue is sufficient for her politics. In politics, certainly, rhetoric can be very effective. Yet the political novelist is not entitled to think that her politics are sufficient for her art.

Gordimer or Lessing—for all their differences—would have so complicated a novel about Nicaragua that the truth about the revolution, when it finally unfolded, would have been already embedded in the novel's multilayered psychic and social world. And they would have retained, as they do, their political values. Yet Animal Dreams is not about character or society. It is about “serious, debatable, and painful issues”: a father with Alzheimer's; a corporation's health-threatening exploitation of a small town; class prejudice; ethnic prejudice; cruelty to animals.

Its sub-subplot of a young woman agriculturist from America named Hallie—whom we never meet—doing volunteer work in Nicaragua—where we never go—is just one heart-tugging flourish among all the others. It clinches the novel's principal plot, which is the not-terribly-gripping saga of Hallie's sister, a thirty-two-year-old woman named Codi, who goes back to her hometown to figure out who she is and what she should do with her life. (Kingsolver's books are self-help books disguised as novels.) When Codi learns that the contras murdered Hallie, she suddenly matures. Hallie's murder, she tells us, is like a “flower in the soil of another country.” One woman's political assassination is another woman's step toward personal growth.

There was once an American president whose cloying promise to Americans of a “kinder, gentler nation” was a gift to anyone who wanted to prove his or her principles without acting on them. The simple derisive repetition of the phrase guaranteed the right adversarial status. Kingsolver may be a favorite figure on the left, but in truth her “kinder way of life” rhetoric spans the ideological spectrum. Who, really, is for evil corporate interests or for class or ethnic prejudice? Is there anyone who would like to go to bat for cruelty to animals, or for Alzheimer's? Kingsolver's novels are filled with indictments of people and forces that make children suffer. They are bursting with tender affirmations of motherhood. In the acknowledgments to Pigs in Heaven, she thanks Nancy Raincrow Pigeon and Carol Locust, among others, “who helped me understand the letter and spirit of the Indian Child Welfare Act.” I dare you to give that novel a negative review.

Such a guaranteed universal appeal is why, Kingsolver might be surprised to know, she has been referred to enthusiastically in places such as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Economic Policy Review and Management Review. According to the ABA Journal, a judge ordered women offenders to read Animal Dreams. They love Kingsolver even in The Washington Times, and they like her fiction even in The Weekly Standard (“a gentle allegorist … easy, flowing prose, engaging characters, and a biting wit”). And there is no reason why they shouldn't. Under the guise of a strong political stance, Kingsolver purveys a potpourri of tried-and-true soppy attitudes that are attached, with demographic precision, to an array of popular causes. She is something new: a political novelist who is careful not to step on anyone's toes. There is not a single sentiment expressed in her fiction that you could not express in an exchange with a stranger at a convention, or during a job interview, or on a first date.

But this seamlessness with the superficial rhetorical conventions of everyday life is actually a terrible disjunction from life. It is why Kingsolver's working-class characters look and sound like the idea of working-class people held by a professional couple's privileged daughter who studied music and languages at DePauw. (I mean Kingsolver.) Her working-class characters are dumb or saintly, and her young working-class women—except for her brilliant, confident, heroic fictional personae—are almost always stupid and selfish and reckless with the nail polish and mascara. They are literary tautologies: they are so much like themselves that they bear no relation to who they really are.

Kingsolver is so committed to keeping up the appearance of conventional morality that she sometimes mixes up her molasses-sweet descriptions of animals with her molasses-sweet condescension to the downtrodden. Seeing some pigs wander into her yard, the elderly Alice in Pigs in Heaven thinks: “The poor things are just looking for a home, like the Boat People.” Underneath all the whispering of sweet nothings into the reader's ear, Kingsolver doesn't really seem to like human beings. She is sweetly lethal. It is the obverse side of her unremitting Niceness; perhaps it is the source of her Niceness. She describes her characters with an air of haughty repulsion, the way adolescents will stand in a corner at a party and quietly annihilate the other people there, until the other people come over and reveal that they do not have the power to hurt.

He was bald and red-faced and kind of bossy.

Otis is very old and bald with bad posture and big splay feet in white sneakers.

Her eyelashes were stuck together with blue mascara and sprung out all around her eyes like flower petals.

The woman has colorless flippy hair molded together with hairspray so that it all comes along when she turns her head.

Her doughy breasts in a stretched T-shirt tremble.

The manager has fat, pale hands decorated with long black hairs.

They look strange: one is shrunken-looking with overblown masses of curly hair; another is hulky and bald, the head too big for the body.

The cousin she's just met is a thin, humpbacked woman in canvas shoes and a blue cotton dress that hangs empty in the bosom.

The woman has swollen knuckles and a stained red blouse.

This is perhaps the same icy indifference to humanity that is behind Kingsolver's portrayal of a retarded character who speaks perfect English. It is a safety measure for the preservation of the Nice Appearance of respecting retarded people: “Mom, I accidentally walked on the railroad tracks to Havasu.” (The retarded character is named Buster; and Buster happens to be, Kingsolver tells us in her essay “High Tide in Tucson,” the name of a real-life hermit crab she keeps as a pet.)

It is the same polar numbness, this time to social reality, that lets Kingsolver depict the evil corporation in Animal Dreams as leaving its lucrative position in the small town without a legal challenge. And a cognate authorial glacialness has the lower-class Native American man in that novel, Loyd Peregrina, immediately decide to abandon his decades-old business enterprise of investing in fighting cocks. Why? Because the heroic Codi, his new girlfriend from a higher social stratum—and Kingsolver's fictional persona in this novel—thinks that the spectacle of battling birds is mean and icky. Even if the income from training the birds helps Loyd to survive. This is the sort of cruelty of which the saintly-in-their-own-eyes are especially capable.

And what cold-heartedness lies behind The Bean Trees's subplot of a Mayan couple from Guatemala, with connections to the left-wing guerrillas, escaping from the death squads to the United States. The Guatemalan soldiers, the narrator tells us, wanted information from the couple. So the army abducted their infant child—for Kingsolver, political violence is not political violence unless it affects the adorable Turtles of the world—and threatened to give her to a presumably upper-class family unless the couple told the army what it demanded to know about their rebel comrades. This, miraculously, gave the couple the time and the opportunity to flee.

In the real Guatemala, however, during the army's onslaught against the Indians in the 80s, the army simply tortured people from whom they wanted information. They raped the wives in front of their husbands, they beat the husbands to death in front of their wives, they killed the children in front of their parents. In The Bean Trees, Kingsolver introduces us to a relatively Nice death squad. For Nice Readers must not get the idea that politics has other features besides Nice Attitudes. Otherwise they might stop singing the vegetable-soup song, and get real.


From the terror in Guatemala in The Bean Trees, to the revolution and the counter-revolution in Nicaragua in Animal Dreams, to the plight of Native Americans in Pigs in Heaven, Kingsolver has, as she would say, “booked a return passage” to Africa and produced The Poisonwood Bible. Of all her books, though, her new book most closely resembles Animal Dreams. They both embody the full flowering of the Quindlen Effect.

I date the Quindlen Effect from December 13, 1992, though other readers might have their own favorite moments from the newspaper career of Anna Quindlen, the former New York Times columnist and one of the original Nice Queens. On that December day, Quindlen published a scathingly indignant editorial comment on the Glen Ridge sex assault trial, in which four male high school students were accused of sexually assaulting a twenty-one-year-old retarded woman.

True to her niche, Quindlen attacked with scathing indignation actions that no sane Times reader would ever defend. No neutral observer would defend four boys who manipulated a retarded girl into performing oral sex on them and inserted a broomstick and then a bat into her vagina; no more than any neutral observer would defend death squads or evil corporations. But Quindlen went on. She displayed a surfeit of sentiment ringing with an absence of true feeling that was downright Kingsolverian: “Most neighborhoods are divided into three kinds of children: those who torture the slow kid, those very few who defend her, and the great majority, who stand silent.” But the great majority of teenagers in Glen Ridge, New Jersey did not stand silent as the assault took place. The assault took place in a basement, and the great majority knew nothing about it. And most neighborhoods are really not like that.

During that time, though, there was a place where the neighborhoods really had deteriorated. Right next to Quindlen's commentary, the Times published an essay by the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic exposing the mass rapes of Bosnian Muslim women by Bosnian Serb men. Drakulic was not attacking actions that everyone already despised; she was exposing actions that few Americans knew were happening. Her essay included chilling first-person descriptions of rape and mutilation and murder in Bosnia. The last account, given by a sixteen-year-old girl, ended with a paragraph that was also the final paragraph of Drakulic's piece: “I would like to be a mother some day. But how? In my world, men represent terrible violence and pain. I cannot control that feeling.”

Looking at the Op-Ed page that morning, it was hard to avoid the implication that it had a theme. With Drakulic's article right there alongside Quindlen's article, the point was made that the male violence in Bosnia and the male violence in that suburban basement were phases of the same moral phenomenon. The analogy was appalling, and not only owing to its childish moral equivalence. It was appalling also because the moral equivalence promoted the idea that condemning the male violence at home would suffice as a response to the male violence abroad. (And of course we never did fight the violence in Bosnia, not until it was too late.) In the hands of monsters of empathy such as Anna Quindlen, the immediate preoccupations of the American self subjugate and domesticate and assimilate every distant tragedy.

Lenin famously declared that imperialism was the final stage of capitalism. He was wrong. A narcissistic capitalism, in fact, is the final stage of imperialism. Kingsolver is the bold anti-imperialist who fled to sunny Spain in order to escape government repression in Arizona during the Gulf war. And she is also the narcissist-imperialist par excellence. For the conclusion of Animal Dreams depicts an inversion based on a Quindlen-like connection. Kingsolver transforms the contra helicopters that mow down plain, earnest people in Nicaragua into the helicopter in which Codi's mother died after giving birth to Hallie. If it had not been for Hallie's letters describing those helicopters, we learn, Codi would never have remembered seeing her mother taken up in the helicopter. This was a memory that she needed to recover so that she suddenly could become an adult. Thus Hallie's death is redeemed by Codi's finally getting a life. Black night in Nicaragua; morning in America.

Kingsolver has perfected the Quindlen Effect in The Poisonwood Bible. The novel's cartoonish mainspring is a tyrannical Baptist missionary named Nathan Price, who takes up residence in the Congo in the late 1950s with his wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters. Told by Orleanna and each of her daughters in turn, The Poisonwood Bible portrays Nathan's fanatical insensitivity to the Congolese, which alienates his small congregation, resulting in the death of his youngest daughter Ruth May (the children again), and in his own madness, and in the disintegration of the family.

The novel has a silver lining, though. The silver lining is the indignant Kingsolver's most characteristic device. The other daughters—the bigoted right-wing Rachel; the sensitive and conscientious Leah; Leah's twin, the hemiplegic clairvoyant genius and verbal prodigy Adah—all come into their own by novel's end. In the course of all this, we also enjoy saintly glimpses of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first democratically elected prime minister, whose probable murder by Mobutu's men got an enthusiastic green light and support from an Eisenhower worried about Lumumba's alliance with the Soviet Union.

“There is wisdom in every sentence,” wrote the editors of the New York Times Book Review about The Poisonwood Bible. I hope they are not referring to the analogy that Kingsolver makes between Nathan's harshness toward the women in his family, and Belgium, whose King Leopold annexed the Congo in 1901, and cold-war America. As Orleanna puts it, again and again:

And where was I, the girl or woman called Orleanna, as we traveled those roads. … Swallowed by Nathan's mission, body and soul. Occupied as if by a foreign power. … This is how conquest occurs. …

Nathan was something that happened to us, as devastating in its way as the burning roof that fell on the family Mwanza; with our faces scarred by hell and brimstone we still had to track our course. … But his kind will always lose in the end. I know this, and now I know why. Whether it's wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same: they stand still, and their stake moves underneath them. … A territory is only possessed for a moment in time. … What does Okinawa remember of its fall? Forbidden to make engines of war, Japan made automobiles instead, and won the world. It all moves on. The great Delaware moves on, while Mr. Washington himself is no longer even what you'd call good compost. The Congo River, being of a different temperament, drowned most of its conquerors outright. … Call it oppression, complicity, stupefaction, call it what you like, it doesn't matter. Africa swallowed the conqueror's music and sang a new song of her own.

Wisdom in every sentence. And here is Leah on the same theme:

Anatole explained it this way: Like a princess in a story, Congo was born too rich for her own good, and attracted attention far and wide from men who desire to rob her blind. The United States has now become the husband of Zaire's economy, and not a very nice one. Exploitive and condescending. …

“Oh, I understand that kind of marriage all right,” I said. “I grew up witnessing one just like it.”

The reduction of history to an afternoon with Oprah is bad enough. But it is really extraordinary, is it not, that our very own Gordimer has written a “political novel” about Africa that does not refer to the present-day shattering events in Africa. In The Poisonwood Bible, we hear a lot about how American men, especially bad American Baptist missionary men, physically abuse their wives and daughters (though, as ever, Kingsolver is too nice to portray the abuse). Yet we do not get the slightest reference, or the most veiled allusion, to the Rwandan genocide and its ongoing blood-drenched aftermath, one of the least nice events in modern history, in which even the children were killed. For Kingsolver, Africa is happily singing “a new song of her own.” Something like the vegetable-soup song.

In The Poisonwood Bible, instead of the momentous present, Kingsolver scavenges for heart-rending bulletins from the past. It is all so easy, this sentimental carpetbagging of a far-away history. We hear about how Belgian overseers on the rubber plantations disciplined their Congolese workers by cutting off their hands. About how the Belgians jailed Lumumba at one point, and how he miraculously “got out” in time for the elections. What Kingsolver doesn't tell her readers is that by 1959, when her novel begins, such cruelty had been defunct for over fifty years. (For the amputation of hands as a widespread instrument of torture, it is contemporary Sierra Leone to which one must look.)

In 1908, the Belgian parliament bought the Congo from King Leopold as a response to the international outcry against the atrocities that Belgian companies had been committing on the Congolese. By 1959, the Belgian Congo had the highest literacy rate and the most widespread health care of any European colony. Almost all of those improvements had to do with the work of missionaries. Most of the missionaries were Catholic, but some were Protestant like Nathan Price. And Lumumba did not magically “get out” of jail in time to get elected prime minister. The Belgians let him out, knowing full well that he was going to win.

This is not to say, this is really not to say, that the Europeans did not do atrocious things in Africa right up to decolonization, or that Belgium did not display calamitous self-interest in rushing Congo's independence when the colony was completely unprepared for it. (The Belgians had prohibited the Congolese from obtaining a university education, and when independence came there was not a single trained administrator or military officer.) It is also not to say that Europe and the United States do not have to answer for some portion of Africa's ordeal. But it is Kingsolver who is not playing fair with her readers.

For again she substitutes the image of goodness for honest representations. Almost every reviewer has rightly praised her beautiful evocation of the African landscape and her vivid treatment of African life; but not a single reviewer I read mentioned the twenty-eight-book bibliography that Kingsolver obviously felt obligated to include at the end of her novel, a list with books such as The Accidental Anthropologist, Congo Trails, Congo Cauldron, The River Congo, Back to the Congo, Travels in West Africa, Swimming in the Congo, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest. Many of these books are travel books containing beautiful evocations of the African landscape and exhilarated treatments of African life. They lift the spirit with their vividness, the way Putamayo's compact discs do. The influence of this apolitical, upbeat ethnography accounts for the difference in the style of Kingsolver's new novel. And it is why the The Poisonwood Bible is so distant from its subject.

Still, the Nice Writing has not disappeared, and it extends its usual protections. You would not know from any of the reviews also that all the women in the family express the same tough ironic contempt for Nathan. Here is Ruth May: “‘Africa has a million souls,’ is what Father told him. And Father ought to know, for he's out to save them all.” This is presented as the thought of a five-year-old girl, who is supposed to be brutally suppressed by her authoritarian father.

“Ultimately,” the Times editors wrote, “this is a novel of character; the women discover themselves as they lose faith in Price.” But the women in The Poisonwood Bible are on to their father's hypocrisy from the very beginning of the novel. They express their skepticism in the same jaunty sarcastic tone, which is the identical tone Kingsolver used for her earlier fictional personae, Taylor and Codi. This is the fifteen-year-old Rachel: “[Father] was getting that look he gets, oh boy, like Here comes Moses tromping down off of Mount Syanide with ten fresh ways to wreck your life.” This is the fourteen-year-old Leah, supposedly in her father's thrall more than her sisters: “‘Heavenly Father, deliver us,’ I said, although I didn't care for this new angle … what was this business of being delivered through hardships?” This is the fourteen-year-old Adah, who refers sardonically to Nathan as “Our Father” and “Reverend”: “When the Spirit passed through him he groaned, throwing body and soul into this weekly purge. The ‘Amen enema,’ as I call it. My palindrome for the Reverend.” If this is the story of women struggling for psychic autonomy, they do not have terribly much work to do.


Barbara Kingsolver does not finally give a hoot about Africa. She does not care about Africa (I mean, intelligently and respectfully care, with a sense of its alterity and its complexity) any more than she cared about the simple folk of Nicaragua. That is why the penultimate climax of The Poisonwood Bible is not about Africa. It is about our very own Gordimer's favorite domestic themes: cruelty to children and cruelty to animals. Thus her novel begins its climax in a scene depicting the Congolese villagers engaged in a hunt. They set the brush on fire and herd the animals inside the flames.

For every animal struck down, there rose an equal and opposite cry of human jubilation. … Of the large animals who came through the fire—bushbuck, warthog, antelope—few escaped. Others would not come out and so they burned: small flame-feathered birds, the churning insects, and a few female baboons who had managed against all odds to carry their pregnancies through the drought. With their bellies underslung with precious clinging babies, they loped behind the heavy-maned males, who would try to save themselves, but on reaching the curtain of flame where the others passed through, they drew up short. Crouched low. Understanding no choice but to burn with their children.

This breaks new ground in monster empathy. Abusive husbands are like conquering countries; mothers and children are the same whether human or animal. Killing is killing. And although, as Kingsolver herself tells us, the villagers are starving, she goes on to explain that this massacre was so cruel that it brought down upon the village a streak of terrible luck.

It is an icy marvel, this spectacle of a writer who can manipulatively wax so emotional and with such impressive virtue over the killing of animals by starving villagers in a place where, in reality, hundreds of thousands of people had just been exterminated. In a place where, perhaps at the very moment Kingsolver was writing her book, men were raping and murdering wives in front of their husbands (those selfish “heavy-maned males”), and beating the fathers to death in front of the mothers, and killing the children in front of their parents.

But Kingsolver has too much respect for other cultures to refer to the bad things that happen in them. Other cultures have different attitudes toward life and death. Through Adah, who later becomes a medical researcher—she works on the AIDS virus and the Ebola virus!—Kingsolver guides us through African values:

People are bantu; the singular is muntu. Muntu does not mean exactly the same as person, though, because it describes a living person, a dead one, or someone not yet born. Muntu persists through all those conditions unchanged. … The transition from spirit to body and back again is merely a venture.

In the world, the carrying capacity of humans is limited. History holds all things in the balance, including large hopes and short lives. … Africa has a thousand ways of cleansing itself. Driver ants, Ebola virus, acquired immune deficiency syndrome: all these are brooms devised by nature to sweep a small clearing very well … the race between predator and prey remains exquisitely neck and neck.

In Africa, then, death is a state of mind. There they are used to dying, and dying is so exquisitely good for them. The Times editors enthusiastically took this up: “perhaps [The Poisonwood Bible's] greatest character is collective, the Congolese, whose perfect adaptation to the harshness of their lives amid drought, hunger, pests and diseases is simply beautiful.” What a ravishing, talented, instinctive, unself-conscious race of people. And how beautiful is their extinction!

In Kingsolver's Africa, only her intrepid heroines, not the Africans themselves, get the burdensome dignity of moral struggle, confusion, and anguish. Here is Leah, who has chosen to live in Africa with her Congolese husband:

I rock back and forth on my chair like a baby, craving so many impossible things: justice, forgiveness, redemption. I crave to stop bearing all the wounds of this place on my own narrow body. But I also want to be a person who stays, who goes on feeling anguish where anguish is due. I want to belong to somewhere, damn it. To scrub the hundred years' war off this white skin till there's nothing left and I can walk out among my neighbors wearing raw sinew and bone, like they do.

But enough of this frigid treacle. Let me tell you a story about my family, and this time I am writing the truth. My grandfather, Saul Siegel, who died a few months ago at the age of ninety-two, was with UNICEF in the Belgian Congo in 1960, when Congo got its independence. He was there during the riots and the strife and the civil war, and he stayed for some time after the United States installed Mobutu. I could not even begin to describe the lives that he saved and the good that he did. He knew that true goodness is the virtue that dare not speak its name. He knew all about the cold, calculating phonies who spray their virtue into your eyes like mace, and also about the cowards and the fools who abet them to aid themselves. I loved him very much. I sat next to his bed and watched him die as he struggled to keep breathing. I saw the light start to fade from his beautiful green eyes, and I let him pull me toward him by my shirt with his trembling hands so that he could whisper to me his farewell. With my heart full of love and grief and terror, I leaned toward him, and he pulled himself up a little and he rasped softly, and then he screamed: “Get Kingsolver!”

I did it again. I lied. I am sorry, but I cannot resist the temptation. The rewards are so great. And the words are so cheap.

Gayle Greene (review date April 1999)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1870

SOURCE: “Independence Struggle,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XVI, No. 7, April, 1999, pp. 8-9.

[In the following review, Greene offers favorable evaluation of The Poisonwood Bible.]

The Poisonwood Bible begins with a mysterious command: “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.” The opening lines invite us in—“First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees.” We are summoned to see, through these eyes, a woman and four girls on a path below, “pale doomed blossoms, bound to appeal to your sympathies. Be careful. Later on you'll have to decide what sympathy they deserve.” We cannot at this point know what this means, this injunction to imagine, decide, to be the eyes in the trees; by the end of the novel, we can.

The “I” is Orleanna Price, wife of Baptist missionary Nathan Price. She and her four daughters are here in this jungle because Nathan, in his zeal to convert the heathens, has landed them in a remote village in the Congo. The time is 1960, when the Congo's struggle for independence from Belgium gets ensnared in Cold War maneuvering for Africa. Orleanna is looking back on events, arguing with an unknown accuser, hounded by guilt, by questions of complicity: “but still I'll insist I was only a captive witness. What is the conqueror's wife, if not a conquest herself? … That's what we yell back at history, always, always. It wasn't just me; there were crimes strewn six ways to Sunday, and I had my own mouths to feed. I didn't know.”

The story is told from her point of view and her daughters'. We begin from where they do, these Baptist girls growing up in Georgia in the 1950s—a narrative technique that, like the opening, draws us in, enlists us as participants. Rachel, the eldest, with a mane of blond hair and a head full of advertising jingles, is disconsolate at leaving behind her Breck Special Formula and five-day deodorant pads and the other things she has taken “for granite”: “Jeez oh man, wake me up when it's over.” Ruth May, the youngest, has a little-kid perspective that similarly illuminates this family's background: wondering why the village children have big bellies even though they're hungry, she reckons it's because they're the Tribes of Ham, “they're different from us”—“Jimmy Crow says that, and he makes the laws. … Their day for the zoo is Thursday. That's in the Bible.”

Between these two are the twins, Leah as upright and perky as Adah is halting, limping. Adah is hemiplagic, born with “half a brain dried up like a prune,” cannibalized in the womb (or so she imagines), grown weak as Leah grew strong. Whereas Leah strives for heaven and her father's approval, Adah has no such aspirations, having lost her faith when she realized her father's God condemned the unbaptized to hell “for the accident of a heathen birth.” Adah, who has spent more time than most pondering “unfortunate accidents of birth,” well sees the ironies: “May Africa talk back? Might those pagan babies send us to hell for living too far from a jungle? Because we have not tasted the sacrament of palm nuts?” Adah does not speak, but she writes, makes puns and palindromes, loves word play and Emily Dickinson and—unlike Rachel, whose words get the better of her—has a dazzling verbal facility. And she sees: low to the ground and slow of movement, her slant gives her special perspective. In the time-honored tradition of the soothsayer who is blind but sees better for it, her infirmity confers vision.

Much of the novel's meaning is in what these characters see, fail to see, learn to see; in what is seen by the eyes in the trees.

Even Rachel can see that, from day one, they're in trouble: “We are supposed to be calling the shots here, but it doesn't look to me like we're in charge of a thing, not even our own selves.” Though the congregation is initially well disposed to them, it does not remain so. Nathan wields the Word like a rod, invoking the wrath of God upon the bare-breasted women, trying to drag the children to the river to baptize them (the river is full of crocodiles). His rigid reading of the Word ill prepares him for the nuances of Kikongo, the language of the region, which has a disconcerting tendency to use the same word, intoned differently, to say antithetical things. “Jesus is bängala,” Nathan announces week after week, meaning Jesus is precious, unaware that the word, as he pronounces it, refers to the deadly poisonwood tree.

Orleanna sees the problems early on, but she can do nothing, caught as she is in the daily struggle to protect her daughters from snakes, killer ants, dysentery, disease, starvation—and their father. “What did I have? No money, that's for sure. No influence, no friends I could call upon in that place, no way to overrule the powers that governed our lives. This is not a new story: I was an inferior force.” She has no way to resist her husband, let alone take a role in the Congolese resistance, the struggle for independence that's happening all around them—the election of Patrice Lumumba, the ousting of Lumumba, the murder of Lumumba in a village a mere forty miles away. How could she know that the coup that destroyed him was backed by the CIA, or that President Eisenhower, whose bald head and grandfatherly smile beams down from a photo on her kitchen wall, authorized his killing and replacement by Mobutu, the ruthless dictator who ruled, with US support, until 1997? She could barely, as she says, get her shoes on the right feet.

We get glimmers of these events from a newspaper article that finds its way to their village: “Soviet Plan Moves Forward in Congo.” US media vindicate US intervention by portraying a Khrushchev ambitious for world domination, caricatured in sinister collusion: “big, fat, bald-headed Nikita Khrushchev … holding hands and dancing with a skinny cannibal native with big lips and a bone in his hair. Khrushchev was singing, ‘Bingo Bango Bongo, I don't want to leave the Congo!’” Who better than Adah to understand the scapegoating here: “That is the story of Congo they are telling now in America: a tale of cannibals. I know about this kind of story—the lonely look down upon the hungry; the hungry look down upon the starving. The guilty blame the damaged. … It makes everyone feel much better.” Who better than she to imagine what Africa might say back: “So sorry, but Ike should perhaps be killed now with a poisoned arrow. … What sort of man would wish to murder the president of another land? None but a barbarian. A man with a bone in his hair.”

As the snatch and grab of power politics plays itself out, so finally does Orleanna Price, herself an occupied territory, move toward independence. What jolts her into action is personal rather than political tragedy—“Lumumba paid with a life and so did I.” Only gradually is she dragged into an understanding of history, as she hears, a decade and a half later, a radio broadcast of the Congressional investigation of CIA involvement in Lumumba's unseating: “History didn't cross my mind. Now it does.” She sees that to be ignorant is not to be innocent, and she begs, implores, the very earth for forgiveness. She seeks—as she recognizes all the sisters do—a way “to live with our history.”

Adah must piece together a new account of her past and relinquish the categories that have disempowered her, which means letting go of her view of her twin Leah as having victimized her. She takes a degree in medicine, but rather than become a doctor, she becomes (as she says) a sort of witchdoctor—not one who lives among her congregation, but one who studies it from her lab at the university. She is surprisingly successful in her research because she has a kind of intuitive understanding of viruses as partners rather than enemies, a sense that derives from what she's learned in the Congo of the interrelationship of life and death—an awareness that makes her appreciate voodoo, which honors the balance between the living and dead and “embraces death as its company, not its enemy.”

Leah, too, must let go of her categories, relinquishing her father's simplistic scheme wherein righteousness is rewarded and evil punished. Just as Adah, assuming voice and agency, becomes more like Leah, so does Leah, learning to question appearances, become more like Adah; and as the twins become closer, they come to see how each distorted the other and that their antipathy was based on a misunderstanding—an insight that resonates beyond the family drama to the political tragedy.

As these characters let go of old beliefs and construct new visions, Barbara Kingsolver leads us to see the limits of our own. There are ways besides ours of organizing social systems. Having experienced the droughts and the floods and the jungle, we understand that Congolese social practices and systems of exchange evolve from an affinity with the environment. There are ways besides ours of conceptualizing and describing reality; the language of the region, with its rich tonal ambiguities, is more adequate than English to the complex intertwining of antitheses so stark in the Congo. We balance Western against African values. Christianity against voodoo, and come to see through the eyes in the trees—a perspective which shows, among other things, the colossal arrogance of the West in imagining its language and culture as the measure of all things.

Not since Beloved have I been so engaged by a new work of fiction. The Poisonwood Bible is a good read, offering a point of entry anyone can start from, a story and characters that are gripping, a family saga that assumes epic and Biblical proportions. It addresses questions of history, the weight of the past, of memory, of narration. It has a strong political message, offering a scathing indictment of America's part in carving up Africa, yet it is also very funny, playful for all its seriousness, with the down-home humor familiar from Kingsolver's other novels though it has you laughing one moment and gasping with horror the next.

This is a complex, textured work, its imagery patterns resonating across levels of meaning. The idea of feeding, for example, plays out on ecological, biological, psychological and political levels: ants eat their way across Africa, the forest eats itself yet lives forever, crocodiles devour children; there is famine, hunting, poison, a snake in the belly, a dog-eat-dog world, a consumer society, a stewpot we're all in together. It is multivocal and multiphonic, its meaning not in a single voice but in the play of voices against one another, the mother and four daughters who tell this tale making five tones like those of the ancient pentatonic scale.

The Poisonwood Bible gives a way of thinking about cultures, a way of imagining otherwise. By the end, we—unlike the European explorers who first approached the shores of Africa to conquer, plunder, ruin—might imagine differently.

Roberta Rubenstein (review date April 1999)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3309

SOURCE: “The Mark of Africa,” in World and I, Vol. 14, No. 4, April, 1999, p. 254.

[In the following review, Rubenstein offers favorable evaluation of The Poisonwood Bible.]

When novelist Barbara Kingsolver was asked by a reader whether her fiction is based on her own life, she replied that her narratives are not drawn directly from her immediate experience; rather, they emerge from her struggle to give literary form to ideas. As she explained,

I devise a very big question whose answer I believe will be amazing, and maybe shift the world a little bit on its axis. Then I figure out how to create a world in which that question can be asked, and answered. … I populate my setting with characters who'll act out my theme, scratching their heads in wonderment all along the way until their interactions with the world and each other have finally caused them to cry Aha! and my question is answered at last. (

Kingsolver's fascination with such large questions arose from rather unlikely sources. The daughter of a physician, she was born in 1955 and grew up in a poor rural farming area of eastern Kentucky. She reached high school “at the close of the sixties, in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, whose ranking on educational spending was I think around fifty-first” (High Tide in Tucson, 46-7).

As a bookworm who enjoyed writing poetry and short stories, Kingsolver was an outsider among her high school peers, whose expectations upon graduation were to become either farmers or farmers' wives. She was rescued by a high school librarian, who, in giving her a cataloging job, placed her in an environment of books that ultimately led her to her vocation. Browsing as she cataloged books, Kingsolver “caught the scent of a world. I started to dream up intoxicating lives for myself that I could not have conceived without the books” (High Tide in Tucson, 49).

Kingsolver attended DePauw University in Indiana, where she studied biology, graduating magna cum laude in 1977; subsequently, she earned a master of science in biology and ecology at the University of Arizona. A position as a science writer enabled her to combine her scientific training with her interest in writing. Following several years of writing feature stories for such journals as the Nation, the New York Times, and Smithsonian, she published her first book, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983. The nonfiction narrative focuses on the stories of women in small Arizona mining towns whose lives were radically transformed by an eighteen-month strike against the Phelps Dodge Copper Corporation.

Kingsolver, who still lives in Arizona, has married (twice) and has two young daughters. Her other publications include a volume of poetry, Another America (1992); a volume of essays, High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never (1995); a collection of short stories, Homeland and Other Stories (1989); and, including The Poisonwood Bible, four novels.

Each of Kingsolver's novels demonstrates her deeper preoccupation with ideas as they achieve expression through the interactions of fully realized characters and events. For example, her training as a biologist is artfully demonstrated in The Bean Trees (1988), as organic metaphors of growth and nurturance in the natural world reflect her characters' progress. Taylor Greer, a young woman from Kentucky on her way west, finds herself the custodian of an utterly endearing 3-year-old Cherokee girl who is left in her car one night. The relationship evolves from Taylor's early attitude toward Turtle—so-named because of her extraordinary grip—as “not really mine … just somebody I got stuck with” to her decision to become the child's legal mother. Along the way, Kingsolver movingly explores issues of moral responsibility and community.

In Pigs in Heaven (1993), Kingsolver extends Taylor and Turtle's story, elaborating on ideas of family, community, ethnicity, and different belief systems as they shape identity. The question animating the latter novel is how to act in a child's best interest when two cultures disagree fundamentally on the matter.

Between these two novels, Kingsolver published Animal Dreams (1990), an absorbing fictional exploration of notions of identity, home, and people's greater relationship to the earth. For Cosima (Codi) Noline, the possibility of reclamation assumes both emotional and political meanings. Returning to her childhood home in Arizona after years away, the disaffected Codi eventually renews her relationship with her father and discovers her affinity with Native American values concerning people and the land.

She is also politically awakened, discovering by accident that the nearby river and land are being poisoned by unchecked chemical pollution from a mining operation. Galvanizing people in her community to rally against the mining company's irresponsibility, Codi explains, “People can forget, and forget, and forget, but the land has a memory. The lakes and the rivers are still hanging on the DDT and every other insult we ever gave them.”


Although one might term Kingsolver a “political” novelist on the basis of such preoccupations, those matters are always persuasively rendered through character and event. Thus, although The Poisonwood Bible tackles a complicated political question—what happened in and to the Congo during the crucial transition from colonial protectionism to national independence?—Kingsolver avoids didacticism by approaching her subject through multiple perspectives; large issues are filtered through the seemingly small daily challenges and discoveries of particular individuals as they live their lives.

One might ask first, why the Congo, given the southwestern American setting of Kingsolver's previous novels? Though The Poisonwood Bible is not autobiographical, it is based on a personal experience: Kingsolver spent a life-changing year in the Belgian Congo when her father served there as a physician. Considering Africa as a 7-year-old child, she later wrote, “I couldn't begin to imagine the life that was rolling out ahead of me. But I did understand it would pass over me with the force of a river, and that I needed to pin the water to its banks and hold it still, somehow, to give myself time to know it” (High Tide, 119).

In a comment made during a reading in Washington in November 1998, Kingsolver acknowledged that the story that ultimately became The Poisonwood Bible grew from a subject she has been pondering for twenty years, hoping to acquire the wisdom and skill to give it written form. She needn't have worried: She has achieved a narrative of enormous moral depth and aesthetic mastery.

The story centers on the Prices of Bethlehem, Georgia, a Baptist missionary family headed by the fundamentalist Nathan, who intends to bring salvation to the “heathen” of Kilanga, Belgian Congo. Nathan's rigidity and evangelical conviction are so immoderate, however, that he ultimately alienates himself not only from the Kikongo people whom he wishes to convert but from his wife and four young daughters as well. Nathan's story subtly comes to represent the intertwined moral and political failures of colonialism and Western exploitation in West Africa.

When Orleanna Price later reflects on her husband's actions both before and while in the Congo, she concludes that her family was “swallowed by Nathan's mission, body and soul. Occupied as if by a foreign power.” Similarly, various outside interests, blind to the customs and wishes of the indigenous peoples, pursued their own self-serving missions in Africa, with repercussions that continue to affect the region to this day.

When the Prices first arrive in the village near the Kwilu River in 1959, they are all innocents, imperiously believing that Nathan's mission to “bring salvation into the darkness” is ordained by God. Only much later does Orleanna understand that Nathan's error was in trying not only to deliver the word of God but to assume His place.

We aimed for no more than to have dominion over every creature that moved upon the earth. And so it came to pass that we stepped down there on a place we believed unformed, where only darkness moved on the face of the waters. …What do we know, even now? Ask the children. Look at what they grew up to be. We can only speak of the things we carried with us, and the things we took away.

The last comment effectively frames The Poisonwood Bible: The Price family arrives in Africa literally weighted down with objects carried from America that they believe will be needed for survival in the Congo, from Betty Crocker cake mixes to pinking shears. What they slowly discover is that they “brought all the wrong things”—they are burdened not simply by irrelevant objects and supplies but their beliefs—and that what they carry away when they leave is not their possessions but the distinct and ineradicable mark that Africa has left on each of them.

During their seventeen months in Kilanga, Nathan stubbornly persists in his mission to convert and baptize the natives, oblivious to the fact that they already have a perfectly satisfactory religion. Kingsolver is especially adept at embodying in human terms the collisions between worldviews, both spiritual and secular. While Nathan's daughters come to recognize the undertones that “shimmer under the surface of the words right and wrong,” Nathan, deaf to such subtleties, finds his task further complicated by the richly tonal language of the Kikongo people.

Indeed, language functions not only as a linguistic code but as the source of the deepest possibility for communication or, more often, misunderstanding between people. (One might add that it is Kingsolver's own accomplished language that makes this novel so richly absorbing.) The Kikongo word bangala, for example—which Nathan employs in his frequently repeated evangelical exhortation, “Tata Jesus is bangala!”—carries meanings as contradictory as “most precious,” “most insufferable,” and “poisonwood.” No wonder the villagers are puzzled by the missionary's garbled message.

The Kikongo chief expresses his concern about the moral decline and spiritual corruption of the villagers if they abandon their faith in their traditional spirit-protectors and convert to Christianity; Nathan insensitively retorts that the tribe's spiritual leader is a witch doctor who leads his people in the worship of false idols. The reader, privy to both sides, ponders which idols are the false ones.


The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver's most structurally ambitious novel to date, unfolds through five distinct narrative perspectives. Interestingly, although the author omits Nathan Price's point of view by disclosing the family's sojourn in Africa exclusively through the accounts of his wife and daughters, we know Nathan as well as we know those who speak. Given his monomaniacal vision, his perspective is quite clear, even without the benefit of entry into his thoughts.

Because the Price girls are naive observers, abundant ironies emerge between their limited comprehension and the reader's understanding of events. For example, 14-year-old Adah contemplates the arbitrary injustice revealed by her father's Baptist religion, wondering how a child could be “denied entrance to heaven merely for being born in the Congo rather than, say, north Georgia, where she could attend church regularly. … Would Our Lord be such a hit-or-miss kind of Savior as that? Would he really condemn some children to eternal suffering just for the accident of a heathen birth, and reward others for a privilege they did nothing to earn?”

The early sections narrated by the oldest daughter, going-on-16 Rachel, reveal an utterly conventional adolescent who, because of her pale skin, white eyelashes, and platinum-blond hair, stands out like an albino in Africa and who is far more concerned with the social life she is missing back home in Georgia than with the social customs of the Kikongo people. She is also (unintentionally) comic; her accounts are punctuated by such malapropisms as “I prefer to remain anomalous” and “I was feeling at loose odds and ends.”

The youngest daughter, 5-year-old Ruth May, offers the most naive perspective, that of a child who can scarcely comprehend the magnitude of the challenges that confront her family struggling for survival in the inhospitable African bush, let alone the deeper ramifications of their mission. The least encumbered, she is the first member of the family to connect with the people of Kilanga, teaching her eager peers how to play “Mother-May-I?” Yet even that innocent children's game mimics her father's attitudes, with Ruth May benevolently reigning over the village children as they obediently ask, “Mad-da-meh-yi?”

Between Rachel and Ruth May are the twins, Leah and Adah. Fourteen when they arrive in Kilanga, both girls are intellectually gifted; however, Adah's physical circumstances disguise her exceptional intelligence. Born with hemiplegia, a condition that renders her mute and severely lame, she is, for most of the narrative, a silent observer whose words only the reader hears. Yet those words are often composed of marvelous poetry, wordplay, and a “slant vision” that uniquely melds her accommodation to her physical handicap and her fascination with Emily Dickinson: “tell the truth but tell it slant.”

As a result of her ability to read not only forwards but backwards, Adah enjoys creating palindromes.

“Walk to learn. I and Path. Long one is Congo.”

“Congo is one long path and I learn to walk.”

“That is the name of my story, forward and backward.”

“Manene is the word for path: Manene enenam, amen. On the Congo's one long manene Ada learns to walk, amen. One day she nearly does not come back. Like Daniel she enters the lions' den, but lacking Daniel's pure and unblemished soul, Ada is spiced with the flavors of vice that make for a tasty meal. Pure and unblemished souls must taste very bland, with an aftertaste of bitterness.”

As this passage suggests, Kingsolver is especially successful at creating a distinctively nuanced idiom, perspective, and voice for each of her characters; one can quite clearly hear them speak. Moreover, drawing on the fact that the Price family is steeped in Nathan's Bible-thumping evangelism, Kingsolver effectively plays the girls' emerging insights against scriptural parallels.

Adah's twin, Leah, emerges as the wise child and moral consciousness of the Price family. Her concern with social justice first develops within their own village circumstances and later expands to encompass the history and future of the Congo itself. Like Adah, she is fascinated with language:

In the beginning we were just about in the same boat as Adam and Eve. We had to learn the names of everything. Nkoko, mongo, zulu—river, mountain, sky—everything must be called out from the void by the word we use to claim it. All God's creatures have names, whether they slither across our path or show up for sale at our front stoop. … Our very own backyard resembles the Garden of Eden. I copy down each new word in my school notebook and vow to remember it always, when I am a grown-up American lady with a backyard garden of my own. I shall tell all the world the lessons I learned in Africa.


The voices and perspectives of the four Price daughters are counterpointed by that of their mother, whose commentaries begin all but one of the novel's seven major sections. Unlike her daughters' accounts of daily life in Kilanga, Orleanna's are narrated years later, after she has returned to Georgia to ponder what happened to her family in Africa. Her reflections are colored by the moral perspective not of innocents in paradise but, as it were, after the fall; Orleanna struggles to comprehend her own complicity in tragic events and—with difficulty—to forgive herself.

Each member of the Price family is marked in a different way by the experience in the Congo. In addition to learning to surrender ideas they had taken for granted about such matters as how to raise crops (Nathan brings Kentucky Wonder bean seeds from Georgia but disdains valuable advice from a village elder on how to plant them and watches his potential crop wash away in a rainstorm) or how to protect themselves from other encroachments of the environment, the children are daily exposed to events that test their American assumptions.

During their ill-fated sojourn, they contend with aggravations and dangers large and small: sunburn, boredom, mosquitoes, malaria, poisonous snakes and poisonwood trees, parasites, worms, driver ants, crocodiles, and lions—to say nothing of the extremes of drought and torrential rain and the shocks of famine, illness, and death. As Leah wryly observes, “Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin.”

Nonetheless, far more than their parents, the four girls endeavor (to different degrees) to adapt: to learn the local language and customs, to befriend their Kikongo peers, and to understand cultural differences as the complicated politics of the country's transition to political independence swirl above their heads. Still, as Adah phrases it, “the things we do not know, independently and in unison as a family, would fill two separate baskets, each with a large hole in the bottom.”

While Orleanna struggles simply to keep her family alive in a hostile environment (even cooking is a thrice-daily struggle), Leah—guided by Anatole, a Congolese schoolteacher—slowly comes to understand the meaning of colonialism. As Belgium siphons off the country's natural riches—diamonds and rubber—America and Russia compete for a stake in the Congo's postindependence future by manipulating political events. The hasty death of the country's first democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, following the election of 1960, is presumably orchestrated by the CIA to thwart the Soviet Union, the perceived challenger to American interests in the region. Leah, in the light of her increasing political awareness, weighs her loyalty to her father against her growing disillusionment with his mission.

The Poisonwood Bible is chock-full of interesting, vividly drawn characters and surprising turns of plot, far too many to summarize here. Two-thirds of the novel encompasses the seventeen months that the Price family lives in Kilanga, concluding with terrible losses both in their family and in the country; the remaining third of the narrative follows each of the surviving Prices over nearly thirty succeeding years. Without revealing crucial details that readers are better rewarded by discovering on their own, I will simply note that it is the Congo that exacts its price on the Prices and not the other way around.

Following different paths out of Kilanga according to their distinct perspectives, each Price daughter ultimately makes peace with Africa and gives something back to it. As Leah phrases it, “we've all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.” Each comes to appreciate the “balance between loss and salvation”; however, what each gives back is as different as are Nathan's daughters themselves. As Rachel comes to realize, “You can't just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style, without expecting the jungle to change you right back. … Some fellow thinks he's going to be the master of Africa and winds up with his nice European-tailored suit rumpled in a corner and his wits half cracked from the filaires [parasites] itching under his skin. If it was as easy as they thought it was going to be, why, they'd be done by now, and Africa would be just like America with more palm trees. Instead, most of it still looks exactly how it did a zillion years ago.”

From a different perspective, Ruth May, the daughter who is granted the narrative's final commentary, concludes that “every life is different because you passed this way and touched history. … Everyone is complicit.”

The satisfaction for readers of The Poisonwood Bible are many, including Kingsolver's brilliant braiding of fictional invention, historical fact, and emotional truth as she distills a complex moral and political vision. Drawing her readers into the contingencies of a fully imagined time and place, the author invites us to reconsider American notions of family and faith as they intersect—or, rather, collide—with culture, history, and destiny in West Africa in the 1960s and afterward. Magisterially, Kingsolver lets us see, hear, and feel how each of her characters has “touched history.”

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 156


Campbell, Kim. “Novelist's Wry Wit Inhabits Latest Essays.” Christian Science Monitor (20 December 1995): 14.

A positive review of High Tide in Tucson.

Clinton, Kate. “The Best Books of 1998.” Progressive 62, No. 12 (December 1998): 38-41.

A positive review of The Poisonwood Bible.

Neuhaus, Denise. “On Dependable Ground.” Times Literary Supplement (7 September 1990): 956.

A positive review of Homeland and Other Stories.

Norman, Liane Ellison. “Ignorance and Grace.” Sojourners 28, No. 2 (March 1999): 59

A positive review of The Poisonwood Bible.

Spaid, Elizabeth Levitan. “Saga of an Adopted Indian Continues.” Christian Science Monitor (9 August 1993): 13.

A positive review of Pigs in Heaven.

Trachtman, Paul. Review of High Tide in Tucson, by Barbara Kingsolver. Smithsonian 27, No. 3 (June 1996): 24.

A positive review of High Tide in Tucson.

Additional coverage of Kingsolver's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 129, 134; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 60; and DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors.

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Barbara Kingsolver Long Fiction Analysis