Barbara Kingsolver Kingsolver, Barbara - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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Margaret Randall (review date May 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carol Kleiman (review date 18 May 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bill Mahin (review date 23 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Eleanor J. Bader (review date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Margaret Randall (review date 9 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Gray (review date 24 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carolyn Cooke (review date 26 November 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Marc W. Steinberg (review date March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Rosellen Brown (review date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dorothy Sue Cobble (review date April 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lorraine Elena Roses (review date July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Antonya Nelson (review date 4 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Hilma Wolitzer (review date 11 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 12 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Travis Silcox (review date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mary Scott (review date 10 December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Maureen Ryan (essay date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Barbara Kingsolver with Robin Epstein (interview date February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jeanne Ewert (review date 11 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Verlyn Klinkenborg (review date 18 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Skow (review date 9 November 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Leonard (review date 11-18 January 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Aamer Hussein (review date 5 February 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Lee Siegel (review date 22 March 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gayle Greene (review date April 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Roberta Rubenstein (review date April 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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


(The entire section is 156 words.)