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.
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.
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.
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.