The third novel by Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven is a warm, humorous, and thought-provoking story of the conflict between an adoptive mother and a Native American tribe over the destiny of an adopted Cherokee girl. The novel covers a time span of about six months and is divided into three parts: “Spring,” “Summer,” and “Fall.” Generally, Kingsolver uses a third-person-limited point of view. Each scene is presented in the author’s folksy third-person voice, and the view of the action is usually limited to the perspective of one of the five main characters, Alice, Taylor, Jax, Annawake, or Cash. At times, however, Kingsolver presents a scene from the perspective of a minor character (such as Annawake’s coworkers Jinny Redbow and Franklin Turnbo) or briefly enters into the consciousness of a second character (such as Turtle or Lucky Buster) in a scene that is described mostly from a major character’s point of view.
Pigs in Heaven is an unusual and provocative sequel that calls into question the moral certitudes of Kingsolver’s first novel, The Bean Trees (1988). In that book, as the plucky young protagonist Taylor Greer drives southwest from Kentucky, she has a three-year-old girl thrust upon her during a stop on Cherokee land in Oklahoma. In this earlier novel, Taylor’s act of accepting and rearing the girl seems unquestionably heroic, since the girl’s mother is dead, Taylor has no desire to acquire a child, and, particularly, since it is revealed later in the novel that the girl has been sexually abused. Much of The Bean Trees focuses on the special, nurturing love that develops between Taylor and the Cherokee girl, whom Taylor names Turtle because the girl attaches herself to her new mother with the tenacity of a turtle’s jaws.
Pigs in Heaven, on the other hand, presents a different and unexpected perspective on the situation: that it might be better for Turtle (now six years old) to be taken from Taylor (who has settled in Tucson) and returned to Turtle’s Oklahoma tribe. Annawake Fourkiller, a young Cherokee lawyer, is on a crusade to test the legality of adoptions that have taken numerous Cherokee children out of the tribe and into non-Indian homes. Annawake’s legal weapon is the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which gives individual tribes the right to rule over the legality of such adoptions—and even to take children back from families that have been rearing them for years.
Kingsolver leads into this central conflict with a dramatic and moving prologue. While Taylor and Turtle are visiting Hoover Dam, Turtle glimpses a man falling down the spillway, and Taylor and Turtle become national celebrities when the man is found and rescued. That national fame brings trouble, however, when Annawake hears about their appearance on a television show and begins to investigate the legality of Taylor’s adoption of Turtle.
When Taylor feels her hold on Turtle threatened by Annawake’s inquiries, she impetuously flees with Turtle from their Tucson home. Taylor’s mother, Alice Greer, who was about to leave her unsatisfying marriage in Kentucky anyway, flies to Las Vegas to bolster her daughter’s morale. As they are about to leave Las Vegas, the Greers acquire a bizarre traveling companion named Barbie. Alice then travels to the Cherokee nation to reconnect with a childhood friend and to try to bolster Taylor’s legal claim to Turtle. Meanwhile, Taylor, Turtle, and Barbie head on to Seattle, where Barbie betrays their trust and Taylor is left struggling to eke out a living as a working single mother.
In addition to this main plot line, Kingsolver also develops two other plot threads...
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involving Jax Thibodeaux and Cash Stillwater. Back in Tucson, Jax is badly depressed over the absence of Taylor and Turtle and has an affair with his landlady, Gundi, an eccentric bohemian artist. After two years in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Cash Stillwater regrets his departure from the Cherokee nation (which he left out of grief and shame over the deaths and losses in his family) and eventually returns to Oklahoma.
As Alice is drawn in by the warmth of the Cherokee people and by a ceremonial “stomp dance” in Heaven, Oklahoma, she feels increasingly comfortable with the Native American way of life. Meanwhile, Annawake, who discovers that Cash is Turtle’s grandfather, surreptitiously plays matchmaker to Alice and Cash, hoping that a romance between them will help to resolve the conflict over Turtle. The romance does develop, and Alice convinces Taylor to bring Turtle back to Oklahoma for a custody hearing. When Alice learns of Annawake’s matchmaking, she feels manipulated and indignant, but despite this minor snag, Turtle’s case is harmoniously resolved. Under a joint custody settlement, she will spend school years with Taylor and summers with Cash. This compromise is further sweetened by the novel’s final developments: Taylor plans to marry Jax, and Alice will marry Cash.