Pigs in Heaven is an unusual and provocative sequel that calls into question the moral certainties of its predecessor. In Barbara Kingsolver’s earlier novel The Bean Trees (1988), the plucky young Taylor Greer drives southwest from Kentucky, and a three-year-old girl is thrust upon her during a stop on Cherokee land in Oklahoma. Taylor’s act of accepting the girl seems unquestionably heroic, since the girl’s mother is dead, Taylor had no desire to acquire a child, and the child had been sexually abused. A special, nurturing love develops between Taylor and the Cherokee child, whom she names Turtle because the child attaches herself to Taylor with the tenacity of a turtle’s jaws.
Pigs in Heaven presents a very different and unexpected perspective on the situation: that Turtle should perhaps be taken from Taylor (who has settled in Tucson) and returned to her Oklahoma tribe. Annawake Fourkiller, a young Cherokee lawyer whose spirit is as strong as Taylor’s, is on a crusade to challenge the 1970’s adoptions that took a third of all Cherokee children out of their 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 on the legality of such adoptions-and even to take children back from adoptive families. Her justifications are several: that the tribe should not be deprived of its children, the basis of its continued existence; that many Cherokee extended family members want their children returned and would make good homes for them; and that being reared in white homes deprives Cherokee children of their cultural identity. This conflict between Taylor and Annawake, between the interests of mother love and tribal community, is the dramatic backbone of the novel. Kingsolver uses the conflict, however, to explore a more universal theme: To what extent can a person lead a fulfilling life by following the path of self-reliance? Are social ties to a spouse, a family, or a larger community a burden or a source of strength?
The novel opens not with Taylor or Annawake, but with Alice Greer, Taylor’s mother. Unable to sleep, wanting to abandon her marriage of two years to the uncommunicative Harland, Alice sits on her front porch in the early morning darkness, feeling herself to be “the surviving queen of nothing.” Perhaps she should warn Taylor “that a defect runs in the family, like flat feet or diabetes: they’re all in danger of ending up alone by their own stubborn choice.” From Alice’s mother Minerva Stamper (who ran a hog farm for fifty years) through Alice (who leaves husbands when they do not suit her) to Taylor (whose main goal in leaving Kentucky was to avoid the small-town girl’s common fate of early pregnancy), Alice sees her female line as holding too tightly to independence and self-sufficiency.
Kingsolver’s two main characters, in fact, both have this quality of self-reliance. Both Taylor and Annawake have remarkable physical beauty to which they seem utterly indifferent. Further, both are indifferent to the prospect of a committed relationship with a man. Even though Taylor lives with her boyfriend Jax, he tells her how frustrated he is that she does not seem to need him, or any man. Even more extreme in her self-reliance is Annawake. Though her secretary Jinny Redbow envies her “fashion-model” good looks, Annawake “dresses like she doesn’t give a hoot” and jokes that it is hard to think of a good reason that women should want the company of men.
Annawake tries to avoid a social life and dedicates herself completely to Cherokee interests as a crusading tribal lawyer. Other Cherokees, who take the path of independence outside their tribe, suffer more acutely. In explaining to Alice how Turtle’s biological mother and aunt could have abandoned her, Annawake claims, “We see so many negative images of ourselves, Alice. Especially off-reservation. Sometimes these girls make a break for the city… but they develop such contempt for themselves they abandon their babies at the hospitals or welfare departments. Or a parking lot.”
How does one compensate for the isolation and loneliness resulting from a life of self-reliance? Again, there are striking similarities in the characters of Taylor, Alice, and Annawake, all of whom, in a literal or figurative sense, become devoted mothers. After three years of caring for her daughter, Taylor thinks of Turtle as “the miracle [she] wouldn’t have let in the door if it had knocked”—a miracle that converted her strong determination to avoid motherhood into an even stronger maternal love. Unfortunately, when Taylor feels that motherhood threatened by Annawake’s inquiries, she impulsively seizes Turtle and flees their Tucson home, subjecting her daughter to a precarious life on the road that takes them through Las Vegas and California and eventually to Seattle, where Taylor struggles to eke out a living as a working single mother.
Alice demonstrates her maternal devotion by traveling from Kentucky to Las Vegas and then to Oklahoma, mainly to give her daughter emotional support and then trying to bolster her legal claim to Turtle. Alice’s maternal instincts extend even beyond her immediate family: As they leave Las Vegas, she takes Barbie, a bizarre and distressed young woman, under her wing and along for the ride.
Annawake shows her maternal commitment more indirectly. The intense bond between Taylor and Turtle is symbolically reflected in the bond between Annawake and her brother Gabriel...
(The entire section is 2275 words.)