Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1939
Barbara Kingsolver began this book on September 12, 2001, one day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. In a series of twenty- three essays, she shares with readers how she has tried to come back from grief and despair over this tragedy to regain a measure of hope for the future. She has found consolation in the small wonders of everyday life. Big issues such as terrorism, global warming, the enormous gap between rich and poor, and the wasteful overuse of Earth’s resources all seem overwhelming to an individual. Kingsolver instead writes about lifestyle choices on a personal level that eventually can change the world for the better. She reminds her readers that it was a small number of highly committed individuals who brought about major social changes such as racial equality in the United States, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and progress in women’s rights.
In the lead essay, titled “Small Wonder,” Kingsolver points to the fundamental weakness of a purely military response against terrorism. From Greek mythology, she cites the story of Jason, who killed a dragon but found that each of the dragon’s teeth germinated and grew into a new enemy. This story is pertinent to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network. She says,
We kill its leaders and they swell to the size of martyrs and heroes, inspiring more martyrs and heroes. This terror requires of us something that most of us haven’t considered: how to defuse a lethal enemy through some tactic more effective than simply going at it with the biggest stick at hand.
On the same day that the United States began its bombing campaign over Afghanistan, a news story from neighboring Iran reported an amazing miracle: A young child who had wandered away from his village was found alive three days later in a cave, where a she-bear had been nursing it. A skeptic would question whether this story could possibly be true when it was much more probable that such a child would become food for the hungry bear. Nevertheless, bears have a mothering instinct for their young, so it could have happened as reported. Kingsolver pursued this story on the Internet until she became convinced from the testimony of witnesses in the village that it really was genuine. This story of a child who was unexpectedly spared provided her with an important “small wonder” to balance against the large-scale brutality and destructiveness of the bombings.
In trying to understand what it is that motivates a suicide bomber, Kingsolver focuses on the increasing economic gap between the haves and have-nots of the world. While the Western countries live in growing affluence, the lowest quarter of the world’s poor are sinking into greater poverty, losing ground as they struggle. In her poignant words, it is the “insane rage of the dispossessed” that brings new recruits into the terrorist training camps. Her prescription is for the wealthier nations to become less wasteful and more generous in sharing the world’s resources.
In an essay titled “And Our Flag Was Still There,” Kingsolver contrasts two views of patriotism. One viewpoint often attributed to President George W. Bush holds that if Americans do not agree with his position then they are supporting the terrorists. The terrorist attacks are seen as a declaration of war against the United States, requiring a military response. The fear of further terrorism is used to justify restrictions in civil liberties and large increases in military expenditures. Kingsolver objects to this “us-against-them” philosophy and searches for an alternative definition of the meaning of patriotism. She feels alienated by violent retaliation and is concerned for the civilians in Afghanistan who have become a population of refugees.
At a time of national emergency, citizens are exhorted to give unqualified support to their government. Under the banner of “United We Stand,” dissenting voices may be criticized for being disloyal. During the Vietnam conflict in the 1960’s, some people with a narrow view of patriotism had an automobile bumper sticker that carried the message, “America, love it or leave it.” Kingsolver describes herself as someone who loves her country but at the same time is opposed to its militarism. She would like to replace the symbolism of “the rockets’ red glare” in the national anthem with the message of brotherhood found in “America the Beautiful.” She insists that criticism of American policy is a duty of citizenship and that the flag is her banner of patriotism as much as it is for the more militant voices.
Kingsolver has a college degree in biology that provides the background for several essays dealing with ecology. “The Patience of a Saint” describes a family outing to the San Pedro River southeast of Tucson, Arizona. The San Pedro is a small stream, only a few feet wide, but it flows through a hundred miles of desert and so far has never dried up. It is home to the most diverse inland population of birds in the United States, over three hundred different species. In addition, migratory birds making their annual trip from Mexico to Canada and back again depend on this thin ribbon of water as a stopover. The environmental group the Nature Conservancy has placed the San Pedro on its list of “Last Great Places.” For Kingsolver, the San Pedro is one of the amazing small wonders that has repeatedly brought her a feeling of reassurance in a threatened world. She feels strongly that the river needs to be protected from housing developers and irrigation farmers who would like to use the water for their profit-making enterprises.
Several other essays deal with matters of ecology. “Seeing Scarlet” describes a trip to Costa Rica to catch a glimpse of the giant macaw bird, whose survival is threatened by a loss of habitat. “Setting Free the Crabs” starts with an incident on a Florida beach, where Kingsolver’s young daughter decides not to pick up a beautiful shell for her collection because it is still occupied by a hermit crab. This incident becomes the starting point for a wide-ranging discussion of caged versus free animals, the importance of nature preserves and wilderness areas, and the harmful side effects of battling against mosquitoes with insecticide spray. “A Fist in the Eye of God” deals with the long-range hazards of genetic engineering and the importance of biodiversity. “A Forest’s Last Stand” takes the reader to a small village in southern Mexico where the native people have learned how to grow crops without slash-and-burn deforestation. With education and support from the Nature Conservancy and a similar Mexican group called Pronatura, these people practice chemical-free agriculture and water conservation. Kingsolver recognizes another small wonder here, because somehow “Mexico’s last great forest . . . held its own against timber magnates and hamburger franchises.”
Two essays in this collection are autobiographical, “Letter to a Daughter at Thirteen” and “Letter to My Mother.” As a teenager, Kingsolver had kept a diary in which she recorded feeling depressed and worthless much of the time. She resented parental control and felt uncomfortable with her peers. Although she was an excellent student and became valedictorian of her high school class, she lacked self-esteem. Going off to college at age eighteen, she was overwhelmed by the variety of lifestyles on campus and the personal choices that one has to make. She says, “I’d been well under control up to that point, but I had no practice in self-control. I was extremely lucky not to damage myself in the process of learning moderation.”
In reaction to her restricted upbringing, Kingsolver decided that she must let her two daughters make certain choices even when she disagreed with them, so that they will be better prepared for adult life. She describes some family incidents in which she had to accept difficult compromises. She expresses thankfulness that her earlier strained relationship with her mother gradually has been healed. Furthermore, her teenage daughter is developing a personality that allows her to feel free to talk about opinions, frustrations, and preferences openly, knowing that she will be listened to respectfully.
“The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don’t Let Him In” is a strong condemnation of television. First of all, Kingsolver objects to the waste of time when sitting in front of the “boob tube.” Also, the quality of many programs has become so crude that she compares the television antenna to “a faucet . . . that runs about 5 percent clear water and 95 percent raw sewage.” Television advertising is designed to bring expensive, new products, such as designer clothing for children and youths, into an already too-materialistic culture. Regarding television news, Kingsolver readily admits that powerful visual images do capture one’s full attention. However, the daily tragedies of shootings, earthquakes, airplane crashes, and suicide bombings provide an unbalanced picture of what is happening in the world, rarely affecting the audience personally. She says, “I believe it’s possible to be so overtaken and stupefied by the tragedies of the world that we don’t have any time or energy left for those closer to home, the hurts that we should take as our own.” Instead of television news, she reads a newspaper or listens to the radio; also, reading books provides her with needed depth and perspective to think through the significance of world events.
The essay titled “Lily’s Chickens” begins with Kingsolver’s five-year-old daughter expressing the wish to have a flock of chickens. The parents agree to this request, the father builds a chicken coop, and eventually the first home-grown eggs are proudly brought into the house. The essay broadens out to consider the American diet and its food supply. The amount of energy expended to bring some foods from producer to consumer is enormous. Americans like to have bananas from South America, cheese from France, and artichokes from California. She quotes a calculation by the Union of Concerned Scientists that the transportation of five calories’ worth of strawberries from California to New York costs 435 calories of fossil fuel. Such extravagance in energy usage she calls “the energy crime of food transportation.” The processing and packaging of foods consumes additional resources. To counteract such wastefulness, Kingsolver maintains her own vegetable garden and as much as possible buys locally grown produce at a nearby farmer’s market when it is in season. She is not a strict vegetarian but expresses some forceful opinions about meat consumption and organically grown foods.
Kingsolver began her writing career with feature articles for magazines and newspapers. Her first book was published in 1988. In the essay “Marking a Passage,” she expresses her gratitude to the independent local bookstores that first promoted her writings by word of mouth. To her amazement, the cumulative total number of her books in print has grown to several million. Since the Kingsolver name is now widely recognized, people sometimes ask her if she is perhaps related to the author. She has heard that question so often that she developed a joking response: “Yes, I’m married to her husband.”
In this book of essays, Kingsolver is responding to a great variety of current social issues. The unifying theme that emerges is that a person’s individual decisions on a local level, whether they are about militarism, adolescence, or genetic engineering, do make a significant difference. She expresses strong opinions not to assert her greater knowledge but rather to stimulate readers to think more deeply for themselves.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 98 (April 15, 2002): 1375.
Library Journal 127 (May 1, 2002): 101.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (May 5, 2002): 29.
Publishers Weekly 249 (April 8, 2002): 222.
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