Prodigal Summer: An Attempt to Find the Balance Between Man and Nature

[(Essay date 3 June 2008) In this essay K.S. explores Barbara Kingsolver’s portrayal of the relationship between man and nature in her novel Prodigal Summer]

There is a very delicate balance between man and nature; however the question is: where is this balance? In recent years, our society has been searching far and wide for the answer, and has come up with the movement known today as “going green.” This involves getting back in touch with nature, focusing less on our human needs and more on the needs of the environment as a whole. Whatever actions we take as humans will create some effect, positive or negative, elsewhere in our environment. Everything is interconnected. This statement basically sums up Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer. The work begins as three separate stories of humans in their Appalachian environments of Zebulon County, dealing with the ups and downs of life. In the end, all three stories come together, displaying how everything is, once again, interconnected. “Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot, a tug of impalpable thread on the web pulling mate to mate and predator to prey, a beginning or an end. Every choice is a world made new for the chosen” (Kingsolver 444).

Kingsolver uses three stories to try to uncover an appropriate balance. One of the stories is narrated by an older fellow, Garrett Walker III, who insists upon using pesticides in order to tame his weedy yard. These pesticides would also assist him in his experiment to restore the American chestnut species lost to a recent chestnut blight brought over from Europe. His neighbor, Nannie Rawley refuses to allow him to use his much-needed pesticides, for they may drift over to her organic orchard and ruin her crop come time for inspection, while also killing millions of key species of bugs. While Kingsolver suggests the solution to this issue, opting against the pesticides and for nature and humans to simply move on without the great American chestnut, it also opens opportunities for the reader to question the balance: should man-made pesticides be used to kill millions of bugs in order to restore the American chestnut, which became nearly extinct due to a disease introduced by humans? Is it right for humans to attempt to balance out their mistakes in the environment, even though in doing so may risk creating another one?

The second story of Lusa Widener often refers back to the incident when her husband, Cole, tears a wild honeysuckle plant out of the ground, for it is beginning to creep over by his perfectly-kept tobacco crop on the farm. Lusa becomes upset, for there is no need to kill a beautiful, harmless plant. It is also true that honeysuckle is not native to the Appalachian area, and was introduced by humans from another part of the country. Once introduced, it took off like a weed and began overgrowing all of the native plants. Kingsolver’s stance on this issue is difficult to detect, and only another set of questions is opened up to the reader: is honeysuckle considered “wild” in Appalachia, and should therefore not be weeded from the man-made farm? Is the foreign honeysuckle interfering with the tobacco that is able to grow so well in its native Appalachian soil?

The third story is of Deanna Wolfe, the independent, conservationist, strong-willed, forest manager on Walker Mountain. She meets Eddie Bondo, a young rancher from Wyoming, and they have a short-lived, yet intimate relationship. Deanna’s main focus on the mountain is to protect a newly found family of coyotes who are not native to the area. Eddie’s focus is to hunt the coyotes. Deanna tries to protect the coyotes, for they are fleeing the hunters of the West who claim the coyotes are killing their sheep. Eddie Bondo is in the East to hunt the coyotes that have killed his sheep and fled from the West. Through the strong arguments presented by Deanna and the little resistance shown from Eddie, it is clear that Kingsolver favors the position of saving the near-endangered coyotes. Yet one must question: are the coyotes truly Deanna’s to protect, for they are not native to the Appalachians? Will their presence disrupt or improve the existing ecosystem? Is Eddie in a position to hunt the coyotes in the East whom have obediently abandoned the ranches of the West?

Each of these stories seems to point in the direction that humans are destroying nature. Yet looking further into the three stories, nature has torn apart every single one of the relationships of human life. Garnett Walker is not able to have a friendly, neighborly relationship with the woman who lives nearly ten feet away from him, Nannie Rawley, all due to their disagreement over the treatment of the environment. Lusa Widener, although deeply in love with her husband Cole, has difficulty adapting to her husband’s life of farming with pesticides, and killing the organisms she has put years into studying. This serves as a major source of grief when Cole dies, for Lusa cannot get over the fact that she was never able to overcome that major disagreement with her husband before he died. It inhibited their ability to know one another as well and become closer, for it was the source of many arguments. Finally, Deanna Wolfe loses Eddie Bondo, one of the most important people in her life and the father of her child, because she wants to protect coyotes and he wants to hunt them.

Yet it is a part of life for relationships to begin and end, right? These various situations pose such challenges, suggesting that this goal of finding the perfect balance between man and nature, as Kingsolver is attempting to achieve, is simply impossible.

Another motif found in Prodigal Summer is that an absence is just as significant as a presence. “Solitude is only a human presumption” (1, 444). The absence of the American chestnut may give rise to the strengths of another tree species, while the fallen, rotting chestnuts provide homes, food, and shelter for millions of bugs, birds, and other critters. Although Lusa grieves the loss of her husband, she is able to turn the farmland loose, back to the natural way it was. While Deanna struggles to keep the coyotes from becoming endangered, their absence from the Appalachian Mountains may keep the environment in a more stable state, for it is not their natural habitat.

Some background on Kingsolver reveals her role as a musician, scientist, writer, and a political activist. Her role in politics leans strongly towards the left, as she openly condemned the Vietnam War and abortion regulations, while also becoming involved in other major political issues. Prodigal Summer has been criticized as merely a vehicle for which Kingsolver can use to achieve social and environmental change promoting her views as an environmentalist. These are evidently her opinions, as she has cited Thoreau as a major inspiration, yet she has expressed clear indication that she is pro-choice on the issue of abortion. When going with the natural flow of things, one would assume that a pregnancy is perfectly natural, whether it is desired or not. Procreation is, arguably, the main reason for survival. Mutations and defects are also natural, as any scientist would know, therefore leaving no need to terminate a naturally occurring pregnancy. This contradiction wobbles the delicate balance Kingsolver attempts to create between man and nature in her novel.

It is also typical for feminist points of view to be associated with the views of those leaning towards the left on the political scale. In Kingsolver’s novel, however, gender roles are extremely exploited. Three major female characters, Deanna Wolfe, Lusa Widener, and Nannie Rawley all encompass the caring, compassionate, nonviolent characteristics typical to a woman. Each has little family to tend to, and instead cares for their environment. The three major male characters, Eddie Bondo, Cole Widener, and Garnett Walker have an aggressive, destructive, almost violent nature. They hunt and try to alter and tame the environment surrounding them. A major goal of feminine activists is to break free of these gender roles, making it acceptable for a female to possess the aggressive, rougher characteristics of males. Kingsolver evidently steeps these characters in the typical roles. While this forces Kingsolver to stray from her political views, however, she is instead staying true to her environmentalist values. It is a fact that male and female species of nearly all organisms possess the same gender differences as humans do. Males are stronger and more aggressive in order to fight for their mate and provide for and protect their family. Females are more submissive and nurturing, for they are the ones who carry and care for the young. This issue further disrupts the quest to find a balance between the progressive ideas of man and the overpowering force of nature.

While attempting to express her own views, Kingsolver instead introduces both sides of the mind-boggling debate over man’s role in nature. This may be overlooked by those critics whose shallow reading of Prodigal Summer leads them to believe that Kingsolver is forcing ideas upon readers. In reality, this novel is simply Kingsolver’s personal exploration of finding the perfect balance between man and nature, put in her own words through beautiful literature.

(K.S. 2008)

Animal Dreams: An Absence is as Important as a Presence

[(Essay date 9 June 2008) In this essay K.S. explains how the absence of something has just as significant an effect as the presence of something in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Animal Dreams.]

Every life is a journey – a journey to find one’s place in the world, a sense of belonging, a purpose. In today’s generation, this journey usually begins after college. Many young individuals leave their suffocating hometowns in order to spread their wings and experience the greater opportunities offered by the rest of the world. It is the absence from their home of twenty or so years that allows them to look back and see the role they played in their community and give them a sense of belonging, while any newfound experiences along the way may offer them a purpose in life. The significance of an absence is a common theme running through Barbara Kingsolver’s works. Prodigal Summer explores this theme via the environment, discovering how a species’ extinction has just as profound an effect on its ecosystem as its presence. In Animal Dreams, Kingsolver explores this theme through the individuals of society.

The protagonist, Codi, is a lost soul, searching for meaning and a sense of belonging in her life. Absences seem to have the greatest effect on her life throughout the novel. Due to her father’s way of life and the loss of her mother at an early age, Codi has felt a sense of isolation for as long as she could remember, “…being like no one else, being alone, was the central ethic of his life. Mine too…not by choice but by default.” This isolation removes Codi’s connection with her family and background from her. Although this key aspect of her identity is absent, it allows Codi to go on a search to find it – it gives her a mission in life, a purpose. This search takes place during her efforts with the locals to save their town.

When the small town of Grace, Arizona learns that the local coal mine has been dumping hazardous waste into their main water source, a local river, fears arise that the river may never be usable again, or worse yet, dammed. The potential absence of the river puts the entire town’s existence at risk, for it is a town based on agriculture, and the river is their main source of watering the pecan and fruit crops. A group of the town’s older women, known as the “Stitch and Bitch Club,” are now able to channel their meeting towards a worthy purpose – helping to save the river and Grace. The entire community is able to sense their belonging to this town, working together towards one specific goal.

In order to save Grace, the community is pushing to name the town a Historical Place, which would cause their orchards and water supply to be federally protected. It is Codi’s contribution to research part of the history of the town. While sifting through the town’s family records, Codi happens upon her own. The secrets of her family that her father avoided telling her are then exposed to her, contributing a huge piece to Codi’s life puzzle which she is attempting to complete. While joining the community’s efforts, Codi also experiences this sense of belonging, something she has been searching for throughout her life.

Doc Homer has isolated himself from Grace and his two daughters, Codi and Hallie, for his entire life, mainly because he is ashamed of his relation to the “black sheep” founders of the community. This choice to keep to himself is a key cause of Codi’s lack of self-identity. As Doc nears the end of his life he develops Alzheimer’s disease, and begins to lose his mind. Along with the loss of his mind, Doc loses many of his inhibitions and reveals the family secrets to his daughter. This event furthers the development of Codi’s identity, while it also feeds the growth of her sense of belonging, for she is now aware of the family she is a part of.

Kingsolver’s work is known for always incorporating some sort of political, social, or environmental issue, and Animal Dreams is no exception. In Grace, Arizona there is a close connection with the Native American population. Of course their presence in the nation is not prominent, due to the small reservations they are forced to live on. Kingsolver portrays their society almost as a utopia, living in perfect harmony with the earth, while still achieving great cultural strides – according to Kingsolver, greater than those made in the rest of the United States. Their absence from mainstream America has weakened the influence of their successful culture, which could have possibly made a profound contribution to America’s success as a whole.

By showing the effects of the absence of such key parts of life, Kingsolver is able to use her writing to create a sense of awareness in her readers. She once said, “Why do some people engage with the world and its problems, while others turn their backs on it? And why is it that these two sorts of people often occur even in the same family? I’m very curious about this because I’m a human rights activist myself.” Kingsolver has been blessed with the ability to explore these complicated subjects through writing, while at the same time informing others of the issues important to her. It is nearly impossible to formulate any real solutions to the issues Kingsolver explores, yet the absence of these answers furthers her journey searching, and offers her an ever-present purpose in life.

(K.S. 2008)

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver:

The Effect of Language on the Development of Characters

[(this essay is dated 2011) In this essay CW will discuss the impact of the different languages that characters speak and the different ways they use language on the development of the characters.]

“It’s been so long,’ she said. ‘You talk just like me.” (84)

In Barbara Kingsolver’s, The Bean Trees, The relationship between Taylor and Lou Ann truly begins after they discuss Taylor moving in with Lou Ann. The final sign that they will get along very well is when Lou Ann recognizes how Taylor talks in a similar way to herself. Both Lou Ann and Taylor grew up in very poverty stricken and slow-to-develop areas. This causes their descriptions of things and expressions to be different from those of their friends in Arizona.

This trait, that causes them to be somewhat outsiders from the people of the city, makes their relationship even stronger. The contrast between their old home and Arizona is something that they share. They both shared the same desire to escape from the gravitational tug of unchanging generations at home. They also shared the positive traits of growing up in such an environment as well. Both Taylor and Lou Ann were extremely hard workers that would do whatever job they needed to, to feed their families. All the traits that came together to form them as individuals and in their relationship can be expressed through the way both characters communicate with one another.

“Bean,’ Turtle said. ‘Humbean.” (108)

Turtle, being only a little under three years old, doesn’t talk very often. However, when she does it has a tendency to be important to her character. Kingsolver uses made-up words such as “humbean” to imitate the way a child would try to communicate. Bean was Turtle’s first word. She says this when she is in the garden with Taylor and Mattie.

It is important that Turtle’s first word was bean because of what beans symbolize in the novel. Beans are symbols for life, hope, and growth. Beans grow in Tucson despite all the droughts and harsh weather. In a similar way, Turtle grows and lives despite all the troubles and abuse she has been through in her life that put her behind. For a long time, the only words Turtle said were plants. This is another symbol that she represents hope and growth for her mother and the other lives she touches in the novel.

“Undeservedly,’ he corrected me, smiling.

‘One of the undeservedly poor.’ Even my English was going to fall apart without him.” (234)

Estevan is an immigrant from Guatemala along with his wife Esperanza. He was formally an English teacher and thus speaks perfect English, making no grammatical errors. Taylor finds this fascinating and frequently notes how he speaks beautifully and she enjoys listening to him. Estevan is also trilingual. He speaks Spanish, Mayan, and English. His knowledge of language contributes to what a well rounded and knowledgeable person he is. Estevan represents a stable and courageous figure in the novel.

There is also irony behind Estevan’s incredible knowledge of English. He and his wife are illegal immigrants in America and much run from immigration. They also face a lot of prejudice and ridicule. The irony is, that Estevan speaks English better than most Americans. This is continually acknowledged by Taylor. As he says in American the quality of his English actually begins to get worse with all the slang we use. This is symbolic of how he was actually lowered by Americans. For example, he was a teacher in Guatemala and he washes dishes in the United States. However, he remains proud.

Barbara Kingsolver ties in the different ways in which each character approaches languages as a symbolic try between both themselves and their culture, as well as ties with people around them. The dialog in the novel molds detailed personalities and relationships that have their base at linguistic similarities and differences.

C.W. 2011

The Lacuna: How Historical Events Enhance the Meaning of the Work

[(This essay is date 2011) In this essay CW will discuss how the author’s intertwining of historical events and how the comparison between those events and the novel allow the characters to be better developed.]

The Lacuna, written by Barbara Kingsolver, strives to tell the story of society’s minorities. To bring further understanding and emotion to the struggle of the characters and highlight the overall theme, Kingsolver incorporates real historical events into the novel.

“So he set fire to everything, even the wooden temples where Moteczuma kept his birds. ‘But since it was still more grievous to them, I determined to do it.’”

Harrison Shepherd, the narrator of the novel, first details one of the very first major recorded events in the history of Mexico. Shepherd reads the journal of Cortès and how he manipulates and massacres the Aztec people. The narrator continually references how Cortès used guns against the people with arrows.

Shepherd uses this this event to compare to other mistreatments of humans that occur during his life. The tying together of these historical events further establishes how important the human struggle is the the novel. These struggles, highlighted by the historical events, expand into the personal struggles of the characters.

“Against people. That hit with a shock. They were beating at the Bonus Army men and women with the razor-sharp blades of sabers” (106)

Harrison Shepherd, is continually journalling about the struggles of the oppressed population. When he returns to the United States he witnesses The Army force the Bonus Army and their family from where they were living in the warehouse district of Washington D.C. This event that occurred during the Great Depression was a key point in the history of the United States. It represents force being used against defenseless people.

MacArthur and his troops burned all the makeshift homes along the Potomac River and trampled their crops. Shepherd relates their village to Mexico, and states that it brought tears to his eyes to read this in the paper. He also relates the event back to Cortès. He says the way MacArthur burned the village is like the way Cortez burned the birds. The way that the crops were destroyed it the same action that Cortès took against the Aztecs. Shepherd, shows that MacArthur used guns against people with bows and arrows.

“One at a time, the bodies in the guard house stood up from the floor, put their hands on their own heartbeats, and struggled to put life back on like a suit of clothes ripped away. Everybody alive.”

As Harrison lived with Lev and the other revolutionaries and staff, there was a constant fear that someone would try to harm them. One night that is exactly what happened. Several of Stalin’s men made their way to the home of Lev by pretending to be police officers. Confused, the security staff let them through. The men opened fire on the home filled with a sleeping family. Once again, guns used on people with no weapons.

This particular event was tied in, in a unique fashion. The character of Lev had been so well developed, major historical events involving him are much more emotional to the narrator. Therefore, the heavy impact of this attack on the characters created a more bolded theme for the novel. The attack illustrates an extreme misuse of power.

Barbara Kingsolver ties in the historical events of the time period she is trying to create in order to provide proof and explanation for the overall theme of the novel. The meaning of the work as a whole can be placed along with the historical events, it is the struggle of humans against the misuse of power.

C.W. 2011