Barbara Kingsolver's spectacular Poisonwood Bible, a story that combines history and humanity, seemed to be her magnum opus. Really, how does a writer produce anything better than a story that's seemingly perfect? Comparing Poisonwood Bible and her newest, Prodigal Summer, is the apples/oranges dilemma. Prodigal Summer hold its own - with the help of Kingsolver's magical use of imagery. Her command of the English language is awe-inspiring.
Prodigal Summer tells three stories about uncommon people whose lives ultimately intertwine. Deanna Wolfe is a wildlife biologist who lives alone on Zebulon Mountain, observing the reentry of coyotes into the ecological landscape. She feels that her solitary existence is all she needs now that she's divorced. That solitude will be broken by Eddie Bondo, a younger man with an intense dislike for coyotes, a man who will change Deanna's life forever.
Lusa Maluf Landowski is an entomologist, a city girl who marries a farmer and moves to Zebulon Mountain. Her efforts are concentrated on finding a place for herself in this new and hostile environment.
Garnett Walker is an elderly, crotchety man who clings to old ideas. With the help of his long-time nemesis, neighbor Nannie Rawley, Garnett's life will change during the summer, too.
Each chapter is labeled clearly so that we know immediately who's featured. Predators is always about Deanna, Moth Love concerns Lusa and Old Chestnuts focuses on Garnett, with Nannie always on his mind. As the book progresses the symbolism of these names becomes apparent.
Kingsolver's amazing use of language strengthens and embellishes her style of composition. Here's how she describes Deanna's decaying relationship with her now ex-husband.
Deanna's ex-husband ignored her, even when she was naked, "like a stranger in a theater blocking his view of the movie."
In another scene, Kingsolver illustrates the crowded condition at a funeral.
People waited in line, following the long narrow hallway like a glass
pipette or medicine dropper that kept dispensing solemn visitors into the
room, one at a time.
Kingsolver gives us wonderful descriptions of the people of southern Appalachia. As the story develops these people are slowly revealed, much like peeling the layers of an onion. In the end we're all alike, all interconnected, and all thinking that we're the center of the universe. In that, we're no different from the moth, salamander or coyote.
Kingsolver's knowledge of biology and interest in all things ecological are
represented here in gentle lectures regarding the evils of pesticide, the
injuries we perpetuate by cutting down forests and the injustice of killing
predators just because we fear them. At times I felt humble and
occasionally I felt a twinge of guilt as I read her gentle admonitions of
how we're not doing such a admirable job as the Earth's caretakers.
A telling episode revolves around a conversation between Garnett and
Nannie. It seems that a local church has exterminated its bee population
and suddenly finds itself with two inches of honey on the floor. Poor
Nannie sighs and then tells Garnett how smoking the bees out and giving
them a chance to find a new home would have been so much better than
killing them. Without the bees in the church to fly over the honey and keep
it cool, it's melting and running. She's amazed that people who've lived in
the country can be so stupid.
Prodigal Summer doesn't have any climaxes or even a true ending.
Reading it is like a long, leisurely walk in the autumn woods, enjoying the
scenery, pondering the wonders of nature. It ends gently, with the implied
promise that life is going to be good and deeply satisfying for Deanna,
Lusa and for Garnett and Nannie.
If you enjoy books that are action packed and seem as rushed and as
frenetic as the Boston Marathon, then Prodigal Summer may not be for
you. It actually took me a long time to finish it. I'd read a bit and then
reread, savoring what I'd just read, much like a caffeine addict savors
that first cup of coffee in the morning.
The only problem with a book as finely-tuned as Prodigal Summer is
that finding something to read afterward, something that's satisfying, is
darn near impossible. There needs to be some reading ‘downtime' to let
expectations return to normal. It's like needing some time after
Thanksgiving dinner before wanting to eat again.
If ever a book had an inner radioactive glow, a glow fueled by intensity,
intelligence, lyrical prose and a theme that concerns all of us, it's