Prodigal Summer
by Barbara Kingsolver
2000, Harper Collins: NY

Reviewed by Amy Lenzo

The depth of Barbara Kingsolver’s joyous love affair with nature is reflected in all her work, but perhaps nowhere so beautifully as here, in her latest novel Prodigal Summer.

Each and every character in this richly woven, tri-partite novel has his or her hopes, dreams and fears set firmly within the larger ‘web of life’ they are an indelible part of. Their love stories – and this is a novel of love stories like you have likely never heard them told before – are played out in the wild grace and profusion of nature in the forested mountains and small farming homesteads of southern Appalachia’s Zebulon Valley.

As you may have surmised by this time, nature is not just a backdrop or creative ‘foil’ for the human characters in this book. To the contrary - the ways of nature are set within the story in such a way as to make them as integral to her plot as they are to all of us in real life. In her beautiful and simply designed web-site ( Barbara Kingsolver has a ‘dialogue’ section where she has responded to readers’ questions. Here is Barbara’s advice to a reader who asks what she should be looking for in the book:

"… if you really want my guidance on Prodigal Summer I'd ask you to read slowly; this is the most challenging book I’ve ever given my readers. Several reviewers have completely missed what the book is about, because they paid no attention to anything beyond human plot on the shallowest level. This novel is not exclusively—or even mainly—about humans. There is no main character. My agenda is to lure you into thinking about whole systems, not just individual parts. The story asks for a broader grasp of connections and interdependencies than is usual in our culture."

Barbara Kingsolver has a graduate degree in biology, and a strong background in the sciences and natural history - she knows of what she speaks – and it seems that everyone in this novel is similarly invested in a relationship with nature. One of the plot threads involves Deanna, a wildlife biologist who lives in a secluded cabin in a wilderness preserve on the mountain. In her solitary job as a ranger studying wildlife on the preserve, she has just discovered a den of coyotes, whose secret she very much wants to protect. But at just about the same time, she is discovered herself, by a lone mountain hunter named Eddie Bondo, whose intrusion into this paradise she cannot (and does not want to) resist.

Another story revolves around a young widow, Lusa, who left a promising academic career as an entomologist in Lexington to marry Cole, and move with him back to Zebulon Valley, where he’d grown up. Cole dies in a freak accident soon after they arrived and leaves her to inherit the family farm along with the barely concealed hostility of his sisters.

One of Lusa’s neighbors is a crusty old man named Garnett, who holds the secret to her survival on the land there, he no less dependent on another neighbor, Nannie Rawley, who holds the key to his own future. These stories all intersect and interweave on the human level much like they do within their natural environments, and the whole picture works very much like a satisfying puzzle that fits together perfectly as the shapes of individual pieces are gradually revealed.

Here is an excerpt from the novel, where Deanna has been sitting in the underbrush all morning with her binoculars, waiting for a sign of the coyotes she thought she’d found:

"Deanna knew exactly when the morning ended. She never wore a watch, and for this she didn’t need one. She knew when the air grew still enough that she could hear caterpillars overhead, newly hatched, eating through thousands of leaves on their way to becoming Io and luna moths, In the next hour the breeze would shift. No sense in taking a chance; it was time to leave and she’d still seen nothing—no movement, no sign. No little dogs, fox-like and wolf-like and cousin to both, so familiar from her studies that they sometimes ran through her dreams. Awake, she’d had good long looks at only one single animal, a pathetic captive that she’d rather forget, in the Tinker’s Mountain Zoo outside of Knoxville. She’s pleaded with the curator to change the exhibit, explaining that coyotes were social, and that displaying a single animal was therefore not just cruel but also inaccurate. She had offered him her services: a graduate student in wildlife biology, finishing up a thesis on the coyote range extension in the twentieth century. The curator had politely suggested that if she wanted to see coyotes in groups she should take a trip out west, where the animals were so common that people got acquainted with them as roadkill. The conversation had given her a stomachache. So she’d written a grant proposal instead, invented this job, and put herself in it as soon as she’d completed and defended her thesis. She’d had to fight some skeptics, wrangling a rare agreement between the Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, so that there were almost more words on her paycheck than dollars. But it was working out fine, they all seemed to think now. Two years after her arrival, one of the most heavily poached ranges of southern Appalachia was becoming an intact ecosystem again. All of that was the point, but to her mind only partly so.

She breathed out now, resigned. One day she’d lay eyes on wily Canis latrans in the wild, right here on her own home range, on an animal path cross-stitched by other trails to the paths she’d walked in her childhood. But it wouldn’t be this day.

On her way back up the mountain she consciously slowed her step. She heard another magnolia warbler—a sign and a wonder, it seemed to her, like something risen from the dead. So many others would never rise again: Bachman’s warbler, passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, Flint’s stonefly, Apamea moth—so many extinct creatures moved through the leaves just outside her peripheral vision, for Deanna knew enough to realize that she lived among ghosts. She deferred to the extinct as she would to the spirits of deceased relatives, paying her quiet respects in the places where they might once have been. Little red wolves stood as silent shadows at the edges of clearings, while the Carolina parakeets would have chattered loudly, moving along the riverbanks in huge flocks of dazzling green and orange. The early human settlers migrating into this region had loved them and promptly killed them. Now most people would call you crazy if you told them that something as exotic as a parrot had once been at home in these homely southern counties."

Environmental and political activist Barbara Kingsolver consciously utilizes material she is passionate about, writing in a way designed to catalyze a much-needed awakening in attitudes about environmental and social justice policies, but this doesn’t mean that her books are dry, or read like political tracts. A very popular writer, who has had many books on the best-seller list over the years, Kingsolver is read by all sorts of people and is a great example of the creative power that art and artists wield. The arguments and perspectives that form the scaffolding for her fiction take her where no petition or protest, no matter how eloquent, could… directly into the homes and hearts and minds of the wide audience that reads her.

If you are new to her charms as a writer, you will no doubt enjoy following this delicious beginning with some of Barbara Kingsolver’s earlier work. Start with her series about an abandoned Native American child and her adopted mother – The Bean Trees, Pigs in America and Animal Dreams. Then there is the excellent High Tide in Tucson, a collection of environmental and scientific essays, and the best-selling Poisonwood Bible, a cautionary tale of a missionary family in Africa.