Three Novels by Kingsolver

Three Novels by Barbara Kingsolver

The Bean Trees                    Pigs in Heaven                          Flight Behavior
HarperCollins, 1988                     HarperCollins, 1993                          HarperCollins, 2012

I went on another author binge, this time with the novels of Barbara Kingsolver. It all started when I found a hardbound copy of Flight Behavior on sale for $2.00. How could I pass that up? I remembered loving The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams, and The Poisonwood Bible when they first came out, but although Kingsolver has published many more books since then, it has been eighteen years since I have read anything else by her. I searched through my own library and discovered that I still had copies of The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, so I dusted them off and started reading.

Kingsolver’s first novel, The Bean Trees, narrates the story of Taylor Greer, a young girl who grows up poor in the South and is being raised by a single mother. Taylor has two goals in life: one is to graduate from high school without getting pregnant, the fate of most of her classmates, and the other is to escape rural Kentucky. After graduation she works at the local hospital and saves enough money to buy an old car, determined to keep driving West until her car stops running. With her mother’s support, she starts out, but while in Oklahoma, a desperate woman hands Taylor a three-year-old Cherokee girl, and then leaves, saying, “Take this baby. . . . There isn’t nobody knows it’s alive, or cares.” Taylor soon discovers that the little girl has been horribly abused and sexually molested, and she decides to keep the child. When her car’s tires give out, she coasts into Jesus Is the Lord Used Tires in Tucson, Arizona, and her life changes forever. Mattie, the owner, takes her under her wing, just as she does other immigrants, and soon Taylor finds Lou Ann, a new mother whose husband has just left her. The two women learn about motherhood together, and Turtle slowly comes out of her  traumatized shell. Ultimately, Taylor must travel to the Cherokee Nation to adopt Turtle. Although several sub-plots entwine themselves within the narrative, two major themes bind them together. One focuses on the strong community of women who help each other survive, much like the wisteria, Turtle’s “Bean Tree.” The wisteria vine thrives in poor soil and is dependent on microscopic bugs to provide fertilizer for the plant. The women are much like the wisteria and its hosts: “The wisteria vines on their own would just barely get by . . . but put them together with the rhizobia and they make miracles.”  The book also asks us to rethink our definition of family to include unconventional relationships, those not connected by blood or marriage. Another important theme focuses on outsiders, not only illegal immigrants and those who give them sanctuary but also single mothers and families struggling to rise above poverty level. I enjoyed this book as much this time as the first time.

Pigs in Heaven, Kingsolver’s third book, picks up the story of Taylor and Turtle three years later when Turtle is six, brings back Taylor’s mother Alice as a major character, and adds two love interests, one for Taylor and one for her mother. After Turtle sees a mentally challenged man fall into Hoover Dam and convinces the authorities to search for him, she becomes a celebrity and even appears on Oprah. Unfortunately, Annawake Fourkiller, a young Cherokee lawyer, is watching the program and begins proceedings to take Turtle away from Taylor and return her to her people. Taylor and Turtle flee from a happy home they have established with Jax, a musician, and struggle to survive on their own. Eventually, Taylor realizes that she must face the Cherokee Nation and try to resolve the conflict. Meanwhile, Alice travels to Oklahoma, for she is one quarter Cherokee herself, to find a cousin to help them. There she meets and falls in love with Cash Stillwater, a Cherokee mourning the loss of his daughters, one who died and another who has become an alcoholic. Although I liked this sequel again, too, I will not ruin the ending for readers, I must admit that the foreshadowing is very heavy handed, and the resolution will be no surprise.

Flight Behavior is Kingsolver’s newest publication. The setting is in Appalachia, again featuring a young, restless woman, Dellarobia Turnbow, who does become pregnant as a teenager and marries the father even though she loses the baby. Ten years pass, and she now is a stay-at-home mother of two young children, living with her insouciant husband under the domination of her parents-in-law on a sheep farm. To mitigate her disappointing life, she engages in flirtations with local young men; however, none reach the stage of physical intimacy until she recklessly decides to meet on of them in a cabin on the family’s mountain. On her way to the tryst, she chances upon millions of Monarch butterflies that have flown off course from their normal wintering spot in Mexico, a region altered by climate change. Dellarobia, too, veers off of her flight path, believing the butterflies to be a sign to return to her family. The butterfly phenomenon soon becomes international news, with Dellarobia in the center of it, causing conflicts with her husband, her in-laws, the townspeople, the church, and even within herself. Dr. Ovid Byron, a lepidopterist from the island of St. Thomas who has devoted his life to researching Monarch butterflies, appears with his entourage of assistants to study the anomaly.  Dellarobia begins helping the scientists, and with the support of Byron, discovers that her life is not a dead end, and she takes flight as a new and independent woman. Again, Kingsolver did not disappoint me.

Photo by Seth Kantner

Just as we all mature physically, writers also mature professionally. What intrigues me the most about these three particular novels is the change in Kingsolver’s writing between 1988, 1993, and 2012. The most obvious growth is in her style, which becomes more polished–as one would hope for in any writer. In the first paragraph of The Bean Trees, Kingsolver writes, “But I stayed in school. I was not the smartest or even particularly outstanding but I was there and staying out of trouble and I intended to finish. This is not to say that I was unfamiliar with the back seat of a Chevrolet” (4). Five years later, in Pigs in Heaven, she has smoothed the rough edges of her sentences, creating a stronger cadence within and between the sentences: “It’s early morning, April, windless, unreasonably hot even at this sun-forsaken hour. Alice is sixty-one. Her husband, Harland, is sleeping like a brick and snoring. To all appearances they’re a satisfied couple sliding home free in their golden years, but Alice knows that’s not how it is going to go.” Nineteen years later in Flight Behavior, Kingsolver has matured even more as a writer, beginning the novel with a balance of concrete details and abstract ideas, not only setting up the scene but also building a thematic foundation: “A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture, or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-colored hair who marched uphill to meet her demise.”

Photo by David Wood

Fortunately, Kingsolver’s apt and memorable, often humorous, metaphors continue to tumble over one another throughout all of her novels. “Nowadays, if you could even call the railroad in Tucson an artery, you would have to say it was a hardened one” and “The sloped desert plain that lay between us and the city was like a palm stretched out for a fortuneteller to read, with its mounds and hillocks, its life lines and heart lines of dry stream beds” (Bean Trees). “I think that’s why Las Vegas is the way it is. It’s kind of like the only trash can for a hundred miles, so all the garbage winds up in it” and “Sympathizing over the behavior of men is the baking soda of women’s friendships, it seems, the thing that make them bubble and rise”(Pigs). “His  mustache made two curved lines around the sides of his mouth like a parentheses, as if everything he might say would be very quiet, and incidental” and “She’d never before understood how much her life in this little house had felt to her like confinement in a sinking vehicle after driving off a bridge” (Flight). What I notice, however, is that as Kingsolver has matured as a writer, her metaphors stop calling attention to themselves and blend more subtly into the narrative.

Kingslover’s characters have always been well-developed, and except for her historical epic, The Lacuna, they often tend to be young, impoverished women swimming upstream in life. To her credit, each protagonist becomes a unique individual. The novels, however, begin to move slowly away from being plot centered to character orientated, from simply portraying conflicts against others and society to including deeper conflicts within the characters themselves. Although Taylor’s struggles in raising and adopting Turtle are deeply personal, the major conflicts in these two novels are mainly against other characters as well as society. However, from the very first sentence in Flight Behavior, Dellarobia struggles to accept and then to find her place in life. Although she must face disapproval and censure from others–her family, the church, the townspeople– these conflicts are internalized, must be dealt with within herself.

The only disappointing trend for me is Kingsover’s growing tendency to didacticism, to sermonizing. In The Bean Trees, she shows us a young, poor, single woman struggling to survive in an impersonal world. And, even though she brings up the political issue of immigration, rather than standing on a soap box and telling us her views about illegal aliens in America, she shows Estevan and Esperanza being shuttled from one secret hideout to another in an attempt to protect them from being returned to Guatemala, a politically corrupt country whose government has already kidnapped their daughter and will destroy them if they return. Kingsolver makes the personal political; she shows and does not tell.

Unfortunately, in Pigs in Heaven, rather than allow the plot and characters to illustrate the unfortunate plight of Cherokee children being adopted out of the tribe, the necessity of belonging to their Native community and learning their heritage, Kingsolver employs young Cherokee lawyer Annawake Fourkiller to launch into the Indian Child Welfare Act, ” a law that gives tribes the final say over custody of our own children. . . .Congress passed it in 1978 because so many Indian kids were being separated from their families and put into non-Indian homes. . . . A third of all our kids were still being taken from their families and adopted into white homes. One out of three.” Throughout the novel, rather than simply describing the close sense of family connections among the Cherokee, watching them practice their traditional ceremonies, and letting the story make her point for her, that Turtle must grow up as part of a larger community, Kingsolver feels the need to explain it to the reader.

The same tendency toward the didactic mars Flight Behavior. In this novel, Kingsolver tackles two major political and social concerns: pollution and climate change. For the most part, her narrative describes in exquisite detail the plight of the Monarch butterflies in the colder mountains of Appalachia as Dellarobia and the scientists helplessly document their attempt at survival, more alarmingly, the survival of a species. At the same time, unusual rains threaten the region, even more so when she discovers that her father-in-law intends to clear cut the mountain to save the family farm where the butterflies have settled. Unfortunately, Kingsolver does not trust the reader to “get it,” so she again creates a mouthpiece in entomologist Ovid Byron to explain to the reader the implications of climate change on the environment and all of its inhabitants.

Why is it that the more famous some writers become, the more they feel the need to tell rather than show their political or social agendas? I do not denigrate them for using their celebrity to take a stand on issues in which they strongly believe; I just wish they would remember the cardinal rule of storytelling. Anton Chekhov explained it well. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

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One thought on “Three Novels by Kingsolver

  1. I had to laugh out loud with an epiphany when I read your blog. Many, many years ago, I started Pigs in Heaven and didn’t finish, deciding Kingsolver was too jumbled in her thoughts for me. A few years ago I picked up Poisonwood Bible and declared it “amazing.”

    I assumed that all the change occurred on my end. And that I must’ve finally gained enough life experiences to understand her words. It never occurred to me that Kingsolver had changed, too.

    I imagine the truth lies somewhere in the middle. That we both moved a little closer to understanding and expressing the truths and lies in life, but still….I thank you for the window of grace you’ve provided to forgive my twenty-year-old self for being slow to catch on.

    And, yes, I absolutely agree about preaching to the choir. I had to stop reading James Lee Burke because I tired of skipping pages which hammered the reader in a direct campaign for a cause.

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