Thursday, April 23, 2009

Barbara Kingsolver: Southern Writer

I mentioned a while back that I wanted to do a small series on Southern writers. Better late than never at fulfilling that goal, I suppose. Barbara Kingsolver is a terrific place to start, partly because her recent book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is causing many people to rethink what we eat--and is often read by people who read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (see my review). Both books are hot topics right now. I plan to write a separate review for A, V, M because it is not a novel like the others of Kingsolver's I've read; as such, it doesn't fit the characteristics of Southern fiction I outlined in my earlier post on the subject.

Bio on Kingsolver
Before I jump into Kingsolver's works and examine them, a brief bio on the author herself might help those unfamiliar with her works and background. She is married to Steven Hopp, an environmental sciences professor, has two daughters, and lives in Virginia (she was born in the Southeast as well). She has a traveled extensively, lived in Arizona for a time, and also has pursued degrees in such scientific areas as evolutionary biology. For more information, see here.

Some Literary Analysis
I have not read all of Kingsolver's works, but I've read enough to be fairly conversant with her style and themes. She fits into the characteristics I outlined earlier for Southern fiction nicely. I'll break them down below, using examples from Kingsolver's work. If you are unfamiliar with her work, see here for some summaries and excerpts. I will focus on The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, and Prodigal Summer.

First, Southern novels and short stories tend to showcase the protagonist(s) relationships and conflicts with family, tradition and culture, and the land. Kingsolver is no exception here; her massive tome The Poisonwood Bible is full of this very subject matter. A minister, his wife, and their four daughters head to the Congo as missionaries. The women narrate the story in turns, and each individual story line is rife with analysis of the minister in his various roles as husband, father, and minister/missionary. They also reflect on their relationships with each other. The traditions and culture of the Congo form a central staging for conflict, and all five women spend much time reflecting on the differences between the Congo and their American home as well as the differences in themselves over time as a response to the cultural transition they're undergoing. Two girls elect to stay in Africa when their time as missionaries comes to a close, but for very different reasons. All of the women react to Africa significantly--the land itself as well as its cultural stage. In The Bean Trees, the entire narrative centers around Taylor's new relationships in the Southwest, particularly the three-year-old "Turtle" who becomes her companion. Prodigal Summer rotates between three different storylines: an older, crotchety couple who live next door to each other, a young newly wed couple, and a woman scientist who is trying to live as a hermit (but doesn't succeed). This novel is sexually charged partly because Kingsolver draws so much of the natural world's life cycle into the narrative. Everying from flowers to animals to people becomes part of the great life cycle going on.

Second, Southern authors showcase the rich tradition, especially present in the Appalachias, of storytelling. Kingsolver is an expert storyteller and her books are sheer pleasure to read as a result. The characters in her book don't tell stories as an event (like some of Lee Smith's characters), but the books read much like a storyteller would tell them.

Third, these Southern works are almost always intergenerational; that is, several generations are involved in the story. Poisonwood Bible, as mentioned above, revolves around the relationships between parents and children; The Bean Trees, similarly, centers on Taylor's relationship with Turtle--not a biological connection, but very similar to mother and child.

Fourth, Southern works focus on personal struggles; these are frequently somewhat depressing in nature which is why I have to take a break every now and then! These struggles include everything from family tension, racial issues, identity crises, and the like. Taylor's story in Bean Trees is full of struggle--the very reason she ends up in the Southwest is because she's leaving her old life to strike out on her own.

My Evaluation/Critique in a Nutshell
Kingsolver is a true Southern author--one of the best. Her writing is lyrical, rooted in the natural world, brimming over with humanity. Her work is a delight to read partly because of her gift with words. I highly recommend reading her works, but would also caution readers that she has a definite agenda. Her books often carry post-colonial thought (white men are bad because they took over and ruined places like Africa during colonial expansion). Her books are very evolutionary friendly; Prodigal Summer is a prime example of this. It's a wonderful book to read in some respects--particularly if you enjoy nature and nature writing. However, it's full of evolutionary subtexts. And, of course, we don't take our human relationship standards from fiction--Taylor's story in Bean Trees is a good example of why! So, if you're looking for a truly talented author to read, check out Kingsolver, but read with a critical mind, as always!

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