Monday, July 22, 2002

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

This morning I have the opportunity to talk to you about a truly excellent book by Barbara Kingsolver entitled Prodigal Summer. If you are a reader and somewhere on the left, liberal, progressive side of things, then you know of Kingsolver. She is one of the really important political writers of the last twenty years. I admire her not only because she is an excellent writer, but because she is an overtly political writer. That would be surprising enough if she had a small but devout circle of leftist readers—large enough to tempt even a big corporate publisher into risking the publication of a few thousand, even a few hundred thousand, copies, but it is simply stunning when you realize that her books are huge best sellers, reviewed by even the most stodgy and business oriented periodicals and newspapers. I believe that what she has to say is downright dangerous to corporate capitalism, and if her readers really manage to read beyond the story, allow themselves to hear the deeper and more important message, then they cannot help but move further to the left.

I’m sure that many readers were able to read her earlier work, Poisonwood Bible, and yet see in it only a clever story and a condemnation of religious fundamentalism. At best, to see in that wonderful book a studied examination of ethnocentrism and the arrogance of chosen people religions, without also seeing how clearly she paints the role of America and the CIA in the political assassination of Patrice Lumumba, without seeing how the hunger for cobalt and diamonds and the economic enslavement of a whole continent by the U.S. and other imperial giants denies millions of people not only what is rightfully theirs, but keeps them on a razor’s edge of poverty.

Perhaps many who read Prodigal Summer will see it merely as a kind of animal right’s piece—easy to cheer for coyote pups if your portfolio is sound. But any but the most superficial of readings has to leave the reader with so much more. Here is a person who obviously knows what she is talking about, a biologist and naturalist long before she was a famous author, Kingsolver weaves a wonderful and complex story about the interconnections between the senseless slaying of predators, the criminal pressure and lying of chemical companies selling their ever more deadly insecticides, the corporate takeover of farming, and the rapid disappearance of farm families and a whole way of life. Knowing what she knows, seeing clearly just how rapidly forests are disappearing, how species vital to all living things are going extinct at a spiraling rate almost inconceivable in its acceleration, somehow she remains hopeful, and I admire her as much for her dogged hopefulness as for her knowledge and her expertise.

Were this book simply a doomsday warning, a long and close look by someone who knows much more than we her ordinary readers about how frightening the future is, about the extraordinary cost of productive madness, it would be well worth reading. But it is more than that. There is an energy and hopefulness in Kingsolver that is simply thrilling. I wish that I could say that I am always hopeful, that I can somehow see a future that is less market mad and with some sort of sanity with respect to dwindling resources. I have always respected and admired my friends in the left who work and struggle tirelessly in trying to initiate change and who manage somehow to stave of the pessimism, even cynicism, that seems so clearly to square with the facts. Though I can’t say quite why this is so, I have come away from Prodigal Summer with somewhat more hope. Perhaps it is due simply to the huge audience that Kingsolver now reaches; perhaps this signals some burgeoning consciousness in what seems a blind and paralyzed populace. And while consciousness is certainly not enough, it is at least a necessary condition for any real change.

Even if you are simply a would-be naturalist, someone who, like me, had biology and botany as a first love, there is plenty for you in Prodigal Summer. Though I think we should all try to read more natural science, try to have some more understanding of how we play into the great chain of being, I have to admit that many (even most) science texts are badly written and overly technical for the novice. Kingsolver, as she tells us the interesting story of a few families, manages also to tell us about the incredible lives of moths, the strange habits of male butterflies, the complex language of coyote colonies. If, like me, you are an addict of fiction, a reader who has come to love and even expect skillful word-weaving from what you read, then here is a wonderful way to become more acquainted with nature and with the web of dependencies between all living things. I was hooked from the first page as I was allowed to walk along a trail with a women forest service worker, a hermit who has fled from the world of humans back to a saner and more ordered world of non-human nature. Even the first passage should get you, and if it does, you will be hooked for the whole book.
Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits. But solitude is only a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen. All secrets witnessed.
I suppose one danger of reading this book is that one could easily simply increase their disgust, even contempt, for human animals as wonder and awe for other creatures increases. I have to admit that I sometimes found myself wondering how wonderful it would be for the rest of the living organisms on the planet if some quick and sudden plague simply wiped out human beings. Such a catastrophe for humans would, most likely, insure many more thousands of years of life on this earth-garden for most other organisms. Couple that with the realization that continuing on the course we are now on will quite soon make the earth unlivable not only for us but for most other living things, and it is a short step to a kind of enlightened misanthropy. But that is certainly not Kingsolver’s intent. If you get a chance, listen to her interviews since September 11; hear what she has to say about the hatred and fear so many other countries have, not for Americans, but for the bloated and senseless economies like this one that are ravaging the earth. As saddened and sickened as she is by so much that is going on in the world, always you can hear also her pleas for change, her understated but very real hope for a better future.

On so many levels, this is a book that you should read, that you will be so glad that you did read. I swear it will inform about the real bleakness of what is happening on the biological level but without leading to simple despair. If you have heard other reviews by me, you know that I don’t bother to talk about books that I think are bad. There are too many good ones to bother knocking the bad. But one problem with that approach is that it might tend to level the good books and fail to distinguish the great from the merely good. Believe me when I say that this is one that you just must read, and when you have, you will feel privileged to be an animal among animals. Perhaps you will also find yourself renewed and committed to trying to make the future better than the past.

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