Saturday, October 19, 2002

Beyond the Poisonwood Bible -- Book Review -- Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

While Prodigal Summer has not enjoyed the level of popularity The Poisonwood Bible has seen amongst Kingsolver's fans, for me personally Prodigal Summer is, by far, the better work, more developed and more mature than the excellent, poetically beautiful and eventful Poisonwood Bible.
In Prodigal Summer Kingsolver's lyrical and sensitive language and detailed description transport us whole into the lives of Lusa, Deanna and the fascinating elderly feuding neighbors Nanny and Garnet.

The various characters, even the minor ones, in Prodigal Summer are far more developed, more real, more 3d in comparison with the admittedly more poetic Poisonwood. In Prodigal the pace, throughout, is restrained, consistent, the various plots nicely develop towards a future meeting point at a natural pace. Beautifully crafted and exciting natural meeting point emerge in a slow fashion as we get to know more and more about our new friends.

Lusa, a city woman from Lexington, with a Polish Jewish father and Palestinian Moslem mother finds herself on a farm in an Appalachian valley. Lusa, surrounded by a closed society with lots of antagonistic and suspicious in-laws inherits the big house and the family farm. Conscious of the suffering and the loss of her Jewish family of their farm at the hands of the Nazis and the loss of her mother's Palestinian family of their farm at the hands of the Jews, Lusa won't quit she fights on to make a go of it. Lusa, an expert on bugs and moth, struggle with loneliness, widowhood and temptation, her desire to fit but to be herself, her whole being is so very beautifully created and brought to life in vivid colors before our eyes by Kingsolver. The minor in-laws start out as cardboard characters, a hateful envious lot in the distance; gradually they are turned into real people in Lusas' and our eyes.

Deanna, the Forest Service Rancher, living in the mountain above Lusa, nearly 20 years her senior, is the center of the second plot. Originally from the valley below, and had she stayed there she could have been Lusa's soul mate, has been on the mountain for two years. In love with the mountain, its animals, its birds and its weeds and trees, a true conservationist with a devotion to predators. Kingsolver portrays Deanna's life on the mountain with such detail and empathy, one can picture her log cabin, can see the little bird's nest and can smell the change in the air. Deanna's peace and tranquility are disturbed by an intense affair, one that leaves her confused about her own body but very clear on her ideas.

The odd pair, the elderly Nanny and Garnet are so wonderfully painted by Kingsolver. Nanny, again a generation older than Deanna, is an organic farmer, a hardworking woman who has always stood up for her ideas and for her independence. A fascinating woman in her weaknesses, in her courage and in her wit. Kingsolver's talent, so clearly evident in Poisonwood in the way she wrote on behalf of the several characters, comes across so well here but in a more subtle way. The three women from different generations share a lot in their independence, self respect and love of nature, but they are different, they speak differently and they deal differently with life. In Poisonwood the daughters were very different and thus their language, when Kingsolver wrote on their behalf, was just as different. Here, the three women are so similar yet Kingsolver masterfully captured their far more subtle differences in their dialogue.

Garnet, an endearing and aggravating old man, dedicated his later years to finding a way to reestablish the American Chestnut tree, virtually wiped out by logging and blight. A devout Christian, a firm believer in insecticide and all the most inorganic farming techniques of the 50's and 60's is at odds with his neighbor. In Poisonwood Kingsolver's portrayals of the male characters was rather one dimensional, good or bad. Garnet is real, he has his insecurities and his kindness, his ignorance but he is also a formidable expert on raising goats which comes in handy for the Palestinian Lusa.

This is a true masterpiece, beautifully crafted and written. Excellently researched and informative, and, wow, never forget about the coyotes, the proud mystical predators with their haunted cry and piercing eyes.