Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Natural Life - The Sure Cure for the Doldrums

As I've been painting and gardening over the past few weeks I have been in thrall to the narrative voice, still imbued with an easy country lilt, of the inimitable Barbara Kingsolver. I first became acquainted with her writing with publication of "The Poisonwood Bible," a novel that affected me profoundly and likely contributed to my early interest in the countries and people of Africa. I also had the pleasure of reviewing "The Lacuna" and "Flight Behavior" for Library Journal. So how, I wonder, had I missed "Prodigal Summer?"
What a shame that the word "prodigal" still bears the negative connotation conjured up by the biblical tale of the prodigal son. Merriam-Webster's first definition is "abundant," followed by "luxuriant." Now that's more like it! Because the summer that Ms. Kingsolver writes of in this glorious novel is ripe with fruition.
As she does in many of her books, Kingsolver tells several seemingly unrelated stories, allowing the reader to slowly, intuitively find the correlations among them. First we meet Deanna Wolfe, a forty-something doctoral student in biology (much like Ms. Kingsolver herself), living in a single room cabin in the Appalachian mountains. She is there to study the wildlife and to protect the coyotes that are returning to their natural habitat.
When a predator arrives in the form of a young hunter named Eddie Bondo, he and Deanna circle each other warily like any other animals in the forest. Each has wisdom to share with the other as they form an immediate sexual bond and a cautious emotional one.
In a small farming town nestled at the base of the mountains the Widener family has been surviving on tobacco for generations. But since Cole went off to the University of Kentucky to bolster his knowledge of new techniques and had the gall to bring home a bride who happened to be his teacher, nothing's been the same. Lusa's a Lexington girl and the Widener women believe that all the book learning in the world won't make her a farmer. What was Cole thinking?
And then there's the long-quarreling old neighbors, the god-fearing Garnett Walker and that godless Unitarian Nannie Rawley. Since he's been widowed Garnett has devoted his life to reviving the American chestnut tree, but he relies on an abundance of pesticides which tend to drift over to Nannie's organically grown apple trees. This bone of contention has kept them at each other 's throats for more years than either would care to admit.
Kingsolver's abundant knowledge of the biological world informs every sentence of this remarkably informative science lesson hidden in the stories of the day to day lives of these residents of Zebulon county. Her love for every plant, animal, insect and human and her firm belief in the importance of each, makes for a joyful read and a dawning recognition that to every thing there truly is a season and a purpose. Nothing heals like the natural world.

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