Barbara Kingsolver,
Prodigal Summer
(HarperCollins, 2000)

Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer is a portrait of a community which is far larger and more interconnected than anyone could suspect. The events of the novel take place within the brief confines of a lush, abundant and indeed prodigal summer.

There are three stories in Prodigal Summer, and the first, narrated in chapters titled "Predators," concerns Deanna Wolfe, a forest ranger in her 40s who lives in solitude in a cabin on the mountain overlooking her hometown in southern Appalachia. She has lived alone for two years, maintaining the trails and protecting the wildlife when she encounters Eddie Bondo, a hunter nearly 20 years younger than she. With a rapidity inexplicable to Deanna, the two become lovers, although she suspects that Eddie is a threat to the coyotes which have begun to move into the area.

The setting for the second story, "Moth Love," is a farm at the foot of the mountain known as the "Widener place" where Lusa Maluf Landowski, an entomologist turned farm wife turned widow, struggles with the realities of farming as well as of being an outsider in a tightly knit community. She negotiates a new path for the farm and for herself, learning to cope with the ghosts of her past and present that swirl around her like moths around a light.

"Old Chestnuts" concerns Garnett Walker, a widower in his 80s who believes in modern agriculture and the wonders of pesticide and weedkiller. He is in constant conflict with his neighbor, Nannie Rawley, because of her "no spray" policy and her certified organic orchard, and his attempts to establish the biblical basis for his agricultural methods fall on selectively deaf ears. At the same time, Garnett is involved with a project of his own: breeding a blight resistant chestnut.

The stories seem separate from each other at first, but they begin to spill into each other and braid themselves together. Deanna, Lusa and Nannie preach the same gospel: we human beings are only superior to the rest of nature by our own reckoning, and everything is connected to each other. This idea of connectedness resonates through the novel as the stories weave together.

Kingsolver produces characters which appeal to the reader's heart and senses. Garnett and Nannie are particularly well portrayed, and their often comic banter is backlit with their awareness that time is running out. Still, they both understand, each in his or her own way, that it's important to make the most of the time that's left. The development of their relationship is sweet and heartwarming yet bittersweet with lost opportunities. The remarkable characterization in "Moth Love" not only marks Lusa's growth and development, but brings her sisters-in-law into focus as well-rounded individuals rather than stereotypical "country folk."

All of the stories are well-written, but "Moth Love" and "Old Chestnuts" seem much stronger than "Predators" overall. Deanna's reaction to the stranger, Eddie Bondo, seems too sudden, and as such, unconvincing, although Kingsolver is uncompromising with the outcome of that part of the novel. The effect of the intertwining of the separate parts is that the pace intensifies as the novel and the summer progresses.

The image of the coyote becomes central to the novel, relentlessly prolific in the face of predation, staking out new territory and relearning old lessons, the most important of which is that we are not and have never been alone, and those connections to the rest of the world bring with them both joy and responsibility. In Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver doesn't spell out those lessons, however. Rather, she allows you to absorb them on your own and tells a darn good tale in the process.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]



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