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Summer Books

Essays lend clarity to enormous reality of life after Sept. 11

By Barbara Kingsolver
HarperCollins, 267 pages, $23.95


In case you’d like to know, high school students, at least my high school students, love Barbara Kingsolver. This year in advanced placement English, we read two of her books, The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer. Reminiscing over the year, one student remarked recently that The Poisonwood Bible was the best discussion we had all year. I could not disagree.

Small Wonder is Kingsolver’s latest offering. A collection of essays, the volume grew out of a response to Sept. 11 that she was asked to write. Within a month she had written five such responses. All 23 essays, whether written before or after Sept. 11, reflect its enormous reality and either draw meaning from it or attempt to lend some clarity to it.

Readers fond of her earlier collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson, will be equally engaged by this one. Two of Kingsolver’s most prominent themes are politics and the environment. It may be an overgeneralization, but I would venture that she writes with even greater intensity in Small Wonder than High Tide, because more seems to be at stake.

Regardless of her genre, be it short story, novel or essay, one of Kingsolver’s gifts as a writer is her ability to see in the small details of life the bigger story, the larger truth. Such is the case in her title essay “Small Wonder,” which (true story) centers on a child lost in the forested hills of Iran and found in a cave being nurtured by a mother bear. No paraphrase can possibly do her rendering justice. The essay must be read to be appreciated, but she concludes it by saying, “It seems to me that there is still so much to say that I had better raise up a yell across the fence. I have stories of things I believe in: a persistent river, a forest on the edge of night, the religion inside a seed, the startle of wingbeats when a spark of red life flies against all reason out of the darkness. One child, one bear. I’d like to speak of small wonders and the possibility of taking heart.”

Each essay, in and of itself, contains a small wonder and each affords us the possibility of taking heart, just as all her previous novels and stories startled us into recognition, rattled our complacency and planted seeds. Just as she wrote about the CIA’s involvement in the internal affairs of the Congo by telling the story of a Baptist Missionary family being caught up in it all (The Poisonwood Bible), she “probes the world for its tender spots” and “carves something hugely important into a small enough amulet to fit inside a reader’s most sacred psychic pocket.” Should we capture birds to “save” them, or may we lay claim to a perfect shell that has become home to a hermit crab? Even desert wild flowers have a story to tell, and so do nest-building hummingbirds.

I was amused by her essay “Taming the Beast With Two Backs” (think Othello), in which she confesses to writing an “unchaste novel.” While she doesn’t name it, she can be talking only about Prodigal Summer. She acknowledged once in reference to this book that she had to invent a whole new way to write about sexual matters that typically are uttered only in terms anatomical or pornographic. In this essay she tongue-in-cheek resigns herself to the “economic reality that this one won’t make the core English lit curriculum.” I beg to differ, Barbara! (See above.)

One essay I would like to make required reading in English lit curriculums, among the future book buyers of the world, is “Marking a Passage” about the role of the independent bookseller. Kingsolver feels strongly about them because she credits them with her initial popularity and her success as a writer. They gave her readings, they recommended her books, they selected her for their in-house book clubs, they sold her book “by hand.” She goes so far as to say that without them some of the titles she has given the world would not exist. “There would be no glorious launching of The Poisonwood Bible in the parking lot of the Book Mark; there would be no Book Mark and no Poisonwood Bible.” “The big stores have their place,” she concedes. “I’d just be happier if it weren’t in place of the other kind.”

It is widely acknowledged that the majority of Kingsolver’s readers are women. In fact, concurrent with her environmental themes runs a strong thread of eco-feminism, nowhere more prominent than in Prodigal Summer, in which stories of women, nature, and motherhood weave an earthy tapestry. Since all women are daughters and most women are mothers, two essays here with a unique appeal to women are letters to her daughter and to her mother. Though she comes from different directions, both essays center on the intense relationship between mother and daughter, both are about coming of age, both incorporate the power of memory and story, and both make us appreciate the power of unconditional love.

Finally, as she did in The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver is not afraid to take on the icons and sacred cows of our culture. “As a professional storyteller,” she “takes myths personally” and sees it as her job to examine the stories and poke holes in the myths if that is what is called for. Above all, she believes in telling the truth, which in some part of this book or other will make every reader squirm a little.

One of her most powerful essays is on reclaiming the flag, especially after Sept. 11, from the ultraconservatives who have wrapped themselves and their causes in it and its cousin, patriotism. “I believe it is my patriotic duty to recapture my flag from the men who wave it in the name of jingoism and censorship. … And so I would like to stand up for my flag and wave it over a few things I believe in including, but not limited to, dissenting points of view.”

“We’re all just people together,” she says, and whether one agrees with her or not (and some do not), you have to marvel at her facility with language, with imagery and the power of her metaphors.

Footnote: My graduating seniors must do one last project for which they select one writer from our course, read another work by that writer and then, with the benefit of some research, show how those two works inform one another. Well over one-third selected Barbara Kingsolver as their writer. Small wonder!

Judith Bromberg teaches high school English in Kansas City, Mo., and is a frequent reviewer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002