Prodigal Summer - Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver's fifth novel is a hymn to wildness that celebrates the prodigal spirit of human nature, and of nature itself. It weaves together three stories of human love within a larger tapestry of lives amid the mountains and farms of southern Appalachia. Over the course of one humid summer, this novel's intriguing protagonists face disparate predicaments but find connections to one another and to the flora and fauna with which they necessarily share a place.






I had so many smiles, pangs and other feels from this book that I've had to really think about what to say about the whole thing (isn't that the way with the books that really hit ya? ;-D). It might still come out all over the place but I'll do my best to get my thoughts right here. 


One of the things that made this novel tricky to follow at times is the fact that there are 3 different storylines going on at once and you have to pay attention for small, subtle details that link all of them together. Things kick off with Deanna, a forest ranger living in a remote part of the woods in order to study a small pack of endangered coyotes (endangered in that they are uncommon to the area, so when a small family of them makes an appearance, it's a big deal to Deanna). While at her post, she meets mysterious hiker Eddie Bondo, whose behavior turns a wee bit shady when she asks him about what brought him to this remote area of the woods. Though she's not sure she can entirely trust him, the two do have this immediate spark between them and fall into a tempestuous, earthy kind of coupling (and I will say here, I like that Kingsolver was able to write this in a way that was different but kinda still sexy without making it weird or unnecessarily vulgar). Deanna struggles with the realization that while she feels a powerful bond with Eddie, it's soon clear that they view the world through fundamentally different lenses. She doesn't know how to make peace with the two of them moving together through life with differing moral codes. 


"What did you teach?" {Eddie}


"Science and math and Please Shut Up to seventh graders. I liked the kids sometimes, but mostly I felt like I was under siege. I'm an introvert. I like being alone. I like being outside in the woods. And there I was. Living in a little brick house in a big-city suburb, spending my days with hundreds of small, unbelievably loud human beings... I'm not all that maternal." {Deanna}


"You. You spend more time making sure you don't hurt a spider or a baby bird than most people do taking care of their kids. You're maternal."


The second story introduces Lusa, a Polish-Arab woman who marries an Appalachian farmer. While Lusa's story mainly focuses on cultural struggles between her heritage and what she married into, she has her own ties to the coyote plot. 


The third storyline involves Garnett. His family's fortune came about through the milling of chestnut trees, until the blight of the 1950s that ruined the majority of the chestnut tree population. All these years later, Garnett is still pushing to rebuild the wealth that once was, by using a strain of Chinese Chestnut blended with what's left of the American Chestnut line. 


While sometimes tricky to keep all this straight as the reader, I really loved how the connections between them were not all that obvious. It made for really fun "lightbulb" moments when a detail from one story would click together with something I just read from the story before that. (I should probably point out that the three storylines are laid out through alternating chapters, not clearly defined PT1 PT2 etc style). There's also a connecting vein through the use of the Volterra Principle running throughout the novel, though it focuses on the general idea of the principle which says (in very generalized layman's terms here) that the harder you try to get rid of something, the more it's likely to come back at you in increased number, strength, etc. The characters in this novel who understand the idea are trying to convince the other characters to live life in a way that works with nature, rather than against it so much. But then those who encourage this kind of living are labeled as "backwards", "not willing to advance with the times". So this novel as a whole becomes very much a look at man vs. nature, man vs. man, rural vs metro, the push for always advancing things vs. the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality. These characters also hash out the rash of rampant consumerism and how the demand for products that fulfill the need for ease of living and immediate gratification end up cluttering the world with low-quality junk products. (I cheered when Eddie asks Deanna to name the one thing she misses most from society and she says being near a public library!) Kingsolver even has the characters addressing the topic of dietary opinions -- meat eaters vs. vegetarians and vegans. 


But through all these major topics, this novel never once came off as preachy to me. A lot of solid "food for thought" moments are gently mixed into engaging storylines filled with characters you really want to know and come to genuinely care about. The characters, through their conversations with each other, point out that there is no one perfect answer, that any lifestyle choice will have a pros / cons list attached to it.


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 are witnessed. 

~ opening lines of Prodigal Summer



What's stressed in this novel is the idea that however you choose to live -- whether you're meat-eating country folk or salad-lovin' metro dwellers (or vice versa!) -- live gently, be respectful of the planet you live on and be grateful for all it provides. Kingsolver's story simply encourages readers to do their best to be kind caretakers of the Earth, 'cause we got a pretty sweet pad here in our solar system, if we can just get our act together!