Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. Three of her novels – The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, and Pigs in Heaven – are among my favorite novels of all-time. I bought Prodigal Summer at my local used bookstore several years ago, but I have no idea why it took me so long to get to it. I used my Big Book Summer Challenge this year as the motivation I needed to finally read it and was rewarded by yet another wonderful Kingsolver experience.
Prodigal Summer is a different kind of novel. It follows the stories of three very different characters who are only linked by living in the same mountainous region of southwestern Virginia, though their stories gradually come together. Chapters alternate between the three stories and their characters.
The first story, Predators, is about Deanna, a ranger in the Zebulon National Forest who lives a very isolated life – by choice – in her tiny cabin in the wilderness. She grew up in the town of Egg Fork down in the Zebulon Valley, adjacent to the parkland. She is fiercely protective of “her” forest and all of the life that lives there, including the new coyotes that have recently moved into the region. One day, a hunter named Eddie Bondo crosses her path and begins to spend time with her, upsetting her secluded routine.
Moth Love centers on Lusa, a young woman who recently married Cole, a tobacco farmer in Egg Fork. Lusa is an outsider to the rest of the farming community, having come from the “big city” of Lexington, Kentucky. She used to work as a entomologist and college professor, until she met and married Cole. Now, she is trying to adjust to a very different life as a farmer’s wife and struggling to be accepted by Cole’s many protective sisters and the larger, insular community.
In Old Chestnuts, Garnett is almost eighty years old and has lived in Egg Fork in Zebulon Valley his entire life. His family was very successful harvesting chestnut trees, until the blight killed them and their business. Garnett lost his wife a while back and still lives on the family farm where he grew up. He is obsessed with two things: finding a way to bring the chestnuts back to the area and waging war with his next-door neighbor, Miss Rawley, who is almost as old as he is and runs an organic apple orchard which he blames for the weeds on his own property.
These three stories progress through the novel during one summer, each taking its own turn in separate chapters, as we watch all three main characters struggle with change and with finding their place in this small corner of the world. As in much of Kingsolver’s work (fiction and nonfiction alike), there is a strong focus in Prodigal Summer on nature and various aspects of the natural world, from the role of predators in the ecosystem to the downturn of the tobacco industry and its impact on farming communities to the ins and outs of organic farming.
As with her recent novel Flight Behavior, I found Kingsolver a bit heavy-handed at times with the environmental and ecological lessons; I actually agree with the points she is trying to make, but it sometimes feels a bit preachy. Nevertheless, that is a minor criticism because overall, I really enjoyed this book. Kingsolver creates an incredible sense of place here – you feel like you are there, in the valley and woods, during that hot, humid summer.
Amid the lush prose that paints such a vivid picture of the place, I found myself completely immersed in the characters’ lives and caring about what happened to them. This novel is more sensual than others I have read from Kingsolver, perhaps to add to that hot, verdant summer feeling. In fact, this was an excellent choice to read during the summer, and I enjoyed seeing how the characters’ lives slowly came together and formed connections. It is a novel about nature, yes, but also about human relationships and the need we all have to connect with one another.
444 pages, Perennial (a HarperCollins imprint)