Authors: Barbara Kingsolver

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and essayist


When Barbara Kingsolver won a Los Angeles Times Book Award for Pigs in Heaven after receiving the 1991 PEN West Award for Animal Dreams, her arrival as a serious writer of contemporary American fiction could hardly be questioned; what is not immediately apparent, perhaps, is the breadth of knowledge and experience in the author who brought these works to life. Kingsolver is the daughter of a physician, she married a chemist, and she has worked as a research assistant in the department of physiology at the University of Arizona. She received a B.A. (magna cum laude) in 1977 from DePauw University and an M.S. in 1981 from the University of Arizona, and has pursued further graduate study since then. From 1981 to 1985, she was employed as a technical writer in arid land studies, and from 1985 to 1987, she worked as a freelance journalist before devoting herself to full-time writing in 1987. This background subtly invigorates Animal Dreams and Pigs in Heaven as Kingsolver adeptly coordinates the intricacies of plot lines that move across ecological, ethnobiological, and regional backdrops.{$I[AN]9810001812}{$I[A]Kingsolver, Barbara}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Kingsolver, Barbara}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Kingsolver, Barbara}{$I[tim]1955;Kingsolver, Barbara}

Barbara Kingsolver

(Seth Kantner)

Kingsolver links the plots of The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven through the narrative of Taylor Greer and the Cherokee infant she initially befriends and later adopts, Turtle (named for her tenacious grip on her newfound mother). In these two novels Kingsolver introduces the primary themes that resound through her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry: the importance of children, the necessity for and intricacies of finding respect for different ethnic worldviews, and the overwhelming joy that accompanies seizing a life full of challenge based on one’s dreams. Kingsolver’s characters invariably opt for the challenges of love created amidst the tensions of intercultural relationships.

This tension of choosing a life amid differing cultural commitments is particularly evident in Animal Dreams. Codi Noline searches for a committed path of her own, even as she steadfastly denies doing so. Codi discovers this path in her ability to help the residents of her father’s hometown, Grace, confront the consequences of industrial pollution. It is an easy association to see Kingsolver’s own emerging human rights activism in Codi’s process of deciding to help the city of Grace fight the threat of pollution. Kingsolver enables Codi to dream herself beyond the demons of her own outcast childhood by discovering in herself the will to fight this external enemy. From Loyd Peregrina, a Pueblo Native American, Codi learns the following in an answer to the question, “What do . . . animals dream about?”:

I think they dream about whatever they do when they’re awake. . . . Your dreams, what you hope for and all that, it’s not separate from your life. It grows right up out of it. . . . If you want sweet dreams, you’ve got to live a sweet life.

Kingsolver’s novels and poems continue to grip the reader long after the details of the individual characters and plots have faded, because they, like Kingsolver’s own life, are grounded in a real world of ecopolitical action. Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 and the more recent High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never and Small Wonder admirably present Kingsolver’s real-world engagement. In Holding the Line Kingsolver unabashedly offers a biased account of the strike against the Phelps Dodge Copper Corporation in Morenci and Clifton, Arizona, in 1983. At the time Kingsolver was working as a freelance journalist, and while Holding the Line certainly presents an account of the actual events of a real strike, what comes through even more clearly is Kingsolver’s desire to show the unexpected strength of the women who enabled the strike to continue long after the men of Clifton had lost their determination. In this respect Kingsolver calls into question traditional gender roles in the American Southwest and reinforces a tradition of “machisma” that clearly has echoes in her exclusive use of female leading characters in her fiction. High Tide in Tucson is a much gentler collection of stories from her life as she raises her daughter Camille alone. Many of these essays focus on the landscape and culture of the American desert, and most also reflect Kingsolver’s extensive training as a biologist. In “Semper Fi,” for example, Kingsolver addresses the question of fidelity–first to the relatively mundane world of television football, but ultimately to the pursuit of truth itself in investigations into the pseudoscience conducted by Samuel Morton, who in the nineteenth century used brain volume as a measure of ethnic superiority, and by his intellectual heirs (according to Kingsolver) Robert Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve (1994).

In the title essay of High Tide in Tucson Kingsolver suggests a maxim that easily links her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction:

In the best of times, I hold in mind the need to care for things beyond the self: poetry, humanity, grace. In other times when it seems difficult merely to survive and be happy about it, the condition of my thought tastes as simple as this: let me be a good animal today.

BibliographyAay, Henry. “Environmental Themes in Ecofiction: In the Center of the Nation and Animal Dreams.” Journal of Cultural Geography 14 (Spring, 1994). Aay’s comparative study of Kingsolver’s novel and In the Center of the Nation (1991) by Dan O’Brien is one of the few scholarly discussions of Kingsolver’s work.Cincotti, Joseph A. “Intimate Revelations.” The New York Times Book Review, September 2, 1990, 2.DeMarr, Mary Jean. Barbara Kingsolver: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. A good overview of Kingsolver’s work, emphasizing her eco-feminism.Draper, James P. “Barbara Kingsolver.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism: Yearbook 1993. Vol. 81. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. A collection of critical views of Kingsolver’s work.Epstein, Robin. “Barbara Kingsolver.” Progressive 60 (February, 1996): 33-38. An informative interview with Kingsolver; Kingsolver believes that most readers do not think that her writing is overly political; she feels that she has a responsibility to discuss her beliefs with the public.Fleischner, Jennifer, ed. A Reader’s Guide to the Fiction of Barbara Kingsolver: “The Bean Trees,” “Homeland and Other Stories,” “Animal Dreams,” “Pigs in Heaven.” New York: Harper Perennial, 1994. A good resource for the student new to Kingsolver’s work.Gaard, Greta. “Living Connections with Animals and Nature.” In Eco-Feminism: Women, Animals, Nature, edited by Greta Gaard. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993. Discusses the implications of a personal/political commitment to the natural world.Kingsolver, Barbara. Interview by Lisa See. Publishers Weekly 237 (August 31, 1990): 46. Kingsolver discusses her early literary influences and her research and writing methods.Marshall, John. “Fast Ride on ‘Pigs.’” Review of Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver. Seattle Post-Gazette, July 26, 1993, p. 1. This review gives an overview of Kingsolver’s writing.Pence, Amy. “Barbara Kingsolver.” Poets and Writers 21, no. 4 (July/August, 1993): 14-21. Pence looks at Kingsolver’s writing and her commitments to political activism and family.Perry, Donna. Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.Ross, Jean W. “CA Interview.” In Contemporary Authors. Vol. 134, edited by Susan M. Trotsky. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Brief biographical and professional information sections are followed by an interview covering Kingsolver’s writing methods, the sources of some of her characters, the importance of her background, and some of her nonfiction writing.Ryan, Maureen. “Barbara Kingsolver’s Lowfat Fiction.” Journal of American Culture 18, no. 4 (Winter, 1995): 77-123. Ryan compares Kingsolver’s first three novels and first short-story collection.Wagner-Martin, Linda. Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible”: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum, 2001. An in-depth guide to Kingsolver’s most popular novel.
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