Friday, February 15, 2013

Barbara Kingsolver: From Story Rooted in Character to Character in the Service of a Polemic

Barbara Kingsolver is an author oft referenced in this blog. She creates dynamic, memorable women, some encumbered by marriages to flawed men who are not their equals. Others have been cut loose from family and husbands, and they stumble before finding their way forward into their strength and promise. A few are jaded and callous, capable of using others, especially men, to advance their own agendas without any sense of duty to those who helped them on their way.

Earthy. Spunky. Driven. Smart. Sensual. Sexual. Maternal. Capable. These are traits easily attributed to Kingsolver women whom she uses to advance our understanding of our relationships to each other and to Nature itself.

In The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver recreates late 1950s and very early 1960s Africa while sending the Price family there to proselytize and thrive. Nathan Price, the patriarch, pushes his family, then abandons them as he seeks his own redemption without regard or concern for his family’s suffering. Orleanna, Nathan’s wife, first obeys, then resents her husband, and finally deserts him as Africa teaches her several harsh truths: that God will not intercede or rescue her from Africa and more important, that she has no sovereign claim to any part of Nature without unrelenting labor and heartbreak. She must work the garden if she wishes to survive, and she finally does, but only after Nature takes her youngest daughter, stolen from her benign neglect by the sudden, terminal strike of a venomous snake. Orleanna rises to walk away from oppression, from grief, from Africa. She surrenders her children unto some pulse, some necessity over which she has no control. In doing so, she saves them and herself, only to hunger for forgiveness every day of those days left to her.

In Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver again makes setting a character, this time Appalachia where the American Chestnut once towered majestically over lesser trees and coyotes did not have to compete with humans for territory. There, one woman, an expert on moths and pheromones, becomes a widow and loses her place in the family she acquired by marriage. Another woman responds to the pheromones of a stranger and becomes pregnant. A third quarrels with the man next door over spraying for weeds; she teaches that every action stirs a reaction and that the actions of men, especially the man next door, have deadly consequences.

Each of these women is a sojourner, on her way to some other place--away from grief, into motherhood, and into a partnership with her neighbor. Each woman finds some peace with and through Nature, but the journeys are in the service of Kingsolver’s lecture about the delicate balance that exists between creatures of the forests, insects in the air, and humans walking the trails below. Her novel is a polemic, but one that hides within the story.

In Flight Behavior, Kingsolver’s polemical stance is absolutely transparent. In fact, monarch butterflies are the story: it is the loss of their habitat and the importance of their survival that is the core and heart of the tale. Dellarobia, the protagonist in this novel, begins to break from her cocoon at the first sight of millions of Monarchs, transported to Tennessee after a crushing rain in Mexico. She reverses direction, no longer climbing up the mountain to meet a young man with whom she intends to begin a tryst. She has been transformed and will soon dedicate her life to butterflies, to all of Nature, and especially to helping her children escape from the poverty and low expectations that endanger them.

An academic and researcher, Ovid Byron, soon learns about the Monarchs’ new winter home and sets up a laboratory, even employing Dellarobbia to help him count the butterflies and assess their health. Byron sees the curiosity, wit, and intelligence that has been hibernating in Dellarobbia. He inquires about her education, appalled by the poor one given in her small town. He recognizes her skills, her talents, and her fine work ethic, and he facilitates a future that would not come to pass without his encouragement and resources. He reaches a hand to Dellarobbia, and she pulls herself up and out by grabbing it.

But do not be misled. This Kingsolver novel is less about Dellarobbia and more about Dellarobbia as a human Monarch. Her Mexico is a high school pregnancy, shotgun wedding, and miscarriage, all of which cause her to cleave to her new home whether it’s good for her or not. In fact, Tennessee and its bitter cold winter is less than ideal for the Monarch; most of them die just as Dellarobbia’s great promise would die if she does not shed her cocoon, flex her wings, and fly to a new place.

Ovid Byron and Dellarobbia engage in long conversations--speeches really--in which Kingsolver delivers encyclopedic information about Monarchs, climate change, and the delicate balance we endanger by ignoring the warning signs and believing that our own short-term goals are in our own and Nature’s best interests. Kingsolver makes a case for temporary pain in exchange for long-term gain. Man should not pocket the check for clear-cutting whole mountainsides; he has a duty to protect and preserve what has taken many more years than his own lifetime to flourish. If he takes the check, he may find the mountainside collapsing, sliding with the rain, filling the crevices and flooding the flat land at the base. His home may wash away as surely as the Monarch’s Mexican home did, and he is less able to take wing and fly away to another home, mired in the mud of his own making.

To suggest that I did not enjoy Flight Behavior would be a lie. I liked it, and I learned so much. But I like The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer more. Those books exist as fine stories that stand alone with or without historical and scientific underpinnings; Flight Behavior seems to have been an academic lecture first with a story laid upon the scientific and historical base rather than the other way round.

Reading Challenge:

Read Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. Read Prodigal Summer and The Poisonwood Bible too if you have not already done so. Enjoy the fine portraits of women. Few writers create such wonderfully complex women.

Writing Challenge:


1a : an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another

b : the art or practice of disputation or controversy —usually used in plural but singular or plural in construction

2: an aggressive controversialist ( polemic)

Write your own polemic, beginning with the words: This, I believe . . .