Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver

This is the first Kingsolver book I’ve read, in spite of numerous recommendations from friends. I found much to like in it, not least the lovely illustrations of moths and other critters on the end papers, but also much that was problematic.

The title refers to the awesome fertility of a humid southern summer, when honeysuckle can overrun a wall in a single season. The story takes place on fictional Zebulon Mountain and the small farms of the nearby town of Egg Fork, clearly in the remote Appalachians. Although the state is not named, it appears to be Virginia or West Virginia. The setting is perhaps the best part of the book. Kingsolver captures the sweet, almost dreamy, explosion of life in the southern woods, lovingly describing mushrooms, softly rotted trees, mouse-eating snakes, and moths of all kinds. She brings to life the sounds of an old farmhouse and the wavy, antique glass of its windows.

Nestled in among the other fauna are three sets of people, whose stories intertwine. Deanna is a wildlife biologist living alone on the mountain, maintaining trails, expelling out-of-season hunters and—unofficially—searching for signs of coyotes moving into the area. She meets a mysterious stranger on the trail, a man whom she finds disturbing in more ways than one. Down the mountain, where civilization starts, Lusa struggles to adapt to the farm life she has married into and the extended family that comes with it. Closer to town, two elderly neighbors feud over pesticides and the way the world has changed in their lifetime.

I enjoyed these characters and their stories. Kingsolver switches gracefully from one story to another, delineating the change with chapter breaks. However, she is less graceful at drawing analogies between the lives and passions of her human characters and those of her critters. She pounds home the comparison, not just in one chapter but over and over.

The other area where I would have appreciated a little more subtlety was the proselytizing about ecology. Yes, I’m sympathetic to the cause, concerned about disturbed habitats and threatened (and actual) extinctions. But I don’t want to read lecture after lecture about it in a novel. I’m starting to think that there is just no way to talk about any creed or dogma in fiction. So many of my stories have ended up in the shredder because they turned into rants. For a writer, having strong opinions can be a real drawback! I struggle to figure out how to set up a path without bullying the reader down it, to suggest an alternative way to frame an issue without forcing it on the reader as this book forced its issues on me.

Still, despite its weaknesses, this was the right book to read, here in the middle of my own southern summer, with the sparrows, hummingbirds, cardinals, robins, and even a bright goldfinch today swarming over the feeders; tree frogs and crickets going crazy; vines crawling over the trees by the run; and the dank sweet smell of the run itself after a week of rain.

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