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Kingsolver Essays

Barbara Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955 in the rural areas of eastern Kentucky. She found Kentucky particularly limiting during her youth, believing she only had two choices - to be a "farmer or a farmer's wife." She began writing as a child, keeping a journal from the age of eight and writing stories and essays as a youth.

Kingsolver left Kentucky to attend college at DePauw University in Indiana, where she majored in biology. However, her interest in writing never waned, and she took a number of creative writing courses. Kingsolver focused particularly on social activism while in college, becoming involved in numerous protests against the Vietnam war. After graduating from DePauw in 1977, Barbara Kingsolver traveled and worked extensively, finally settling in Tucson, where she pursued her masters degree at the University of Arizona in biology and ecology.

Kingsolver's writing career began only after she pursued several disparate, unrelated careers. Some of these varied occupations included: copy editor, archaeologist, x-ray technician, housekeeper, biological researcher and translator of medical documents. She at last became a science writer for the University of Arizona, a position that led to her publication in a number of academic journals and newspapers, including the New York Times. In 1986 she won the Arizona Press Club award for feature writing, and in 1995 she was given an honorary doctorate from DePauw University.

From 1985 to 1987, Kingsolver worked as a freelance writer. In 1985 she also married a chemist and became pregnant. Suffering from insomnia during her pregnancy, Kingsolver began writing The Bean Trees as a way to combat her sleeplessness. The Bean Trees was published by Harper Collins in 1988, and was enthusiastically received by both readers and critics. She followed The Bean Trees with the collection Homeland and Other Stories (1989) and the novels Animal Dreams (1990) and Pigs in Heaven (1993). The best-selling High-Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now and Never was published in 1995. Kingsolver also published a collection of poetry, Another America: Otra America in 1992, and a non-fiction work, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983.

In 1997, Barbara established the Bellwether Prize, awarded in even-numbered years to a first novel that exemplifies outstanding literary quality and a commitment to literature as a tool for social change.

In 1998 Kingsolver published the best-selling novel The Poisonwood Bible, selected as part of Oprah Winfrey's book club. Kingsolver followed that novel with her books Prodigal Summer, Small Wonder: Essays, and Last Stand: America's Virgin Lands. Her latest novel is entitled Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Published in 2007, the book is a non-fiction account of her family's move to a farm in Virginia where they lived off the land and grew their own food.

Currently, Kingsolver and her family live on that Virginia farm, where she writes and is involved in numerous activist causes.

Small Wonder
by Barbara Kingsolver
282pp, Faber, £12

Barbara Kingsolver is one of the few American writers who have refused to join George Bush's cheerleaders. A writer who reminds her readers, as Kingsolver has done, that "every war is both won and lost" would hardly seem extreme over here, but in the US such talk can receive some pretty nasty responses. One writer in the Wall Street Journal suggested that a reasonable response to Kingsolver's articles would be for bookstores to refuse to stock her novels.

Now that those articles Kingsolver wrote in response to September 11 have been republished - together with other essays on family life and wildlife - they can be judged in a more reflective context.

Some novelists came a cropper by suddenly trying to pontificate about politics last year, but you might think that a writer such as Kingsolver, who has always worked within a visible moral framework, would find the transition easier than most. That the author of The Poisonwood Bible and The Prodigal Summer is something of a pacifist and an environmentalist is hardly a surprise. But although I was rooting for these essays from the first page, over and over again, just as Kingsolver was heating up the rhetoric, I would find myself turning cold.

Perhaps the most admirable essay of all, and the one I most wanted to like, is "And Our Flag Was Still There". It was a version of this piece that drove the Wall Street Journal to such anger, and it was brave of Barbara Kingsolver to speak against her country's belligerence in September 2001. Even if it doesn't have the same shock effect nine months on and outside the US, it is still heartening to read a mainstream American writer saying: "In my lifetime I have seen the flag waved over the sound of sabre-rattling too many times for my comfort."

At the heart of this essay is an attempt to reclaim patriotism for Americans who love their country but don't love its current direction. Kingsolver marshals some fine arguments to her cause. Especially, she reminds the reader that American culture was created through dissent, through constant challenges to the status quo. "Our flag is not just a logo for wars, it's the flag of American pacifists, too." She also celebrates American feminists, abolitionists, and all the other dissenters who made her country so richly tolerant.

Although she is very much, here, an American speaking to Americans, her arguments travel well. Europeans often seem to see the country of Walt Whitman and Thoreau, Susan B Anthony and Martin Luther King, as a country only of McDonald's and Marines, and it's good to be reminded of the traditions of dissent that were forged in the US.

But then we get to the last paragraph, and her final rhetorical flourish. She tells of how she and her husband and daughter were looking at a photograph of thousands of people wearing red, white, or blue, arranged in the shape of the American flag. "Then my teenager, who has a quick mind for numbers and a sensitive heart" laid a hand over part of the picture and said: "In New York, that many might be dead." Kingsolver "shuddered at the one simple truth behind all the noise. That is my flag, and that's what it means: We're all just people, together."

We're all just people, together. It's at this moment, when Kingsolver tries to wrap the whole complicated argument that has gone before into something that should be stunningly persuasive, that she moves into something too easy, and even trite. Her arguments too often fall, at the crunch point, into this kind of naive utterance that, however sincere - and Kingsolver is nothing if not sincere - slips away from precise argument and into woolly reassurance.

This uncomfortable mixture of precision and woolliness characterises all her essays. A passion for the environment infuses all of Kingsolver's work, and gives her novels their dense roots in the natural world. But instead of keeping them earthed, here she keeps letting her feelings for nature drift off into vague spiritual lessons.

The title essay of the book, "Small Wonder", takes as its starting point a tale about a bear who suckled a runaway child in Iran. To turn such a very unusual bear into a symbol of the reliable gentleness of nature seems to be pushing it a bit. Yet Kingsolver takes it as proof of the universal rules that "warm lives are drawn to one another in cold places", and that we can all rely on "the unconquerable force of a mother's love".

Although Kingsolver is very proud of her training as a biologist, this smacks more of religion than biology. Indeed, a key word of this book is "reverence". "I took my leap reverently," Kingsolver tells us, when as a child she jumped across the Mississippi; a Mexican farmer holds a handful of soil to show her "as reverently as any true believer might handle a relic of his faith"; or she approaches nature "with the reverence humankind has traditionally summoned for entering places of worship".

Even if you do feel reverent in the face of nature, you might still find yourself pulling away from Kingsolver's rhetoric. That is partly because of her prose style, which is overdone compared to that of her novels, with too many spectacular, magnificent, miraculous, wondrous, sacred, unbelievable adjectives leaking out when what you want are particular details. It's also because, when she gets caught up in this reverence and awe, she tends to slide away from the stringent demands of argument.

She desperately wants to challenge the status quo, and at least someone is still trying to do that. But if you are going to attack popular pursuits such as eating strawberries in winter, or supporting the war on terrorism, or living in cities, or even watching television (something Kingsolver has turned her back on), you may have to do more than just raise your eyes heavenward when the going gets tough. You may need to acknowledge the complexity of the present situation and set out concrete steps for change.

She tends to sidestep that tough stuff in favour of fuzzy appeals to the soul. "Oh, how can I say this," she wonders. "People need wild places. Whether or not we think we do, we do. We need to be able to taste grace and know once again that we desire it." This would work in one of her novels, coming out of the mouth of some charmingly naive character and finding an answering note from another, but left to struggle on the page of an essay it fades without an echo.

Kingsolver writes much more evocatively about bears, coyotes and bobcats when she isn't using them to make moral points. It's a pity to find her arguments falling at the final hurdle, because she stands within a space in American culture that is currently looking empty.

· Natasha Walter is the author of The New Feminism (Virago)

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