There has always been a certain mystique about the Appalachians for those of us who live outside the area. Mountain men, moonshine, and the Carter Family have all contributed to the creation of a romanticized view of life in this hardscrabble territory. The poor but pure impression has been furthered by popular culture through movies and television to the point that conceptions have drifted far away from reality.
Barbara Kingsolver has offered an antidote to the usual rose tinted perceptions with her novel Prodigal Summer. With the theme of survival prevalent through the book we follow three disparate characters through a summer of growth, struggle and acceptance. Individually they represent an aspect of the struggle to preserve life, and as a group they exemplify how simply surviving is sometimes not enough.
Deanna Wolf works for the state as a naturalist and lives in a cabin on the mountain overlooking the valley she was bred and born in. Nominally her job is to ensure that trails are maintained and that plant and animal life are protected from human influence. But she has taken on another task, one that if any of the farmers down below knew about would have them literally up in arms.
She is intent on restoring the balance of nature on the mountain by ensuring the survival of a family of coyotes. For her they represent the reintroduction of a much-needed predator into the natural food chain on the mountain. To the farmers they would be seen only as a threat to their livestock. Deanna has been living on her own with no human contact save for her weekly supply drops until one day she chances upon a younger man walking through her woods.
His presence sets off a conflict of emotions she hadn’t planned on dealing with. On the one hand she discovers she wants him around, and has a desire for male companionship. However he is a hunter who makes no bones about the fact that he has no sympathy for coyotes, so she has to hide her efforts to protect the local pack from him.
Down in the valley two other individuals are doing their best to make sense of life. Lusa Maluf Landowski is recently widowed and has inherited her husband’s family farm. They had only been married a year when she lost him in a traffic accident. During that year she failed win the acceptance of her husband’s family. At the funeral she was politely enough, but it was her eldest sister in law who was the centre of attention. He had been their brother long before, and longer then, she had been his wife.
Will she be able to keep the farm, and does she even want to stay there? After only a year of living in the country after a life of city dwelling she is as unused to ways of rural life as her in-laws are uncertain of her city ways. As a biologist she continually runs afoul of the farmer’s attitude of “if it ain’t got a use to me what good is it?”
To further complete the picture of an alien being there is the matter of her names, first and last, which nobody can pronounce. Lusa is that rarest of all half-breeds, a Palestinian Jew. Ultimately it is this heritage, plus a local 4-H project that went wrong, that helps her salvage her first year of farming. The fact that both her Mother’s family in Palestine and her Father’s family in Europe had been farmers seemed to have escaped the notice of all involved; including Lusa.
Just down the road from Lusa live two of the valley’s oldest inhabitants. Garnet Walker and Nannie Land Rawley couldn’t have been more the other’s opposite if they had tried. Garnet’s devotion to “green farming” begins and ends with his attempts to restore the almost extinct American chestnut tree, while Nanny lives and breaths organic. Garnet believes in man’s dominion over the natural world, Nanny believes in finding our place in the scheme of things.
As far as Garnet is concerned everything about Nanny is an offence; from the Pesticide Free Zone signs on her land, to the fact she had walked around bold as brass pregnant as a single mother back in the days when that just wasn’t done. Just the sight of one her apple pies made with the apples from her organic orchard was enough ruin Garnet’s day.
Prodigal Summer, like the biblical story before it, is about finding your way back home. Instead of in the literal sense though, it’s about coming to terms with yourself and the world you find yourself living in. Garnet, Lusa, and Deanna all journey the long road to self-discovery through walking a path they least expected.
Three people, who have isolated themselves, for one reason or another, are forced through circumstances to come out of their shells and meet the world around them. Protective barriers of opinion, belief, and fear, that have been their way, are confronted and chipped away as they start to see the world through the eyes of others.
Whether its Lusa with her dying sister-in-law’s daughter and son gaining insights into her dead husband’s family, Deanna using her lover’s view of her life as a mirror to realize she can’t hide away on a mountain top forever, or Garnet learning about Nanny’s life and understanding other people have troubles too, they are pulled out of themselves into the world.
Oh they may put up a good struggle, resisting with all their might, but once that rock starts rolling down the hill, they have as little chance of stopping it as they do of bringing the earth to a standstill. By the end of the novel each character has managed to reconcile themselves to their own lives, their past, and more importantly their futures.
Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer has a fourth main character; Zebulon Mountain and the valley nestled up against its flank. Here farmers work the small plots of land that their parents and grand parents had worked, but fewer and fewer are able to make a living anymore. Most have taken jobs off the farm, and lease their acres to others.
Zebulon mountain is alive with every form of life except one; a large predator to keep the small animal population in check. As Deanna carefully explains to her gun toting beau, the large predators that man has systematically exterminated whenever possible have one of the most important spots on the food chain. Without them populations grow rampant and the whole biosphere is thrown out of whack.
This is a book about finding balance. Whether in your own life, or the delicate balance of nature, the smallest most trivial detail can throw everything off. From spraying pesticide on your seedlings to forgetting to make a phone call, all of our actions have an effect: cause and effect, the oldest, simplest, and most difficult lesson to learn.
This is a “green” book, Ms. Kingsolver is a dedicated conversationalist, but it’s not unsympathetic to the life of the farmer. At the beginning of the book Lusa can’t understand why her husband insists on pulling down the wild Honeysuckle when the smell is so beautiful, but by the end she sees the need for its containment.
There are no easy answers, nothing is black and white: the people of the valley aren’t bad and the animals and wildlife aren’t good. They all just exist. Just as we all exist within our own little worlds and must learn to find balance with others, so must humans find their balance with the natural world.
Prodigal Summer is a beautifully written book about people and the world they live in. Barbara Kingsolver has created characters and an environment that we can care for equally, the finest balancing act any novelist can accomplish.