In her new essay collection, the beloved author of High Tide in Tucson brings to us, out of one of history's darker moments, an extended love song to the world we still have.
Whether she is contemplating the Grand Canyon, her vegetable garden, motherhood, genetic engineering, or the future of a nation founded on the best of all human impulses, these essays are grounded in the author's belief that our largest problems have grown from the earth's remotest corners as well as our own backyards, and that answers may lie in both those places.
Sometimes grave, occasionally hilarious, and ultimately persuasive, Small Wonder is a hopeful examination of the people we seem to be, and what we might yet make of ourselves.
Principally known as the author of such bestselling novels as The Bean Trees and The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver grew up shy and studious, got a degree in biology and currently divides her time between writing, raising two daughters andwith her husband, an ornithologistworking for conservation and humanitarian causes. She grows her own vegetables and for part of the year lives simply in a rural cabin with feeble electrical wiring, hummingbirds outside her kitchen window and a driveway half a mile long. We learn all this in Kingsolver's latest collection of essays, which reveals its author to possess many redeeming facets. Observant, imaginative, both lucid and impassioned, Kingsolver writes effectively about her family and the natural world.
The personal essays make us feel we understand Kingsolver so well that it is a shame the essay "Small Wonder" comes first. This confused and rambling work is a meditation on two things that the author attempts to link: the bombing campaign after September 11, in Afghanistan, and the discovery of a lost child in Iran who, according to news service stories, had been kept alive by a female bear. Marked by sentimentality, the essay never really confronts how America should deal with enemies who would gladly destroy it. Kingsolver's suggested metaphorical alternative, lulling the enemy to sleep with an "elixir of contentment," is so vague and wishful that it's impossible to take seriously.
A few of the entries in this collection make too-easy historical or political assumptions that amount to errors of fact. In "Small Wonder," for example, Kingsolver wrongly argues that the modern age is unique inhaving to envision problems of global dimensions. Even during the Black Death, Kingsolver asserts, "They couldn't imagine a wreckage so appalling as the end of humankind on a planet made squalid by man's own hand." There is plenty of historical evidence, however, that that is precisely what people did imagine, although the squalor was moral rather than ecological.
Perhaps more alarming than the mistakes and lapses in logic are the arrogant ways Kingsolver occasionally asserts her intellectual rigor. "I've tossed aside stories because of botched Spanish or French phrases.... stopped reading books in which birds sang on the wrong continents or full moons appeared two weeks apart," she admits in "What Good Is a Story?", which provides criteria for what she thinks constitutes good writing. One can't help but wonder if the author ever stopped to consider how this sort of finger-pointing might impact her own credibility.
In spite of the book's annoying flaws, there is still plenty here to admire and enjoy. The essays that focus on Kingsolver's family and the natural world, effortlessly linking daily matters to global issues, are altogether marvelous. In "Lily's Chickens," she describes the small flock of hens, bought to please her five-year-old daughter, Lily, and kept in line by Mr. Doodle, a rooster whose absurd machismo becomes endearing. Lily tends the hens, feeds them and proudly carries the first egg into the kitchen, shouting, "Attention everybody, I have an announcement: FREE BREAKFAST." Meanwhile, Kingsolver describes the benefits of raising food locally, pointing out that the average supermarket food item travels 1,300 milesan avoidable waste of natural resources.
In every case, she is on the side of nature and the preservation of its diversity, whether explaining, in "A Fist in the Eye of God," exactly why genetic engineering poses a terrible long-term risk, or exploring, in "The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don't Let Him In," the disastrous limitations of television. "The world, a much wider place than seventeen inches, includes songbird migration, emphysema, pollinating insects, the Krebs cycle ... and a trillion other things outside the notice of CNN," Kingsolver reminds us. In some essays, the tone is more scientific than personal; in others, such as the wonderful "Letter to My Mother," the tone is intimate without being oppressively close.
While far from perfect, this book expresses the misgivings and despair experienced by many of us, and counters our shared sense of loss with the treasures of a quiet life. It is fascinating that in her essay on what makes a story valuable, Kingsolver never mentions the companionship of a narrative voicefallible but intimatewhen such a voice is her greatest strength.