Prodigal Summer

Barbara Kingsolver

Prodigal Summer.

“She got up and sat on the arm of the green chair so she could put her arm gently across Jewel’s shoulders. They both sat looking out the window at the yard and the hayfield behind it, across which Lusa had received her husband’s last will and testament. Today her eyes were drawn to the mulberry tree at the edge of the yard, loaded with the ripe purple fruits that Lowell had christened “long cherries” when he discovered and gorged himself on them, staining his teeth blue. At this moment in the summer the mulberry had become the yard’s big attraction for every living thing for miles around, it seemed. It dawned on Lusa that this was the Tree of Life her ancestors had woven into their rugs and tapestries, persistently, through all their woes and losses: a bird tree. You might lose a particular tree you owned or loved, but the birds would always keep coming. She could spot their color on every branch: robins, towhees, cardinals, orchard orioles, even sunny little goldfinches. These last Lusa thought were seed eaters, so she didn’t know quite what they were doing in there; enjoying the company, maybe, the same way people will go to a busy city park just to feel part of something joyful and lively.”

Lusa and Jewel (the latter is dying of cancer) are two characters in Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Prodigal Summer. In it, the author weaves together three stories of love within the lives of several humans inhabiting the forested mountains and small, struggling farms of the southern Appalachian region. There’s Lusa, Lexington-born outsider and the widow of Cole (brother of the aforementioned Jewel); Deanna Wolfe, a reclusive wildlife biologist working for the Forest Service; and finally, Nannie Rawley and Garnett Walker, a pair of elderly neighbors who tend their respective farms and feud about the Almighty, the use of pesticides, and the unexpected complexities of the world they encounter on a daily basis. The following passage is part of a conversation between Nannie and Garnett:

“She stood there fearless, daring him to tell the truth, exciting him toward actually doing it. Garnett turned the thought over in his mind and sighed. With profound sadness, he understood that he could never tell her the answer because he didn’t know it himself.

He said, feebly, “You don’t act normal for your age.”

She stood with her mouth a little open, as if there were words stuck halfway between her mind and the world around. At last they came out: “There isn’t any normal way to act seventy-five years old. Do you know why?”

He didn’t dare answer. Was she really seventy-five, exactly?

“I’ll tell you why,” she said. “Considering everything -- the whole history of things -- people are supposed to be dead and buried at our age. That’s normal. Up until lately, the Civil War or something, they didn’t even know about germs. If you got sick, they slapped leeches on you and measured you for a coffin. I wouldn’t doubt but hardly anybody even made it to fifty. Isn’t that so?”

“I suppose it is.”

The ties that bind all these characters to each other, and to the plants and animals with which they share their land, are beautifully explored and strongly rendered in the author’s accomplished prose. Kingsolver makes us truly see the coyote that slips like a dream through the woods surrounding the small farms, makes us feel with Deanna Wolfe the loss of four phoebe nestlings taken by a blacksnake from under the eaves of her cabin roof, gives us, as always in her writing, a wonderful sense of the world and the whole interconnectedness of creation. Prodigal Summer is the essence of life, distilled into a marvelous, eminently readable novel that will stay with you long after you’ve finished the last page. Be sure to read all about it!

Copyright © 2003, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.