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Dubbed "the Woody Guthrie of contemporary American fiction" by Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe, Barbara Kingsolver is an author and social activist. Many of her writings, both fiction and nonfiction, feature social commentary on some level. Through the years, Kingsolver slowly built a following and by the early 2000s, her novels often sold in millions of copies as she fulfilled her goal of both entertaining and informing her readers. Kingsolver told Lisa See of Publishers Weekly, "I like to remind people that there's nothing wrong with living where we are. We're not living 'lives of quiet desperation,' but living in the joyful noise of trying to get through life."
Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955, in Annapolis, Maryland, the daughter of Dr. Wendell R. Kingsolver, a physician, and his wife, Virginia. She grew up in rural Kentucky, specifically Carlisle, where her father was the only doctor in Nicholas County. Her childhood home was located in an alfalfa field. Her father grew a garden, which became one of her interests as she grew up. Kingsolver spent the whole of her childhood in Kentucky, save a year that her father took the family to Central Africa to work as a doctor in a village that needed medical help in 1963. While in Africa, Kingsolver missed second grade.
Because of the rural environment that Kingsolver grew up in, she was not exposed to many things. For example, she did not see a tennis court until she attended college. A sensitive, intelligent child, Kingsolver was an outcast socially. She was interested in writing and reading from an early age, and was a fan of the writings of Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor when she was young. Though she did not receive a great high school education, her parents expected her to go to college. Kingsolver's experiences in Kentucky later influenced the topics and characters she explored as an adult author.
After high school, Kingsolver entered DePauw University. Kingsolver had a music scholarship for classical piano, but majored in biology because of the career limitations for someone with a music degree. Though she knew she wanted to be a writer, she took only one creative writing course. She often wrote poems in the margins of her textbooks. She also participated in the protests against the Vietnam War at its end. When Kingsolver graduated, she wanted to be a writer, but did not know how to make a living at it.
When Kingsolver graduated, she traveled to Europe for a time, living in Greece and France. She worked on the fringes of publishing, working as a copy editor, typesetter, and medical document translator. Kingsolver also worked as an X-ray technician and biological researcher. Upon her return to the United States, Kingsolver entered the University of Arizona where she earned her master's degree in biology (some sources say environmental technology). As a graduate student, she studied the social life of termites. She also took another writing class.
After obtaining her master's degree, Kingsolver worked as a science writer for the university's arid lands studies department. She did not pursue a career as a biologist nor complete the Ph.D. program she was entered in because the demands of academia were not to her liking. Many of her advisors thought she was wasting her talents in the sciences. By this time, Kingsolver was writing poems and short stories on her own time, but not showing them to anyone. Kingsolver began thinking about becoming a fiction writer in 1982, after winning a contest in a Phoenix newspaper.
In the early to mid-1980s, Kingsolver worked primarily for the university, but by 1985, was a full-time freelance journalist. She first sold articles to journals such as the Progressive and Smithsonian. Kingsolver later progressed into doing short fiction works for Redbook and Mademoiselle.
While attending school and working in Arizona, Kingsolver continued to be a political and social activist. Her first book, which she began writing in the early 1980s, was an extension of this interest. It was about the strike of unionized copper workers against the Phelps Dodge Corporation in Arizona. Kingsolver's focus was on the female union workers as she documented their struggles and growth over the course of the strike. After her agent could not sell Kingsolver's half-completed manuscript that she wrote over two years, Kingsolver temporarily gave up writing the nonfiction work.
In 1985, Kingsolver married Joe Hoffman, a chemistry professor at the University of Arizona. While pregnant with their daughter, Camille, she suffered from insomnia, a condition which actually helped her write her first novel, The Bean Trees. Somewhat based on her own life, it was about a woman, Taylor Greer, who leaves behind a rural life in Kentucky for the more urban Tucson, Arizona. There, she encounters the sanctuary movement. Over the course of the novel, she adopts a young Cherokee girl named Turtle, and hits the road.
Kingsolver's agent successfully auctioned the book, and Kingsolver used her advance to finish her book about the female miners. Entitled Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, it was published in 1989. That same year, Kingsolver published a collection of short stories, Homeland and Other Stories. Like the mining book, many of the stories were political and it was set in the Southwest, but with a variety of characters, many of whom were different than herself and those found in her first novel.
While Kingsolver published nonfiction works and short story collections, novels remained her primary publications. She carefully planned her novels, focusing on themes and craft. In these aspects, she was greatly influenced by Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, and John Steinbeck. One novel by Kingsolver that was carefully constructed was her second, 1990's Animal Dreams. The novel focused on Codi Noline, a character who is rather lost at the beginning of the book. Her sister has left to go to Nicaragua to engage in battle for social justice. Noline goes to her hometown where she deals with past pains, her father's struggle with Alzheimer's disease, and family and environmental problems. Despite these struggles, she grows in her family life, her community, and the world at large. Kingsolver found the novel hard to write because the issues were close to her heart, yet she developed a following of readers for her combination of politics and social activism in a fictional milieu.
As Kingsolver was publishing her third novel in the early 1990s, her personal life was undergoing some changes. Her marriage to Hoffman ended in divorce in 1993. Within a few years, she was remarried to Steven Hopp, an ornithologist, with whom she had another daughter, Lily, in 1996. The same year as her divorce, Kingsolver published her third novel, Pigs in Heaven. This was a continuation of the story she told in The Bean Trees. In the novel, Taylor Greer has to fight the Cherokee Nation to retain custody of her adopted daughter, Turtle. The nation's lawyers believe the girl should be raised among her own people and tries legal means to get her back. Kingsolver explores issues of community and different points of view on a difficult issue. She was compelled to address the Native American point of view she felt she left out in The Bean Trees.
Pigs in Heaven became a best-seller for months, and the first book by Kingsolver to reach the New York Times best-sellers list. Kingsolver followed this two years later with a collection of essays called High Tide in Tucson. In the essays, many of which were written specifically for the book, she addressed issues such as activism, love, motherhood, and her relationship with her daughter and the world around her. This book also sold well, and its popularity gave her hope.
Kingsolver's biggest and best-selling book to date was published in 1997, the novel The Poisonwood Bible. Drawing somewhat from her experiences in Africa as a child, the novel was primarily set in Africa's Belgian Congo in the late 1950s and early 1960s just as the Republic of Congo was being established. She focused on the lives of a family of evangelical Baptist missionaries headed by Nathan Price over a span of 30 years. Price wants to civilize the Africans, though his efforts do not turn out the way he expected and profoundly affects him and his family. The story is told by the five women in his life, his wife and four daughters, each of whom offers their own point of view and voice. Kingsolver had wanted to write this book since her childhood, and when she finally did, it was with a new maturity in its breadth, tone, and themes. The sweeping epic was also the longest book she had written, nearly 550 pages.
The book proved extremely popular. While it was a best-seller soon after publication, sales of The Poisonwood Bible zoomed after talk show host Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club in 2000. The novel sold at least two million copies. After this success, Kingsolver was unsure what to do next creatively. One thing she did was found and endow the Bellwether Prize for Fiction. She did this to support and promote literature of social change. While benefiting other writers, Kingsolver continued to write herself.
In 2000, Kingsolver published her next novel, Prodigal Summer, which was also a best-seller. Unlike any of her previous novels, this book explored themes of relationships and sex and was set in the Appalachias. Prodigal Summer had a complex narrative structure in that the stories were linked together through Deanna, a naturalist who lived with a man named Eddie Bono. In addition to looking at sex, it was also about biology, the preservation of wilderness, small farmers, and the challenges they face.
While Kingsolver was becoming a very successful novelist, she continued her political activism. She participated in the dissent against the American war in Afghanistan, and published many outspoken editorials and essays critical of U.S. President George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Because she supported her country, but was critical of its leaders, some critics pushed booksellers to remove her books from their shelves. Kingsolver's writings about politics and America, as well as nature and humanity, were published in a collection of essays called Small Wonder in 2002.
Over the years, many critics praised Kingsolver's ability to balance social and political concerns with the demands of a novel's narrative. Yet because many of her readers were women, many male critics were accused of giving her negative reviews because they did not understand her writing the way women did. As she explained to the Boston Globe's Gilbert, "The power of fiction is that it creates empathy. It differs from nonfiction in that way.... If I write a novel, I'm not just informing you, I'm inviting you into someone's life. And fiction takes place in real time. So you put your own life away and you put on this other life and you hear the things she hears and sees the things she sees and you feel her feelings.... And then you close the book and go back to your own life, but that set of feelings is embedded in you somewhere. I think creating empathy is a political act. It's the antithesis of bigotry and meanness of spirit."
From GALE. *ACP BIOGRAPHY
RESOURCE CENTER PINCODE CARD, 1E. © 2005 Heinle/Arts &
Sciences, a part of
Cengage Learning, Inc. Reproduced by permission. www.cengage.com/permissions
1. What was your perception of America's food industry prior to reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? What did you learn from this book? How has it altered your views on the way food is acquired and consumed?
2. In what ways, if any, have you changed your eating habits since reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? Depending on where you live-in an urban, suburban, or rural environment-what other steps would you like to take to modify your lifestyle with regard to eating local?
3. "It had felt arbitrary when we sat around the table with our shopping list, making our rules. It felt almost silly to us in fact, as it may now seem to you. Why impose restrictions on ourselves? Who cares?" asks Kingsolver. Did you, in fact, care about Kingsolver's story and find it to be compelling? Why or why not? What was the family's aim for their year-long initiative, and did they accomplish that goal?
4. The writing of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was a family affair, with Kingsolver's husband, Steven L. Hopp, contributing factual sidebars and her daughter, Camille Kingsolver, serving up commentary and recipes. Did you find that these additional elements enhanced the book? How so? What facts or statistics surprised you the most?
5. How does each member of the Kingsolver-Hopp family contribute during their year-long eating adventure? Were you surprised that the author's children not only participated in the endeavor but that they did so with such enthusiasm? Why or why not?
6. "A majority of North Americans do understand, at some level, that our food choices are politically charged," says Kingsolver, "affecting arenas from rural culture to international oil cartels and global climate change." How do politics affect America's food production and consumption? What global ramifications are there for the food choices we make?
7. Kingsolver advocates the pleasures of seasonal eating, but she acknowledges that many people would view this as deprivation "because we've grown accustomed to the botanically outrageous condition of having everything always." Do you believe that American society can-or will- overcome the need for instant gratification in order to be able to eat seasonally? How does Kingsolver present this aspect in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? Did you get the sense that she and her family ever felt deprived in their eating options?
8. Kingsolver points out that eating what we want, when we want comes "at a price." The cost, she says, "is not measured in money, but in untallied debts that will be paid by our children in the currency of extinctions, economic unravelings, and global climate change." What responsibility do we bear for keeping the environment safe for future generations? How does eating locally factor in to this?
9. Kingsolver asserts that "we have dealt to today's kids the statistical hand of a shorter life expectancy than their parents, which would be us, the ones taking care of them." How is our "thrown-away food culture" a detriment to children's health? She also says, "We're raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket." What responsibility do parents have to teach their children about the value and necessity of a local food culture?
10. In what ways do Kingsolver's descriptions of the places she visited on her travels-Italy, New England, Montreal, and Ohio-enhance her portrayal of local and seasonal eating?
11. "Marketing jingles from every angle lure patrons to turn our backs on our locally owned stores, restaurants, and farms," says Kingsolver. "And nobody considers that unpatriotic." How much of a role do the media play in determining what Americans eat? Discuss the decline of America's diversified family farms, and what it means for the country as a whole.
Reproduced with permission from harpercollins.com