Prodigal Summer is Barbara Kingsolver's fifth novel, published in 2001, and her latest as of January 2004. It is a story set somewhere in the southern Appalachian mountains of the United States. The events are centred in Zebulon County, around the curiously named town of Egg Fork. Nature, women, men, and the relationships between are the main themes of this tale.

In fact, the story is strongly focussed on women. This is a supremely feminine novel. Kingsolver alternates chapters between the points of view of three characters: two women named Lusa Landowski and Deanna Wolfe, and old Garnett Walker, whose masculine viewpoint is largely a vehicle for the portrayal of a third woman, Nannie Rawley. A remarkable aspect of this work is that the three protagonists function seemingly independently of each other throughout the whole book, and that each of their respective chapters has its own title. Deanna's chapters are called Predators, Lusa's Moth Love, and Garnett's are Old Chestnuts. In a sense, it is almost like reading three different novels, because the characters have almost no direct interaction with one another, but this is exactly the illusion that Kingsolver wants to dissipate. Above all, this is a story about interconnectivity, about the relation that all life holds to itself, about how nothing happens in isolation.

But solitude is only a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen. All secrets are witnessed.

So we read in the first paragraph. Remember this.

As the pages turn, we are drawn into the life of a solitary woman who sniffs tree stumps so as to ascertain the presence of predators, a bobcat in this case. This is Deanna, a lone forest ranger who after having gone through an ordinary life of society, school, university, career, and marriage now feels more at home in the company of snakes, warblers, coyotes, and the trees that shelter them all and herself too. She lives cut off from the world of humans in a little cabin in the woods where she receives monthly supplies that the U.S. Forest Service provides in exchange for the care she gives to the mountain. She was faring quite well by herself, thank you very much, until the ferociously beautiful sheep rancher Eddie Bondo came all the way from Wyoming with his gun to Zebulon County. There she was then, reconciling the calls of the wild towards this man's taut body with her own sense of quasi motherly duty for protecting a fledgling family of coyotes from his thirty-thirty rifle.

But before we can fully settle into Deanna's recluse in nature, the next chapter brings us to Lusa and her farmer of a husband Cole Widener. The young newlyweds are already having a rocky marriage. Lusa is a young woman from Lexington, an outsider, a city girl in Egg Fork, living for the first time the role of farmer's wife and having difficulties adjusting. But Lusa has always been an outsider, from her very birth to a Jewish Polish father and a Muslim Palestinian mother. In the country, where nature is not a romantic notion outside of which to write poetry but a reality threatening to kick down the front door if you're not careful, she cannot understand her husband's urge to spray defoliant over the honeysuckle crawling over their hedgerows. What harm could an innocent weed do? With Cole, she is also drowned in a family of in-laws who can at best tolerate her urban peculiarities. Back in the university, when she met and fell in love with Cole who was sent away by his family to a special farming program, she used to study moths and their mating habits. She is an entomologist, a moth scientist, and her field is moth love. Suddenly, her marriage finished before it could get started. Just like the moths who communicate by scent, a waft of honeysuckle from across the field announced in her kitchen that Cole was not coming home for dinner that night. It is up to her now to manage by herself the Widener place, and to find herself in it despite her five uncomprehending sisters-in-law.

In the next two pages we come to a very brief introduction to Garnett. A widower of eight years, Garnett is a tired old man, practical, knowledgable, somewhat fussy and crotchety, and delightfully old-fashioned. The death of his wife has not shaken his faith in God in the least bit, but it has made it difficult to get up in the mornings in a solitary bed for the past eight years. Perhaps it would not all be so difficult for him were it not for that troublesome neighbour of his, Nannie Rawley. She is a progressive elderly woman, who went to university and later in her life replaced lectures with services in a Unitarian church. She would be more tolerable if only she would not be so stubborn in refusing to use modern chemical pesticides in her garden, like any decent person would. No, instead she prefers more "natural" alternatives, as she calls them, and this has been Garnett's bane. The Japanese beetles will soon be nibbling all over his chestnut trees if Nannie doesn't give her own the proper care. But Garnett would rather remain a civil neighbour as far as possible and is willing to tolerate all of her eccentricities. He believes in loving his neighbour, difficult as it may be sometimes. This tolerance, however, only goes so far, and he suspects that Nannie's garden may harbour a coven of bra-burning Unitarian witches. He prefers not to spread his suspicions, because, like I said before, he is a tired old man who mostly tends to his own garden. Mostly.

Thus begins the stories, or story. The singular soon replaces the plural in successive chapters, because slim gossamer threads of interconnectivity between the stories reveal themselves. This interplay of human affairs mirrors the dependencies found in nature, in which every character is constantly immersed in different ways. Deanna wants to protect nature and be as much a part of it as reasonably possible, which may or may not leave room for Eddie Bondo. Lusa will have to come to grips in her own way with Cole's farming preoccupations and has her own reconciling to do, with nature, and with Cole's family. Garnett's quest to resucitate the American chestnut tree in his own garden (they were wiped out by a fungus in the early twentieth century, the infamous chestnut blight) will eventually lead him to understand his relationship with Nannie Rawley and, in turn, with nature. This book wants to promote that it is somewhat artificial, pardon the expression, to separate human relationships from relationships with nature, because they are intensely alike to each other. Every character has a very specific function and purpose in this story, as does in nature every beetle, moth, sparrow, rabbit, and coyote.

Allow me to speak a bit further about the portrayal of nature we find here. As a person who has lived most of their life in cities, I am mayhaps justified in still having a romantic ideal of what nature should be like. This novel has little time for views like mine. Nature is a very practical thing, all around us, and inside us too. We must farm it or ranch it to feed, sometimes hold it back, and always protect it. To be sure, Garnett is perhaps chasing after a romantic ideal by wanting to return the American chestnut to the woodlands, Deanna seems overzealous to Eddie Bondo in her protection of the coyotes, and Lusa's family thinks her naïve for refusing to grow tobacco, their main cash crop, but there is nothing stupidly romantic about the pursuits of these characters. These are genuine concerns, real problems they face, and we face them too. Kingsolver's background as a biologist is evident everywhere. Nature is real, practical, and all around us. It also happens to be astonishingly beautiful.

About the beauty in this novel, allow me to make a few remarks too. This work is deeply sensual, in the full sense of the word. Each new description of a moth that Kingsolver gives us can be experienced with five senses. We can smell coyote scat and cherry jam, appreciate the colours in moth's wings, and savour the big fat turkey who gobbled his last less than an hour ago and is now roasting on a stick. And that's not all. Sensuality includes the erotic, and there is plenty of that too. Summer is in full bloom, "the season of extravagant procreation" as the title suggests, and mating season for humans is all year 'round. Kingsolver knows how to speak the language of love. Selected portion of this book are therefore best read in comfortable solitude or in the company of someone who is willing to share some intimacy. During the summer, everyone is drumming up business, people included. It is all about women, remember, very credible erotics. Enjoy.

The feminity seeps through every page of this novel. Garnett's chapters are really excuses to talk about Nannie Rawley through a man's antiquated voice, and to poke a little fun at his ways. For example, at some point Kingsolver presents her own views on evolution, for no modern biologist can resist the temptation to say a few things about natural selection. She uses Garnett to present Creationism while Nannie is the calm woman, the practical rationalist in favour of Darwinism. This trend is found elsewhere in the book. Eddie Bondo would be happy if all the coyotes were exterminated, but his relationship with Deanna prevents him; Lusa wants to give farming a hand more tender than Cole could provide, and so on. And women keep getting their way, often after much hard work. In Kingsolver's book, it is the woman who reigns supreme, the mediator between man and nature. Somehow, it all works out fine in the end.

Prodigal Summer is the narrative of a small community nestled in the mountains, and this community comprises of much more than just humans. Short of going to the southern Appalachian mountains and seeing for yourself all the abundance of life that Barbara Kingsolver describes, reading her book is a fantastic way of getting a taste of the world outside and our liaisons inside. I thoroughly recommend reading it at least once.

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