This is the third week of the readalong of ‘Prodigal Summer’ that I am doing with Delia from Postcards from Asia. This week we are covering chapters nineteen through thirty-one from the book.
The third part of the book expands the stories of the four main characters – Deanna the forest ranger, Lusa the farmer and the neighbours Garnett Walker and Nannie Rawley. There are some subtle attempts by Barbara Kingsolver to link the three plot arcs in different ways – none of them direct but always subtle and understated. There are connections revealed between Garnett and Lusa and Nannie and Deanna. But on the whole, the three plot arcs proceed mostly independently of each other. The plot isn’t fast-paced with a lot of action-filled scenes but is slow and delicate, like the way a flower blooms, without revealing itself easily to the naked eye. At the end of the book, though, one realizes that the story has taken the reader from one place to another and all the main characters have been transformed. There are beautiful conversations in the third part of the book – between Lusa and her niece Crys and her nephew Rickie and between Nannie Rawley and Garnett Walker. I loved these conversations.
There are discussions and descriptions of wild life – on butterflies, coyotes, bugs and others. For example a conversation between Lusa and Crys goes like this :
“Luna moths especially like hickories. Those and walnuts. They lay their eggs on the leaves because that’s what their caterpillars eat.”
“That’s just how their stomachs are made. They specialize. You can eat the seeds of wheat, for instance, but not the grass part.”
“I can eat all kinds of stuff.”
“Other animals should be so lucky. Most of them have pretty specialized diets. Meaning they can eat only one exact kind of thing.”
“Well, that’s dumb.”
“It’s not dumb or smart, it’s just how they’re built, like you have two legs and walk on your feet. A dog probably thinks that’s dumb. But yeah, specialization makes life more risky. If their food dies, they die. They can’t just say, ‘Oh, never mind, my tree went extinct, so now I’ll just order pizza.”
There are discussions on organic farming – on how it is better than using pesticides and insecticides. There are discussions on how predators are an important part of the food chain and how killing them is going to have a detrimental effect on the ecological balance including to the lives of humans. For example, there is a conversation between Deanna and Eddie which goes like this :
“The life of a top carnivore is the most expensive item in the pyramid, that’s the thing. In the case of a coyote, or a big cat, the mother spends a whole year raising her young. Not just a few weeks. She has to teach them to stalk and hunt and everything there is to doing that job. She’s lucky if even one of her kids makes it through. If something gets him, there goes that mama’s whole year of work down the drain. If you shoot him, Eddie, that’s what you’ve taken down. A big chunk of his mother’s whole life chance at replacing herself. And you’ve let loose an extra thousand rodents on the world that he would have eaten. It’s not just one life.”
To me a significant part of the book was a paean sung in the glory of wildlife and forests and organic farming. Readers who are looking for a fast-moving story might be frustrated with these conversations and passages but those who love long conversations on ecology will love this. I loved it.
I have noticed that sometimes writers who write novels with a lot of descriptions, beautiful passages, and deep philosophical monologues want to add some spice at the end of the book and so bring in a tragic event at the end of the book. Sometimes they kill off the main character or someone’s heart gets broken or someone gets struck in an accident. I don’t know why writers do that, because this one scene changes the character of the whole book. Because the book changes from one which asks profound questions on life to one which is trying to grab the reader’s attention by making her / him sad. But I have seen at times that writers can’t resist doing it. Probably they feel guilty for not worrying about the plot for nine-tenths of the book and so suddenly want to introduce an unexpected scene to grab the attention of the reader. I have mixed feelings about this device. Some writers are able to pull it off with this sudden ending, but most of the time it feels like an unnecessary intrusion into the book. I would prefer a book to stay faithful to its original vision rather than try to become a Hollywood movie in the end. So, when I was reading ‘Prodigal Summer’ and I reached the last few chapters, I noticed that the author had revealed all her cards and the story was moving in a particular direction to a predictable conclusion. I asked myself – “Is Barbara Kingsolver going to succumb to the popular temptation? Is she going to kill off someone? Is Deanna going to be betrayed by Eddie? Or is she going to be killed by a mountain lion? Is Lusa going to die in an accident? Is something going to happen to Garnett Walker or Nannie Rawley?” As I read on till the end, I discovered that none of these things happened. There were one or two small surprises, but to my pleasant surprise, I discovered that Barbara Kingsolver didn’t try to tack-in a surprise ending to the story. I think that takes a lot of courage. I love Kingsolver for that.
‘Prodigal Summer’ is a beautiful meditation and evocation of summer. It is also about the forest, trees, wildlife, coyotes, moths, butterflies, birds, life in the farm and in the forest, the pleasures of summer and love in its many forms. It made me remember Ray Bradbury’s ‘Dandelion Wine’. Though I liked Bradbury’s book more, I have to say that I liked Kingsolver’s book very much. I will keep coming back to my favourite passages in the book again and again. I can’t wait to read my next Kingsolver book.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from ‘Prodigal Summer’.
One of the skills of grief that Lusa had learned was to hold on tight to the last moments between sleep and waking. Sometimes, then, in the early morning, taking care not to open her eyes or rouse her mind through its warm drowse to the surface where pain broke clear and cold, she found she could choose her dreams. She could call a memory and patiently follow it backward into flesh, sound, and sense.
He hated a weed on principle but could not help admiring this thing for its energy.
“Our mammaw and pappaw got to keep their dignity, just working right up to the end and then dying of a bad cold one day, with most their parts still working. But then along comes somebody inventing six thousand ways to cure everything, and here we are, old, wondering what to do with ourselves. A human just wasn’t designed for old age. That’s my theory.”
“That’s one of your theories.”
“Well, think about it. Women’s baby-business all dries up, men lose their hair – we’re just a useless drain on our kind. Speaking strictly from a biological point of view. Would you keep a chestnut in your program if it wasn’t setting seeds anymore?”
“I don’t think of myself as obsolete.”
“Of course not, you’re a man! Men walk around with their bald heads bare to the world and their pony put out to pasture, but they refuse to admit they’re dead wood. So why should I? What law says I have to cover myself up for shame of having a body this old? It’s a dirty trick of modern times, but here we are. Me with my cranky knees and my old shriveled ninnies, and you with whatever you’ve got under there, if it hasn’t dropped off yet – we’re still human. Why not just give in and live till you die?”
You can find Delia’s thoughts on the third part of ‘Prodigal Summer’ here.
Have you read ‘Prodigal Summer’ by Barbara Kingsolver? What do you think about it?