Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (2000)
I’ve been meaning to read more Kingsolver since I read The Poisonwood Bible a few years ago (I loved it so much and still think about it often), and since the spring bug has bitten me fiercely this year, I let myself heed the call of this novel’s leafy cover, and I’m quite pleased that I did. This book is a little on the long side, but I never felt like it dragged. Indeed, I devoured it. It became one of those rare books that, when I was interrupted while reading, I would gesture to very pointedly without looking up from the page, immersed in the narrative to such an extent that the real world lost a bit of its allure for a few days.
Prodigal Summer tells three very distinct, though ultimately intertwined, stories in alternating chapters which are all set in or directly adjacent to the Appalachian Mountains. The reader is first introduced to Deanna, a federal employee charged with ensuring the preservation of the mountain upon which she’s been living, entirely alone, for two years. We meet her as she’s tracking a coyote family, shacking up a bit further south than is typical, and doing everything she can to ensure that the family’s survival chances are optimal. Then along comes Eddie Bondo, participant in a nationally sponsored competition to see who can shoot the most coyotes. Incredibly, Eddie and Deanna begin a relationship, a turn of events that shocks, delights, confuses, and enrages them both.
The second story we’re dropped into is Lusa’s. Lusa is a former city-dwelling entomologist who has come to farm country with her new husband, Cole. Cole is the inheritor of the family farm, and Lusa is having a hard time navigating the different farming philosophies she and Cole turn out to possess. Then Cole dies, suddenly and tragically, and Lusa is left with a farm surrounded by Cole’s sisters and their families, nearly all of whom are suspicious of her, varyingly unfriendly, and terrified about what she plans to do with the farm. She knows she doesn’t want to continue farming tobacco on the land, but, since she also doesn’t want to leave just yet, she has to come up with some money-making alternative, and fast.
Finally, we meet Garnett Walker, a crotchety widower in his eighties whose final aspiration in life is to cultivate a strain of blight-resistant American Chestnuts, the tree that built his family a fortune before the blight came and knocked them all out. His goal isn’t to get rich again but, rather, to leave a lasting mark on the land that sustained generations of his family. However, his next-door neighbor, Nannie Rawley, bane of his existence, refuses to use pesticides on her organic orchard trees, a difference that he believes to be irreconcilable. I loved Garnett because he’s so persnickety, a Bible-thumping Creationist with strong ideas about women in short pants and the bra-burning ways of the Unitarians in Knoxville, but he’s written with such charm that he wiggled and kvetched his way into my heart regardless.
In fact, all of the main characters in this novel found a place in my heart. I saw pieces of myself in all of them; I rooted for each and every one of them even while they were tearing each other limb from limb, collapsing under the weight of the effort to be the best possible stewards of the land. Plus, I learned a lot from this book! It’s stuffed full of fun animal facts, gardening tips, and lessons about environmental conservation and preservation, all of which become lodged in your brain while your mind is distracted by the storytelling. This novel is fun, it’s moving as hell, and it’s educational to boot. What’s not to love? 5/5.