Saturday, May 12, 2012

Prodigal Summer

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Each chapter of the book deals with one of the three main characters and are subsequently titled, Predators, Moth Love, and Old Chestnuts. Forty-something Deanna, the predator lover, has left her small town life in the Zebulon Valley and now lives alone as a forest caretaker. Lusa, the moth lover, is a new bride who suddenly finds herself saddled with a farm and a family of strangers. Garnett, the chestnut lover, is an embittered old man who pines away for companionship and the extinct American Chestnut tree. Through the voices of Deanna and Lusa, Kingsolvers message reverberates through the towering trees and farming fields -- do not mess with nature or any of its creatures, big or small, and do not ever spray pesticides. Garnett, on the other hand, stands for destruction with his spray happy hands.


Nature is working double time to spread its bounty -- honeysuckle bushes overcome barn walls, scrotal shaped ladys slipper orchids blossom erotically in the forest, apples hang heavy from Nannys boughs. The most beautiful images though are found in Lusas love -- moth love. A career entomologist before she left the city to marry her farmer husband, Lusa continues to read about and study her favorite insects. She is especially fascinated at how moths use the language of scent to find one another, similar to pheromones in humans, and some even mate until death. These specific moths dont have mouths so they cannot speak nor eat. Their sole mission is to procreate, and they do so with abandon.


Coyotes are the other beautiful creatures at the center of the novel, appearing suddenly and disappearing just as fast, feeding rumors that frighten farmers and rally hunters from all over the country. Deanna dreams of finding the coyotes to prove that they exist and to celebrate the life they have managed to salvage despite mans attempt to drive them into extinction. In the first few pages of the novel Deanna meets one of those men, a wanderer from the West who has his gun handy, and whose mission she fears is to hunt the very thing she reveres. But even their tremendously different animal morals cannot squelch their immediate physical attraction, a lust for life that triggers her own internal war between body and mind.


The three storylines -- Deannas search for the elusive coyote, Lusas for a home, and Garnetts for his beloved chestnuts -- stream together side by side, sometimes skimming each others boundaries. A chair in Deannas chestnut cabin used to be in Lusas home. Nanny once loved Deannas father, and Garnett has a secret of his own that connects him to Lusa. Pheromones fly, coyotes howl, moths mate, humans bleed their emotions all over the tracts of land and forest during Kingsolvers prodigal summer.


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Prodigal Summer weaves together three stories of human love within a larger tapestry of lives inhabiting the forested mountains and struggling small farms of southern Appalachia. At the heart of these intertwined narratives is a den of coyotes that have recently migrated into the region. Deanna Wolfe, a reclusive wildlife biologist, watches the forest from her outpost in an isolated mountain cabin where she is caught off-guard by Eddie Bondo, a young hunter who comes to invade her most private spaces and confound her self-assured, solitary life. On a farm several miles down the mountain, another web of lives unfolds as Lusa Maluf Landowski, a bookish city girl turned farmers wife, finds herself unexpectedly marooned in a strange place where she must declare or lose her attachment to the land. And a few more miles down the road, a pair of elderly, feuding neighbors tend their respective farms and wrangle about God, pesticides, and the complexities of a world neither of them expected. Over the course of one humid summer, as the urge to procreate overtakes a green and profligate countryside, these characters find connections to one another and to the flora and fauna with which they necessarily share a place. Their discoveries are embedded inside countless intimate lessons of biology, the realities of small farming, and the final, urgent truth that humans are only one part of life on earth.


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


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!





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