This is another book I’ve had for years and just now got around to reading. Prodigal Summer is a lovely novel, one of my favorites by Barbara Kingsolver. Before this book, the only novel of hers I really loved was The Poisonwood Bible; for me, that novel was in a different league than her earlier works, in terms of characters, plot and resonance with a time and place. Others may disagree, and it’s possible I was simply at a different point in my life when I read it. Nonetheless, I’d put Prodigal Summer in the same category, as a cut above her earlier writing.
There are many things that spoke to me in this novel. The challenge of re-creating a different way of being on a contemporary farm. The way in which the place of your youth calls you back to it, whether you particularly liked it there or not. The beauty of being awake to the natural world, and the way something—human, plant or animal—will cling to life even as it scrabbles on the brink of extinction. My own commitment to supporting both organic farming and the conservation of wild places made those aspects of the book most enjoyable. The myth of the coyote—scrappy, wily, and allegedly the only native species to profit from European invasion—is one that is becoming central to how we think of ourselves socially and culturally in this country, and the varied ways in which characters respond to the appearance of these animals provides depth that prevents them from becoming caricatures of themselves. Similarly, the opposite approaches that two elderly farmers take to the same challenge—preserving some part of the natural world that is precious to them—helps illuminate the truth that there is commonality between everyone who cares for their local terrain, despite what appears at first glance to be incompatible difference.
Kingsolver’s close connection with the natural world is evident in the care and tenor of her writing in Prodigal Summer, and the book serves as a sort of fictional prequel to the non-fiction Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that followed some years later. That book deserves a review all its own, but the things that I loved in Prodigal Summer clearly arise from the way in which she looks closely at the natural world around her and holds dear her place in it.