'Prodigal Summer' describes a single burgeoning season as experienced by the inhabitants of an Appalachian farming community. Deanna Wolfe is a Forest Service ranger who watches over the complex ecosystem of Zebulon mountain; Eddie Bondo is a young hunter to whom a predator is merely prey. Garnett Walker is a widower still mourning his long-dead wife and the blight-struck American Chestnut. Garnett conducts a determined philosophic battle with his neighbor and nemesis Nannie Riley. Lusa Landowski is an outsider who becomes stranded in Zebulon county after her young husband's tragic death. A complex web of human needs and desires surrounded by the greater struggle between species continuation and species extinction. Prose is luxurious and sensual and the text is woven through with both grief and humor.
Review: Prodigal Summer has been called Barbara Kingsolver's "sex book," both disparagingly and with affection. There certainly are a few "on-camera" sex scenes, although they're not written particularly graphically - Kingsolver herself has said while the themes of sex and fecundity are central to the novel, perhaps the most graphic sex scene is a dream sequence between a woman and a giant moth. However, to call it her "sex book" is to dismiss it too easily, and to overlook what I think is the point of the story. It's only about sex insomuch as everything in life is about sex - the struggle of each individual to pass on their genes, and leave something of themselves to the next generation. Calling it her "biology book" would be better (more on that in a minute), but the main theme of this book isn't sex, or biology - it's interconnection. This is most immediately apparent in the interlacing of the three storylines, which seem totally unrelated at first, but slowly yield up their connections, both major and minor, revealing the infinite number of tiny but not insubstantial ways that each of us touch the lives around us. But more than just personal interconnection, it also speaks to the connection of people to their environment, of the threads that bind us to the non-human lives around us - and of them to each other - resulting in a world that is a shining mass of sparkling threads of connection, where each life - moth, tree, or human - affects every other, and each life matters.
The ultimate result of this finely-drawn sense of connection is that Zebulon County emerges as a place with a sense of Place; essentially another character in its own right. I first read Prodigal Summer in the spring of 2002, long before I'd ever been to Appalachia, but Egg Fork and the surrounding mountains were more real to me than any place I'd encountered in a novel before. Now, six years and several summers of working in the southern Appalachian mountains later, I can say that Kingsolver absolutely gets it right. The forest, the small town, the farms, the people, the animals, the mountains - it's all there, vividly drawn, and pulsing with Life. Her characters are similarly real; by the end of the book you feel like you've known these people your whole life - not people like them, but them. Even with only a third as much space per story as in a traditional novel, Kingsolver still manages to draw complex, multi-layered, and lovably flawed people who feel as though you would recognize them walking down the street.
I will admit that I was predisposed to like this book - Kingsolver has a degree in biology (my own field), and was a science writer before becoming a full-time author. You can see the traces of this in all of her books, but nowhere is it brought to the fore like in Prodigal Summer. At the same time, the biology isn't blatant - it simultaneously motivates the stories without overshadowing them. Subtle points about ecology, evolution, and natural history are woven into the the overall framework, complementing and informing rather than detracting from the human drama.
I said that this is the book that made me love Kingsolver as a writer, but I'd like to do that one better. This is the book that makes me want to be a writer; this is the book I wish I could have written. I've read it enough times that I know some passages and bits of dialogue and turns of phrase by heart, but every time I read it, I'm left in awe of her powers of story construction and character development. Every time I read it, I'm left with a renewed sense of wonder in the the power of Life, and a renewed appreciation for what a miraculous, sacred place and community we are all a part of. 5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Highly, highly recommended, obviously.
Prodigal Summer is narrated in three strands, alternately titled “The Predators,” “Moth Love,” and “Old Chestnuts.” Each of the strands has as its central character a strong, environmentally conscious woman. Deanna Wolfe, in her late 40s, is a government-employed forest ranger who has lived solitarily on Zebulon Mountain for several years. A graduate thesis on coyotes to her credit, she is passionate about protecting the predators. When she meets young Eddie Bondo hiking on the mountain, their points of view, as well as the delineation of predator/prey collide. Lusa Landowski, early thirties, is an entomologist from Lexington who left her lab behind to marry Cole Widener and move to his family’s farm in Egg Fork, Zebulon County. An introvert by nature, and an authority on Luna moths, she will find herself a fish out of water as she tries to find her place in a large extended family in a small farming community. Finally, elderly Nannie Rawley, an organic orchardist, conspicuous to say the least amongst her backwoods neighbours, proves herself a savvy businesswoman in finding a lucrative market for her fruit. That said, her continued success will depend on whether she can keep her cantankerous, even more elderly neighbour, Garnett Walker, from destroying her efforts with pesticides.
What I Liked: I’ve come to expect a well-written story featuring an outstanding sense of place in Kingsolver’s works, and she does not disappoint here. The tapestry of mountains and farms in southern Appalachia are beautifully written. My favourite character is Nannie Rawley, old enough to understand that life doesn’t always go one’s way, and that sometimes there is no just answer – and wise enough to know exactly how to keep one Garnett Walker firmly in his place.
What I Didn’t Like: I found that the novel’s environmental message often came across as sanctimony, a shortcoming I personally find very grating – in fact, I lowered the novel’s rating by a half-star on account of it. In the same vein, I occasionally found the two younger female characters, Deanna and Lusa, a little ecologically-fanatic.
Recommended: In general, for fans of well-written fiction set in Appalachia; and for readers interested in human relationships with nature. More particularly, for Kingsolver fans (although it likely won’t read as one of her best) and dedicated environmentalists.
If you start this book, stay with it. The payoff is worthwhile. Kingsolver is a great storyteller, she just needs to lay a lot of groundwork out before really getting into the main story. Make time for this book as it is a long read and it is one you won’t want to put down once you get into it.
There are three main characters in this book. Deanna Wolfe is an employee of the Forest Services on Zebulon Mountain in the heart of Appalachia. She is 48 years old, divorced and very knowledgeable about the natural life on the mountain. Lusa only recently came to the Zebulon Valley as the wife of a farmer, Cole Widener. Before that she worked as an entomologist in Lexington. Garnett Walker is an octogenarian who has lived in Zebulon County his whole life just as his forefathers did. He taught school when he was younger because the family timber enterprise failed when the chestnuts all died from a foreign disease. Now he tries to breed chestnut trees that are resistant to the disease. He also feuds with his nearest neighbour, Nannie Rawley. The chapters rotate from person to person. At first it seems like they have nothing in common but it becomes apparent that, like nature, every life is interconnected. The summer proceeds with rain every few days and all the plants grow with abandon. Animal life, including the humans, also prosper for the most part. Deanna is particularly excited that a den of coyotes have taken up residence on her mountain. She is determined to keep them safe from hunters, including the man from Montana who shows up one day and is soon sharing her cabin and her bed. By the end of the summer, everyone's life has changed materially.
I thought Kingsolver was a little heavy-handed in giving her ecology lessons but, other than that, this was a lovely book. Zebulon Mountain is fictitious but Appalachia is real and seems like it would be an interesting place to explore.
The mountain, the plants, and the animals are just as much characters in this novel as Deanna, Lusa and Garnet. The language is poetic and the scenes set are beautiful and rich. Each of the stories kept me interested; I was disappointed at the end of each chapter as I had to leave those characters behind, but my disappointment soon faded as I was quickly caught up in the next story. Of course, all three stories or their characters are tied together at the end, but more loosely than you might expect.
If you liked The Poisonwood Bible, you'll like this one, too, and vice versa. Really enjoyable read, and I also learned a few things about ecology, too.
I also liked "Old Chestnuts," about an old crusty farmer getting aggravated at his neighbor's organic practices, but although I was often amused I always wondered whether Kingsolver had taken the stereotype of a set-in-his-ways farmer a little too far. Is this just the way we conservationists think of farmers? They're comic relief characters who need to simultaneously learn lessons about the use of pesticides and what it means to love? I wavered between really liking and really hating (and hating myself for liking) these sections.
"Predators" was the weakest for me. Deanna lives isolated in a cabin in the woods as a park ranger, and has her groceries delivered to her once a month. She's close enough to town that she can see it from the mountain and can chase away hunters who make the daytrip up, but not close enough to actually get her own groceries? Really? Because I'm pretty sure there is no position in any sort of park service where that would be a thing. Even positions that require rangers go way further into the wilderness actually have them coming back to civilization now and again. Kingsolver also bashes you over the head with ecological principles in this one--there are a couple good moments, but mostly we hear over and over how great predators are. Deanna seems like she's many middle-aged women's fantasy persona: living alone in a cabin isolated from civilization, sleeping with a hot young dude who appears out of nowhere, and getting what she absolutely desires most deep down out of the relationship without needing him to stick around for any sort of commitment. There's just no nuance here.
Barbara Kingsolver never disappoints, and even though I know I'm going to love her books, they still amaze me when I pick them up.
This novel intertwines three story lines of life and love in the rich natural environment of Southern Appalachia during one "rashly extravagant" summer.
This is quite possibly the most sensous (and sexual) thing I've read in years. Lady Chatterley, stand aside. Here we have Deanna, a Forest Service wildlife monitor who can't quite decide what her last name should be, because she was divorced a few years ago; who hasn't cut her hair since forever; who hopes against all sense that the coyotes have come back into her valley; and who finds herself entangled (quite literally) with a breathtaking fellow named Eddie Bondo, who may or may not be there to hunt and kill those elusive canids.
Kingsolver celebrates the physical side of life, and the power of the feminine, embedding a good deal of scientific information about mammalian and insect life into the narratives, skilfully giving us natural history lessons while engrossing us in the lives and predicaments of three sets of characters who we realize will eventually become part of one larger story. Beautifully written.
What I really enjoy about Barbara’s writing style is that she weaves a great story into an issue that is important to her without being preachy, and offensive. She has a way of presenting both sides but helping nudge you to see her side. Having In-Laws from the Appalachia area, I related to the language and the ways of thought. If you are a hard core modern farmer or hunter you probably will have difficulty with the themes of this book but I feel it’s time we started taking a long hard look at what our greed is doing to our land and food supply. Also, how mistrust and unacceptance is hurting our relationships with each other.
Over all, a great read I thoroughly enjoyed all the way through.
Barbara Kingsolver’s lush fifth novel, Prodigal Summer, takes place over one summer in the mountains and farmlands of southern Appalachia. Three very different characters (whose lives are connected by blood, geography and nature) are explored in alternating chapters.
Deanna, a middle-aged park ranger, tracks an elusive coyote family and inadvertently crosses paths with the rugged Eddie Bondo who is many years her junior. When the relationship turns sexual, Deanna’s long nurtured isolation conflicts with her desire to create a meaningful connection with another person.
When these creatures danced above their yard at night, she and her dad called them ballerinas. But this was no ballerina. Its body was a fat, furry cone flattened on one end into a ferocious face like a tiny, angry owl’s. It glared at Deanna, seeming to know too much for an insect and, worse, seeming disdainful. She hadn’t given up her love for luna after that, but she’d never forgotten, either, how a mystery caught in the hand could lose its grace. - from Prodigal Summer, page 66 -
Lusa comes to Appalachia as an outsider married to a man whose family has long farmed the area. Her struggle to find her place in the family and come to terms with grief and loss forces her to adapt her expectations and open her heart.
Survival here would be possible if only she could fill the air with scent and dispatch the stern female ghosts in that kitchen with the sweetness of an unabashed blooming weed. - from Prodigal Summer, page 31 -
Garnett, an elderly and curmudgeonly widow, grinds his teeth in agitation over his seventy-something next door neighbor Nannie who disdains pesticides and wears shorts which indecently expose her legs. Their constant conflicts force Garnett to examine his rigid view of the world, and perhaps make way for a different perception of his feisty neighbor.
A successor to a lost fortune, Garnett had spent his life glancing away from visions of how things might have turned out differently, Nannie Rawley was the exception. How could he not dwell on her presence in his life and seek its meaning? – from Prodigal Summer, page 136 -
Kingsolver adeptly develops her characters, weaving their stories together like a colorful blanket whose beauty lies in the pattern of the whole rather than in any individual thread. The beauty of nature and the threats to its flora and fauna slip in and out of each story. For Deanna, nature has become an escape from the world, one she fiercely protects until Eddie Bondo arrives and blurs the boundaries. Lusa, whose love of moths and bugs sets her apart from her husband’s family, looks to nature as a salve to heal her broken heart. And Garnett, a man who believes in the power of chemicals, yearns to bring back the great American chestnut tree – a desire that is wrapped up in his family’s history. As their stories develop, they begin to merge and connections, sometimes surprising, are revealed.
Barbara Kingsolver is, without a doubt, a gifted writer. In Prodigal Summer she uses all her powers to create a story about love, loss, grief, and the circular nature of life. The novel is fluid and beautifully constructed; the characters deep, conflicted and complex. Despite the serious themes, Kingsolver allows for humor when she throws Nannie and Garnett together – two characters whose polar views of the world cause them to collide again and again.
By now, it is obvious that I loved this book. Kingsolver’s strength as a writer and storyteller are evident on each page. Readers who love character driven novels with beautiful writing will undoubtedly enjoy Prodigal Summer.
Characters and Their Conflicts
Divorced from a professor husband, a strong advocate for preserving the balance of nature, a fierce defender of predators (coyotes in particular), Deanna Wolfe is a wildlife biologist working for the forest service on Zebulon Mountain, located between the states of Virginia and Kentucky. Preferring a life of isolation, having lived in a rude cabin for two years, she encounters Eddie Bondo, a 28-year old sheep rancher from Wyoming. She is attracted to him, despite being in her late forties. They initiate a sexual relationship. Her need for intimate contact so long deferred is countered by her concern about their age difference but more importantly by her belief that he has come to the mountain to hunt coyotes, a predator he particularly hates. Deanna is aware that bounty hunts in the Appalachian states are common-place. The local Mountain Empire Bounty Hunt is about to begin. She is torn by her need for him and her compulsion to protect two female coyotes and their young pups, which she has just discovered, their appearance marking the end of a lengthy absence of that species in the area.
Lusa Maluf Landowski is introduced in Chapter Two. Lusa is unhappy with her surroundings and argumentative with her husband, Cole Widener. She had been a postdoctoral assistant at the University of Kentucky specializing in the study of moths. Her father, also connected with the university, had been studying the pheromones of codling moths, “notorious pests of apple trees.” Their research findings were accessible to objective-minded regional farmers. Cole Widener had been sent to the university by Zebulon Valley farmers to attend a workshop on integrated pest management. Lusa had spoken about gelechid moths, “denizens of a grain crop in storage.” Very quickly they had become intimate and he had proposed. Moving onto the Widener family property that Cole had inherited from his father, they had begun an existence that Lusa had found culturally and intellectually stagnant and socially distressing. Foremost of her concerns was that Cole’s five sisters were hostile to her. She was an outsider, “from the other side of the mountains, from Lexington.” They resented her. Cole, the male heir of the family, had inherited most of the 60 acres of Widener farmland. The sisters, and their husbands, lived on one-acre parcels that Cole’s father had willed them. Lusa resented their treatment of her, and she disapproved of the valley residents’ use of pesticides and chemical defoliants and their killing of wild animals. “I’m sorry,” she tells Cole, “my education didn’t prepare me to live here where the two classes of animals are food and target practice.” Very soon, Cole is killed in a traffic accident. His sisters are now resentful that Lusa is the heir of the 60 acres of family property and fearful that she will either sell it to somebody outside the family or marry an outsider and produce children who will become the land’s legal heirs. Lusa’s dilemma is deciding what she wants to do with her life: stay and savor the memories of her husband, whom she loves, and deal with her perceived enemies, or terminate this stage in her life and return to Lexington.
Garrett Walker is an 80-year-old widower, former school teacher, and a crosser and back-crosser of the Chinese chestnut and the nearly extinct American chestnut tree. He is a narrow-minded, insufferably opinionated, lonely old man who has “turned to God for his solace.” His nemesis is his neighbor, Nannie Rawley, an organic apple orchard grower who is close to 70 years of age. According to Garrett, Nannie defies all the rules of decent, socially acceptable, common sense behavior.
“Garrett had overlooked her as a child …; had hardly known her as a young woman since she was away for so many years; and had mainly ignored her as long as his wife was alive. … But now, during these eight years alone, he’d been forced to bear her as a burgeoning plague on his old age. Why? What made Nannie do the things she did, before God and Man and sometimes on Garrett’s property? He suspected a connection between that long-ago birth of a deformed child and her terror of chemicals. The troubles had been evident at birth, the Mongol features and so forth, and Nannie had named it Rachel Carson Rawley, after that lady scientist who cried wolf about DDT. Everything in Nannie’s life since seemed to turn on the birth of that child, now that he looked back. The woman had probably been normal once. That Child had launched her off the deep end.”
We discover later in the book that the illegitimate child’s father had also been Deanna Wolfe’s father. According to Garrett, townspeople had forgiven Nannie. “People thought she was comical and intriguing but for the most part excessively kind.” Truthfully, she could get away with anything. “They didn’t suspect her little figure of harboring the devil … He suspected Nannie Rawley had been put on this earth to try his soul and tempt his faith into doubt.” Much of their friction had to do with his use of chemicals. “Success without chemicals was impossible,” he believed. She complained that his use of them endangered her orchard. “If only his poisons would drift over onto her trees,” he wished. Garrett’s encounters with the very sympathetic Nannie Rawley provide entertaining comic relief.
The dominant theme of the novel revolves around the question: Should Man preserve what scientists perceive to be the balance of nature or should he exploit nature for his selfish purposes? Deanna believes that the extinction of any species affects unnaturally the existence of directly related species. You shoot a coyote pup, she tells Eddie Bondo, and “‘a big chunk of his mother’s whole life chance at replacing herself’” is taken down. “‘And you’ve let loose an extra thousand rodents on the world that he would have eaten.’” Garrett states in a letter to Nannie his belief that “we must view God’s creatures as gifts to his favored children and use them for our own purposes, even if this occasionally causes this one or that one to go extinct after a while.” Nannie answers him. “Everything alive is connected to every other by fine, invisible threads. Things you don’t see can help you plenty, and things you try to control will often rear back and bite you … If God gave Man all the creatures of this earth to use for his own ends, he also counseled that gluttony is a sin … He didn’t tell us to go ahead and murder every beetle or caterpillar that wants to eat what we eat (and, by the way, other insects that pollinate what we eat). He did not mean for us to satisfy our every whim for any food, in every season, by tearing down forest to make way for field, ripping up field to make way for beast, and transporting everything we can think of to places it doesn’t belong.” Kingsolver interjects this dominant theme skillfully throughout the novel.
Crisp Dialogue (between Deanna and Eddie Bondo)
“She forced her next words, knowing that each one had its own cost. ‘You said I could ask you a question, and now I’m asking it.’
He blinked but didn’t speak. Something in his eyes receded from her.
‘What brought you down here to the mountains?’
He looked away. ‘A Greyhound bus.’
‘I have to know this. Was it the bounty hunt?’
He didn’t answer.
‘Just say no if the answer is no. That’s all I want.’
He still said nothing.
‘God.’ She let out a slow breath. ‘I’m not surprised. I knew that I will never, ever understand who you are.’
‘I never asked you to.’”
Appealing Sensory Imagery
“From inside her dark cocoon Deanna listened to the racket of a man in her cabin: the door flung open, boots stomping twice to shed their mud at the door, then the hollow clatter of kindling dropped on the floor. Next, the creak of the stove’s hinge and the crackling complaints of a fire being kindled and gentled to life Soon it would be warm in here, the chill of this June morning chased outdoors where the sun could address it.”
Visual Detail with Dialogue To Provide a Sense of Presence (Deanna and Bondo’s first meeting)
“Cocky, she thought. Or cocked, rather. Like a rifle, ready to go off. ‘What would I need your name for? You fixing to give me a story I’ll want to tell later.’ …
‘That I can’t say. But I won’t bite.’ He grinned—apologetically, it seemed. He was very much younger than she. His left hand reached up to his shoulder, fingertips just brushing the barrel of the rifle strapped to his shoulder. ‘And I don’t shoot girls.’
‘Well, wonderful news.’
A Special Knowledge of a Particular Subject
“She found a spot where it had circled a chestnut stump, probably for scent marking. She studied the stump, an old giant, raggedly rotting its way backward into the ground since its death by ax or blight. Toadstools dotted the humus at its base, tiny ones, brilliant orange, with delicately ridged caps like open parasols. The downpour would have obliterated such fragile things; these must have popped up in the few hours since the rain stopped—after the animal was here, then. Inspired by its ammonia.”
Prodigal Summer is an outstanding novel.
I did find the environmental theme a bit laboured as we all got "the message" fairly early on and the repetition was a little unnecessary, but that was easy to forgive as it did fit with the story and the characters, and the whole package was such a joy to experience.
I was incredibly disappointed that Deanna and Lusa did not meet by the end of the book. I really do want to know how the interconnection of the characters that was building up actually works out. I would love to know what happens to the 3 younger ones; Crystal, Lowell and Rick. If there were to be a sequel I'd read it in a flash, but I suspect that she has achieved the main game (the message) and the wonderful people were the conduit for that. I hope I'm wrong.
Absolutely loved Nannie Rawley, and the interaction with Garnett. A great foil to the more intense sections involving Deanna and Lusa. Living on a small landholding myself (which is actually a chestnut orchard funnily enough) I could identify with some of the activities and the dilemmas of "country life". Lusa madly bottling all the fruit and tomatoes because she could not bear to see them go to waste, and dreaming up schemes to get rid of surplus cucumbers . . . that made me really chuckle.
And the last chapter I did find a little off putting with respect to the change of voice. Clever with the mirroring of the first, but once again unnecessary. But that's only a tiny gripe.
Deanna Wolfe, works for the Forest Service and lives an isolated existence tracking and protecting coyotes. Lusa Landowski is a young entomologist who moved to a small farm to be with her now deceased husband. Garnett Walker is an 80 year old man trying to bring back the chestnut trees to his region and battling with his neighbor Nannie, whose organic farming methods threaten his project.
Kingsolver deftly weaves these stories together with an appreciation and understanding of humans and their impact on the environment and nature. Kingsolver has a way of drawing you into the story and making you care about her characters.
I would put Kingsolver in the same class as Alice Hoffman in her ability to tell a story that makes you feel different, feel moved by reading one of her novels. I even got a biology lesson during this read, but I was so enthralled with the story that I didn't even notice I'd learned anything until it was all over :) Kingsolver writes beautiful and poetic prose but always has important themes within. This is a lighter read than The Poisonwood Bible. If you have never read one of her books, this is a good one to start with and I highly recommend it
I thoroughly enjoyed it. It had enough environmental preaching in it for me to appreciate it, but not so much that someone not as into that would be turned off. Even though it was a novel, it was really like three short stories broken up by each other, as the chapters alternated between three different stories that were slightly woven together, but really could have stood on their own if needed.
The character stories were different enough that I found myself eagerly awaiting getting past two chapters to get back to the storyline concerning my favorite (a cranky old widower).
Kingsolver is a talented writer and her characters are well-developed and the reader might even learn a little too!
And yet another book that lets me know how much we're missing when we lost American Chestnut trees.
One of my top 10 favorite books of all time!
Kingsolver has an easy style, drawing the reader into her stories. The descriptions of the flora and fauna of these Appalachian mountains and valleys is lush and beautiful. There were only a few times when the prose turned a bit didactic, when Kingsolver's need to make a`point about the environment overcame her usually seamless prose style.