1 March, 2003Issue 2.2FictionLiteratureNorth America

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Collecting Her Thoughts

Elizabeth Aracic

Although she is one of the more popular and recognised novelists in America, Barbara Kingsolver is familiar in the United Kingdom only as the author of The Poisonwood Bible or of the less heady Prodigal Summer. Small Wonder, her new paperback collection of essays, does not seem likely to redress that imbalance—mainly because British critics are likely to dismiss its musings about America, particularly America on and after September 11, outright.

Unlike High Tide in Tucson, her earlier collection of essays, the essays in Small Wonder are inconsistent in tone and style. At their best, they are striking, polished meditations by one of the most critical and well-rounded writers in America. At their worst, they are preachy and idealistic. However, it would be a shame to write off this volume, because novelists rarely address global issues with such conviction and clarity. Now is an especially important time to listen to the voices of intellectual American dissidents, a group too rarely noticed by the British media.

In these essays, Kingsolver does what she does best: she describes personal experience vividly, relates those experiences to larger global problems, and then finally reaffirms the importance of individual responsibility and action. For example, an essay that begins about her daughter’s love of the new chicken coop (‘Lily’s Chickens’) becomes a criticism of agricultural policy ills such as the depletion of seed banks and the unnecessary increase in global food importation. Another begins with her daughter asking to be dressed for school in red, white, and blue, moves into a general criticism of the American flag as just another icon (like a Nike Swoosh, but with more sinister implications because of the political and military power associated with it), and then reclaims the flag as the original symbol of controversial, independent voices in America.

But the essays are not all political, and in fact, the most unequivocally successful are the autobiographical, which are of special interest to devotees of her fiction, offering frank commentary on her life and work. In ‘What Good is a Story?’, she outlines how she writes as well as what she considers the value of literature, and she avows her great respect for her readers. In ‘Letter to a Daughter at Thirteen’ and the accompanying ‘Letter to My Mother’, she writes frankly and eloquently about the difficulty of life as well as the difficulties of life as a woman—suffering rape and facing sexual discrimination in her field of professional biology, yet in the end surviving to succeed at what she considers her great calling.

She says it best herself in the first essay of the collection, ‘I believe in parables. I navigate life using stories where I find them, and I hold tight to the ones that tell me new kinds of truths’. This book, in simple terms, is a collection of those reaffirming parables, replete with considered discussions and challenging descriptions. And despite some rough edges, it is a collection as rigorous and provocative as it is hopeful.

Elizabeth Aracic is a graduate student in English at New College, Oxford. She is writing on the poetry of Emily Dickinson.