Best Of Tucson®

Best New Work (Published In 1999)

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

READERS' PICK: At some point in its 543 pages, you realize that The Poisonwood Bible is an anti-imperialist, anti-fundamentalist tract. Then you turn the page, and you remember that it's also deeply humane, witty, elegiac, graceful, and a damned good epic yarn. The novel revolves around the wife and daughters of an unbalanced Baptist missionary who drags his family to the Belgian Congo in 1959. Africa infects them all like a virus of the conscience; some succumb to it, others fight it, none survive as the naive Americans they once were. As we've come to expect, Kingsolver invests her female characters with both depth and a life-saving sense of irony, and creates a marvelous sense of place. Kingsolver's real stride forward here is not her political commitment -- that's been obvious since The Bean Trees -- but her stylistic aplomb. The mother and daughters trade off narrative duties, each with a distinctive, appealing voice. Even so, Kingsolver manages to end many chapters with a signature cadence: a culmination, a summing-up of the situation, often with a surprising modulation in the final sentence. That, in fact, could describe the whole novel. The Poisonwood Bible nearly netted Kingsolver a Pulitzer this year. Don't mourn the near-miss. If it weren't for cosmic injustice, Kingsolver would have little to write about so entertainingly, and so compellingly.

READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Leslie Marmon Silko's Gardens In The Dunes was one of two delightful surprises to hit Tucson this past April (the other being that Easter-morning snow shower). By far the longer-lasting pleasure, this 300-page historical epic is perhaps Silko's most ambitious work to date, weaving seldom-developed Western characters such as Indian girls, black entrepreneurs, Mexican revolutionaries (a gypsy woman traveling with a pack of sideshow dogs, no less!), prostitutes, Mormons and Indian school authorities into an enthralling tale that spans decades and continents.

Gardens follows the lives of three generations of Sand Lizard women -- a grandmother, her daughter and two granddaughters -- from their happy, cultivating years in the eponymous old gardens, to a prison in Yuma where the girls' lives are split apart and sent down wildly divergent paths. Along the way, Silko imparts an always-challenging view of the notion of "quality of life," and just enough social justice to keep you hopefully cheering on her hard-scrabble heroines. Luscious descriptions of gardens in the American Southwest, on the posh mansions of the East Coast, Italy and England, and intriguingly detailed fragments of the unexpectedly political history of commercial botanicals (in particular, orchids) propel this mesmerizing and dryly humorous tale of love and betrayal to unexpected conclusions. It's a wonderful piece of regional literature that embraces the larger western world.