Green Light

Barbara Kingsolver's New Novel Fights For Life And Love In The Natural World.

Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver. HarperCollins, $26.

BARBARA KINGSOLVER'S FICTION offers no apologies for political sentiment. Whether her characters are blasting holes in television screens or caught up in unrest in the Congo, they speak, feel and act on the sense of doing what is right. In Kingsolver's sixth novel, Prodigal Summer, a trio of women--each central to parallel, minimally intertwining stories--wastes no time about being as "Green" as the book's dust jacket. They almost outdo each other in their vociferous fight to preserve life and love in the natural world centered in Zebulon County of Kingsolver's native Southern Appalachia.

And what a world they share. This is "God's green earth laid out ... like a long green rumpled rug, the stitched together fields and pastures of Zebulon Valley." In May on the mountain "the damp earth ... blossomed in fits and throes: trout lillies, spring beauties, all the understory wildflowers that had to hurry through a whole life cycle between May's first warmth and the shaded darkness of a June forest floor." Kingsolver's prose rolls as generously unrestrained as the growth she describes. Here, "everywhere you looked, something was fighting for time, for light, the kiss of pollen, a connection of sperm and egg and another chance."

In the story laid out in the "Predator" chapters, Deena Wolfe finds she is not immune to the spell of fecundity boiling in the woods. After two years as forest ranger, the most she can manage in her first conversation with Eddie Bondo is an embarrassing "yep" and "nope," despite the fact that "she could not remember a more compelling combination of features on any man she'd ever seen." (Later he pays her back by actually calling her "pretty lady.") Luckily, her body contains enough non-verbal memories to direct her in welcoming this young hunk into her life.

The great thing about this relationship is the age difference. He's 28 and she's 47! (Take that, you aging male writers constantly drooling over those sweet young things.) What Eddie finds in Deena is one lusty woman. The problem is that she adores predators more than any other creatures on earth. She's written a dissertation on them and has been waiting with bated breath for the rumored invasion of coyotes onto the national forest land she's paid to guard. He, of course, comes from a long line of sheep ranchers who just say no to coyotes, giving Deena the opportunity to deliver the message of the novel. "To kill a predator is a sin," she says. Nobody in his or her right mind fools with balance.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, another love story progresses under the chapters titled "Moth Love." Here, Lusa, a woman similarly schooled in ecology, finds herself married to an earthy tobacco farmer. The earthy is OK and fits with the scenery. The "inhalations of Zebulon mountain touched her face," and "the mountain's breath began to bear gently on the back of her neck ... insistent as a lover's sigh." And though husband Cole, initially intrigued with her stories of moth love and pheromones, belongs to the valley heart and soul, he feels compelled to make money the only way he knows possible, with tobacco crops. Now how politically correct is that?

The remaining couple of this triptych consists of long-feuding neighbors Nannie Rawley and Garnett Walker III, as portrayed under the chapter headings "Old Chestnuts." Nannie, like Deena and Lusa, exists to obey laws of ecology and practice natural land management. The nemesis of her existence is the bug spray that wafts across to her organic produce and may eventually cause her cancer, such as that which killed Garnett's wife. Chemical bug control leads her into topics of carrying-capacity laws and all sorts of ecological wisdom she feels compelled to shower upon Garnett at the slightest provocation.

Fortunately, Garnett is mostly concerned with the scanty amount of clothing the 75-year-old Nannie wears. When she corrects his vertigo with manipulations of her "firm, tender hands" he feels a shock of adrenaline through his old body. At age 80 he suffers a dream about her "so real to him that he'd awakened with the condition he hadn't known for years." In spite of the lectures, he eventually realizes how good Nannie is for his old chestnut.

This tangle of male opportunists and female environmentalists has the potential to become quite a mess. Fortunately, many factors intervene. Nature here is not to be second-guessed nor manipulated, but who could ever erase the influences humans have made so apparent on the earth?

Besides nature, there's also Barbara Kingsolver, a writer with conviction and an obvious mission of love. She leaves no doubt of her passions. Prodigal Summer is a work written from the heart.

Barbara Kingsolver will read from Prodigal Summer in a benefit for the Coalition for Sonoran Protection at 7 p.m. Thursday, November 2, in the Berger Center for the Performing Arts, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. Advance tickets are $20, or $10 with a purchase of Prodigal Summer, available at Antigone Books. Tickets are $25 at the door. For details, call 792-3715.
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