Prodigal Summer

(This column was first published in the January 25, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

    Once again I came upon a fine book through my weekly hour of reading for the blind. And it is fortunate that I did so because (1) this is not a book I would otherwise have read and (2) my turn to read placed me in the book's middle. If I had started it from the beginning, I might not have continued. It takes a while to get to this book's heart -- I use that word advisedly -- but that time, I suggest, is well worth expending.

    The book I speak of is Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer (HarperCollins, 2000). I had, of course, heard of Ms. Kingsolver's earlier best seller, The Poisonwood Bible, which my wife is reading now. Based on my good experience with Prodigal Summer, I hope to follow Doris in reading that book.

    Whereas The Poisonwood Bible takes place in Africa, the setting of Prodigal Summer is an isolated community in southern Appalachia. I've spent some time in that region hiking the Appalachian Trail and I think that Ms. Kingsolver has her local characters dead to rights. Defensive and conservative they may be, but once you break through their rough hides, many of them are gentle and loving people.

    A feature of this book that I found most attractive is its organization. Three interrelated but independent stories are told in separate chapters and you can follow just one through the book simply by skipping to the appropriate chapter titles. Although each of the three stories carried its own interest for me, I most enjoyed the chapters entitled "Old Chestnuts" and I recommend them to anyone who wants to test out these waters.

    "Old Chestnuts" is about a crotchety old widower and his interactions with his almost equally elderly -- but considerably spryer -- spinster neighbor. Some critics of Kingsolver have said that their arguments are too pat or expected, but I found them on the mark for us old folks -- and I speak from personal experience. Especially the episode described in Chapter 6 I found both lovingly described and howlingly funny. I can say no more here about it without giving away the ending. I cannot imagine anyone reading this chapter and not wanting to read every word of the rest of this book.

    Here, however, is the old man thinking to himself in another chapter: "The Japanese beetles were thick as pea soup already, and it was only June. He noticed that his Concord grapevines, which he loved to see climbing lazy and lush up the slatted side of the old grain house with their leaves drooping like ladies' hands, were showing a rusty brown aura. From this distance it looked as if they'd been dusted with brown powder, but he knew it was really the brown skeleton of the leaf showing through. It was something he had pointed out to his vo-ag students time and again, the characteristic sign of Japanese-beetle damage. Something to add to his list for the hardware today: malathion. The Sevin dust wasn't killing them dead enough. Or it was washing off in all this rain.

    "He glanced over toward Rawley's, whence came the plague. She had started several new brush piles along the line fence just to gall him. She called them 'compost' and claimed they heated up on the inside to a temperature that would kill beetle larvae and weed seeds, but he doubted it. Any decent farmer who'd spent his life in Zebulon County learning thrifty and effective farming methods would know to set fire to his orchard trimmings, but she was too busy with her bug traps and voodoo to get rid of her tree-trash the normal way. Compost piles. 'Laziness lots" would be a better name for them. 'Stacks of sloth.'

    "Earlier in the week he had attempted to speak to her over the fence: 'The source of Japanese beetles seems to be your brush piles, Miss Rawley.'

    "To which she'd replied, 'Mr. Walker, the source of Japanese beetles is Japan.'

    "There was no talking to her. Why even try?"

    I've focussed on the chapters about Garnett and Nannie but the other two stories are also engrossing. In the second a young woman, an outsider who married the one man in a family of sisters, is faced with the death of her husband and how she can manage the family property left to her.

    "It was always in bright, normal places like the cereal aisle at the Kroger's or in Little Brothers' Hardware that people asked her about her plans, and so she always said only this: 'I've made up my mind to finish what I started.'

    "And this was what she had started: in the absence of Cole, in the house where he'd grown up, she was learning to cohabit with the whole of his life. It was Cole who'd broken out the top rail of the banister as a rambunctious child, Cole who'd built the dry sink in the pantry for his mother the first year he took shop in school. He'd planted every one of the lilacs in the yard, though that seemed impossible because they were thirty feet tall now. His father had made him plant them for his mother the summer he was nine, as reparation for cursing in front of her. Lusa was making progress toward understanding. Cole was not to be a husband for whom one cooked, with whom one sat down to meals. He would be a second childhood to carry alongside her own, the child becoming the man for all the years that had led up to their meeting. She could coax stories about Cole even from people outside the family: women in town, strangers, Mr. Walker. Country people seemed to have many unwritten codes about death, more of them than city people, and one was that after a given amount of time you could speak freely of the dead man again. You could tell tales on him, even laugh at his mild expense, as if he had rejoined your ranks. It seemed to Lusa that all these scattered accounts were really parts of one long story, the history of a family that had stayed on its land. And that story was hers now as well."

    In the third story a female forest service employee worries about protecting the coyotes that have just moved into the region from her bounty-hunter boyfriend. I have written elsewhere about this concern that is ours on the Niagara Frontier as well so I will not repeat myself here. Instead I offer Ms. Kingsolver speaking through this young woman of the quality of her isolated life:

    "The dawn chorus was a whistling roar by now, the sound of a thousand males calling out love to a thousand silent females ready to choose and make the world new. It was nothing but heady cacophony unless you paid attention to the individual entries: a rose-breasted grosbeak with his sweet, complicated little sonnet; a vireo with his repetitious bursts of eighth notes and triplets. And then came the wood thrush, with his tone poem of a birdsong. The wood thrush defined these woods for Deanna, providing background music for her thoughts and naming her place in the forest. The dawn chorus would subside in another hour, but the wood thrush would persist for a long time into the morning, then pick up again in early evening or even at midday if it was cloudy. Nannie had asked her once in a letter how she could live up here alone with all the quiet, and that was Deanna s answer: when human conversation stopped, the world was anything but quiet. She lived with wood thrushes for company."

    Three compelling intertwined stories well worth your attention. If you don't have the opportunity to purchase this book or borrow it from your local library -- at last count there were 26 people on the public library's waiting list -- you may be able to hear it read soon on your television through the Radio Reading Service station.

    (The Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service mentioned in the first and last paragraphs of this commentary is a fine but not well-known service for the sight-impaired. It has earned and richly deserves the support of everyone in this community. One way you can contribute painlessly is to send them your receipts from Tops and Quality Markets. Those firms generously provide support in proportion to the total of those receipts. The service is located at 15 Industrial Parkway in Cheektowaga. If you have questions about how to receive the readings over your TV, their phone is 668-8888.)-- Gerry Rising