8 | Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Oddly enough, I didn’t want the book to end yet I was glad it did. The plot didn’t hook me until halfway through when the three separate plots began to have some semblance of a fleeting relationship. Let me explain.

Kingsolver has three different stories going on at once. The first, titled “Predators,” is about a reclusive 47 year old biologist named Deanna Wolfe living in a remote cabin in the Appalachian forest where she spends her time wandering trials and tracking animals, particularly a pack of coyotes. One day, a hunter named Eddie Bondo catches her off guard, and soon, an off-putting romance (?) develops where the two have sex– a sort of animalistic sex and nothing more. There’s obviously tension as she lives to preserve nature and it’s apex predator as she knows that the removal, or hunting, of the apex coyote will leave the land in shambles. Eddie on the otherhand is actually visiting the area for a festive hunt… a hunt to find and kill all the coyotes, which are viewed by the farmers around the country as threats to livestock and nothing more. The second story is called “Moth Love” and is about Lusa Landowski, a young woman from Lexington who, after a whirlwind romance and marriage to a country boy named Cole Widener, suddenly becomes a widow due to a tragic accident. She is a trained entomologist and through affiliated with nature, was not prepared to inherit the family farm and work the land as Cole had. She’s entangled in a firestorm of Widener family drama as her bully sister-in-laws encroach on her space, their husbands begin making decisions about the farm against her wishes and the only sister-in-law who reaches out to her is dying of cancer. Lusa feels trapped by the overbearing Wideners and unsure of herself, yet she knows one thing is for sure, she will resume working the land somehow or another. The third story is titled “Old Chestnuts” about a grouchy old man named Garnett Walker who despises his happy-go-lucky neighbor Nannie Rawley. Nannie, an old timer in her 70s has experienced her fair share of tragedy during her lifetime and has channeled her energy into her farmland growing apples pesticide free. Garnett on the other hand has been heavily spraying pesticides for decades at the first sight of any insect.

All three stories eventually intertwine: when Deanna falls pregnant, she reaches out to Nannie Rawley and asks to stay with her on her farm. Deanna is Nannie’s surrogate daughter as years ago, Deanna’s widowed father had fallen in love with Nannie. Lusa eventually adopts her sister-in- law’s children; Jewel, the Widener suffering from cancer and the chemotherapy, had two young children, Crystal and Lowell, with a man named Shel who left some years ago with another woman. Turns out, Shel, the kid’s father, is Garnett Walker’s estranged son. While the story line is beautifully crafted, I felt it difficult to latch onto any one character as there were so many “main” characters, who’s stories wandered for a long time, without mention of one another.

Above all, Prodigal Summer is known for being an “ecological novel.” It’s clear Kingsolver is a trained wildlife biologist and grew up in Appalachia herself as details about the landscape, the culture and wildlife are so intricately detailed. The book is rich with poetic descriptions of birds, trees and flowers– especially given two of the characters were scientists themselves, Deanna and Lusa. Each character has a subtly different relationship with “nature”- Deanna views nature as an ecological whole. Removal of one specie, especially the keystone, would decimate the system. Eddie Bondo is a hunter and grew up on a Wyoming sheep farm. He sees predators as nothing but a nuisance. Lusa appreciates ecological systems but has a deep love and appreciation for insects– she knows that if they die, the system would be out of balance and collapse. Nannie embraces the good, the bad and the ugly parts of nature– for the hornworms, she sprays BT, and for the Japanese beetles, she just hopes they don’t come. Garnett just spray, with whatever industrial pesticide he can get his hands on. That’s just the way farming is done nowadays, he believes. What’s interesting is that each person’s relationship with nature is the summation of all their life experiences with it– Nannie had a daughter with a chronic terminal illness who died at age 15. She suspected the defects had to do with all the chemicals she was ingesting and her breathing in as it was sprayed by her neighbors and drifted over the hills each season. Garnett heard somewhere that pesticides cause cancer; his wife Ellen died of metastatic brain cancer eight years prior. But he didn’t believe there was a link. Deanna’s safe haven was the woods, where her late father taught her how to track animals and learn about her surroundings. I guess an “ecological novel” broadly catches ecological concepts and weaves them into a piece of fiction. Quite a fascinating way to learn and reflect on how and why people come to view nature a certain way. Something to be conquered, something to be balanced, something to be restored?

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