Pigs in Heaven
Pigs in HeavenIntroduction
For Further Study
When Pigs in Heaven was published in 1993, Barbara Kingsolver was already a well-established and successful author. Her third novel garnered critical and popular success and earned her a nomination for an ABBY award, the American Library Association award, the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize, and the Cowboy Hall of Fame Western Fiction Award. As in many of her other works, Pigs in Heaven focuses on the complexities of families, relationships, and communities.
In this novel, the protagonist, Taylor Greer, finds herself embroiled in a custody battle with the Cherokee Nation over her adopted Cherokee daughter named Turtle. As she struggles to keep her daughter and at the same time provide a nurturing and safe environment, Taylor is forced to re-examine and redefine her views on family and community. During the course of the story, Kingsolver introduces the issues of single motherhood, adoption, abuse, ethnic identity, and poverty. Her intermingling of politics and human drama results in a satisfying tale of love and understanding. Reviewers applaud the novel's realistic and compelling characters, its topical themes, and her insight into the complex inner workings of the human heart.
Celebrated author, journalist, and human rights and environmental activist, Barbara Kingsolver was born in Annapolis, Maryland on April 8, 1955, but grew up in rural Kentucky. As she watched her father, a country physician, minister to the poor and working class, she began to develop a sense of social responsibility and devotion to community that would later be expressed in her writing. When she was in the second grade, her father accepted a medical position in the Congo and moved his family there. At that time, Kingsolver began her lifelong habit of writing in a journal.
During her junior year at DePauw University, where she was studying biology, she took time off to work in Europe as an archaeologist's assistant. After eventually earning a degree at DePauw, she lived for periods of time in Europe and America, supporting herself with a diverse array of job titles including typesetter, x-ray technician, copy editor, biological researcher, and translator. In 1981 she earned a master's degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Arizona and soon began working as a technical writer and freelance journalist.
By 1987 she decided to devote her time to writing fiction; the following year, her first novel, The Bean Trees was published to national acclaim. The novel earned her an American Library Association award. In 1993, the sequel to The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, was published. Kingsolver continues to write in such diverse genres as poetry, nonfiction, short stories, and novels as well as book reviews.
Part I: Spring
The novel opens in Kentucky with Alice, Taylor's mother, considering leaving her couch-potato husband, Harland. She acknowledges that "he's a good enough man," but that the marriage "has failed to warm her," and besides, "women on their own run in Alice's family." The narrative then shifts its focus to Taylor and Turtle and their trip to Hoover Dam. Taylor had found Turtle in her car three years ago and adopted her. The two live in Tucson with Taylor's boyfriend, Jax, a keyboard player in a band called the Irascible Babies. While at the Dam, Turtle sees Lucky Buster, a middle-aged retarded man, fall into a spillway. Turtle informs her mother and they are able to summon help for Lucky.
After Lucky is rescued, the story is splashed across newspaper headlines and Taylor and Turtle end up on the Oprah show as part of a program called "Children Who Have Saved Lives." Annawake Fourkiller, a lawyer for the Cherokee Nation, watches the show and hears the story of Turtle's abandonment and subsequent adoption. Annawake decides that Turtle's adoption is illegal according to the Indian Child Welfare Act, which guarantees that a Native American child cannot be adopted without tribal permission. As a result, she begins to make a case for vacating Turtle's improperly conducted adoption and then finding "a proper placement" for her, where she will learn about her heritage. Soon after, Annawake arrives in Tucson to discuss Turtle's adoption with Taylor. Their conversation so alarms Taylor that she grabs Turtle and a few belongings and flees, leaving Jax.
Part II: Summer
This section opens with Cash Stillwater, who bags groceries at a health food store in Wyoming and makes bead jewelry; his girlfriend, Rose Levesque, sells the jewelry to tourists at the Cheyenne Trading post. Cash is homesick and lonely, and so decides to go back to his home and relatives in Heaven, Oklahoma.
Alice joins Taylor and Turtle in Las Vegas, where they pick up a new traveling companion: Barbie, who has made it her "career" to look and dress like a Barbie doll. When Jax reads a letter from Annawake over the phone to Alice, detailing the harsh treatment her brother endured after being adopted by a white family, Alice decides "there's another way to handle this" and leaves for Heaven to try to talk things out with Annawake. Alice stays in Heaven with her cousin Sugar Hornbuckle, telling her that she has business with the Nation, but without explaining the details.
Part III: Fall
Taylor and Turtle end up in Washington, where they have rented a gloomy apartment. Soon after they arrive, Barbie steals the money Alice gave Taylor to help with expenses, which leaves Taylor and Turtle destitute. Taylor has trouble finding someone to watch Turtle while she works; as a result, she cannot work many hours. She admits that she misses Jax terribly and that she feels like she is failing to provide a good environment for Turtle.
In Heaven, Alice and Annawake discuss Turtle but cannot come to any resolution about what would be best for her. As a result, Annawake hatches a plot to get Cash and Alice together. After the two begin dating, Cash takes Alice to a Stomp Dance, a traditional Cherokee ceremony that involves the whole community. Alice notes the closeness of the inhabitants of Heaven, all of whom seem to be related. As she joins in the Stomp Dance, she feels, "entirely alive … for the first time she can remember, [she] feels completely included."
When Alice discovers that she and Taylor have Cherokee ancestors, she tells Annawake that she will use that fact to help Taylor keep Turtle. Annawake explains that since Alice and Taylor don't know the culture and they look white, Turtle would suffer if she stayed with them. One evening Cash tells Alice about his past. He explains that after his eldest daughter, Alma, killed herself, his youngest child took Alma's baby to live with her and an abusive boyfriend. In an effort to protect the child from the boyfriend's abuse, she gave it away to a stranger who was passing through Oklahoma. Alice realizes the child he is talking about is Turtle and that Annawake has tried to engineer a relationship between Alice and Cash in order to try to hold onto Turtle.
When Annawake threatens to serve Taylor with a subpoena, Taylor comes to Heaven. Soon after they arrive, Turtle recognizes Cash as her "Pop-pop." The Cherokee Nation determines Cash to be Turtle's legal guardian, but assigns joint custody to Cash and to Taylor, and asks that they come up with a plan to have Turtle on the Nation at least three months out of the year. Cash then proposes that Alice marry him so that she will be with Turtle in the summers. Alice, however, insists she doesn't want a husband "that's glued to his everloving TV set." Taylor decides to marry Jax, and informs Turtle that she will now have two families. After Cash takes them all back to his house to watch him shoot his television set, Alice admits that "the family of women is about to open its doors to men. Men, children, cowboys, and Indians."
Alice is Taylor's mother and Turtle's grandmother. At the beginning of the novel, she is stuck in an unhappy marriage. Since "women on their own" tend to run in her family, she decides to leave her husband. She worries, though, that all the women in her family are "in danger of ending up alone by their own stubborn choice." Yet she is a caring and supportive mother to Taylor, who insists that she "always knows what you need." When she participates in the Stomp Dance in Heaven, the sense of connection she experiences makes her feel "entirely alive," and for the first time, completely included. She also is able to form a romantic connection with Cash and thus declare her "family of women" ready to "open its doors to men."
Barbie works as a waitress in a Las Vegas casino when Taylor, Turtle, and Alice meet her. After Barbie gets fired, Taylor begrudgingly decides to take her with them on the road. A shallow and insecure woman, Barbie makes it her "career" to look and dress like a Barbie doll. Moreover, she is a criminal: Taylor soon discovers that she stole money from the casino before she left, and that she was caught counterfeiting in her home in Bakers-field. Shortly after they arrive in Washington, Barbie steals money from Taylor and disappears.
Angie is Lucky Buster's mother. A kind, loving woman, Angie lets Taylor and Turtle stay in her motel when they first start out on the road.
A mentally-challenged man, Lucky Buster falls into a spillway and is rescued after Taylor and Turtle get help. He and Turtle become fast friends.
Annawake Fourkiller is a lawyer who has returned to Oklahoma to intern on an Indian Lawyer Training grant. After seeing Turtle on Oprah, she concludes that according to the Indian Child Welfare Act, Turtle's adoption is illegal. Initially, the pain over the memory of the tragic consequences of her brother's adoption causes her to take a firm stance against Taylor's position. After considering Turtle's close attachment to her mother, Annawake softens and tries to engineer some kind of compromise.
Gabriel is Annawake's twin brother. Sent to live with a white family after their mother was hospitalized, she explains the hardships he subsequently endured:
He failed in school because they put him in the Mexican classrooms and so the teachers spoke to him in Spanish, which he didn't understand. The Mexican kids beat him up because he didn't wear baggy black pants and walk with his hands in his pockets…. When he was 13 … his new Mom … told him he was letting his new family down. When he was fifteen, he was accessory to an armed robbery.
As a result, he is serving time in prison. Annawake feels it is her job to protect the Nation's children from what happened to her brother. Her description of Gabriel's life touches Alice. Subsequently, she decides to go to Heaven and talk to Annawake about Turtle.
Ledger is Heaven's medicine chief. He leads the ceremony at the Stomp Dance and offers Annawake sound advice about Turtle's fate. In an effort to get her to think about what is best for Turtle, he tells her an old Indian legend, which turns out to be the Bible story of King Solomon.
Taylor adopted Turtle soon after she found the young girl abandoned in her car three years ago. She is a loving and attentive mother, but has been unwilling to commit to her boyfriend, Jax. Her fierce devotion to Turtle prompts her to flee with her daughter. However, her inability to provide a good home for Turtle makes her feel like a failure. Taylor's love for her daughter eventually makes her realizes that she alone cannot provide a suitable environment for her.
After she is told that she must share custody of Turtle with Cash, she understands that the "absolute power of motherhood" has been taken away from her—"that force that makes everyone else step back and agree that she knows what's best for Turtle." She admits that the responsibility of motherhood at one time "scared her to death. But giving it up now makes her feel infinitely small and alone."
Turtle (also Turtle Stillwater) has "been marked in life by a great many things." Abandoned and then found by Taylor, it was discovered that the little girl was severely abused. As a result, Turtle became very attached to Taylor—it was said she gripped her like a snapping turtle, and the name stuck. Not surprising, she has a fear that she will be abandoned. Taylor remembers that when she found her, "Turtle gazed out at the world from what seemed like an empty house." With Taylor's devotion and encouragement, Turtle has been able to emerge from her protective shell and form relationships with others, such as Alice and Jax.
Gundi is an eccentric, locally famous artist in Tucson. She owns the "little colony of falling-down stone houses in the desert at the edge of town" where Taylor lives with Jax. Gundi will not let people rent there unless she approves of them. She and Jax have a brief affair after Taylor leaves.
- No film versions of Pigs in Heaven have been made, but an audio version was produced in 1993 and read by Kingsolver.
Letty is Sugar's sister-in-law and is described as "the nosiest person in three counties." Letty is Cash Stillwater's sister and conspires to get Cash and Alice together.
Sugar (also known as Sugar Boss) is Alice's second cousin and friend. She became the most famous citizen in Heaven after her picture appeared in Life Magazine. She and Alice spent their last years of childhood together at Alice's farm during the Depression.
Taylor meets Steven Kant, a disabled air traffic controller, while driving a handicapped van in Washington.
Kevin is a young man who works with Taylor in Washington. After she goes on a date with him, she decides he would have been a better match for Barbie, since "the two of them could jabber at each other all day without ever risking human conversation."
Rose is Cash's girlfriend in Wyoming. Since she is "shorter and heavier than she feels she ought to be, she clacks through her entire life in scuffed high heels, worn with tight jeans and shiny blouses buttoned a little too low. You can tell at thirty paces she's trying too hard."
Boma is Heaven's resident eccentric. She "sees things no one else does."
Lou Ann Ruiz
Taylor's friend, who is like a "second mother" to Turtle. Taylor and Turtle lived with her before they moved in with Jax.
Alice's mother, Minerva, was "a tall fierce woman" who ran a hog farm alone for fifty years. She instilled an independent spirit in her daughter, who passed it on to Taylor.
Cash Stillwater bags groceries and makes bead jewelry. He is homesick and mourns the deaths of his wife and daughter and the disappearance of his granddaughter. When he recognizes that he is "simply dying of loneliness," he decides to go back to his hometown of Heaven, Oklahoma. When Alice meets him there, she can feel "sadness rising off him in waves." The two become lovers. When faced with the problem of Turtle's custody, he expresses his love for Alice and his granddaughter through a marriage proposal.
Jax is Taylor's boyfriend and a keyboard player in a band called the Irascible Babies. Taylor does not feel very connected to him before she leaves with Turtle, but he is passionately in love with her. After she leaves, Jax notes "how clearly these days he can hear the emptiness inside things." He supports Taylor's desire to keep Turtle, but tries to get her to consider Annawake's point of view. By the end of the novel, Taylor decides to establish a firmer connection with him and tells Turtle that he will be her new "Daddy."
Annawake works in Franklin's law office. '[L]ike many his age, he's a born-again Indian," who didn't think about being Cherokee until he began to study Native American law.
Justice and Injustice
One of the main thematic concerns in the novel is the issue of justice and injustice. At the heart of the story is the following question: should an adopted child be taken away from a mother who provided her with the only comfort and love she has ever known, so that the child can gain a sense of her cultural identity? In response, both sides have valid and relevant points; as a result, it is difficult to come up with a definitive answer.
Annawake Fourkiller answers yes to the question; "as a citizen of Turtle's nation, as the sister of Gabriel Fourkiller," she provides a strong explanation why Turtle "can't belong" to Taylor. She insists that Native American children who have been taken away from their homes in the past "have no sense of themselves as Native Americans, but live in a society that won't let them go on being white, either. Not past childhood." Yet, Taylor finds Annawake's position unjust, since it would separate her from her daughter. Likewise Annawake finds Taylor's attempts to hold on to Tur-tle unjust, claiming that Turtle would suffer if she never gained an awareness of and acceptance by the Cherokee Nation.
The women in the Greer family possess a sense of individualism and thus feel that their own views are just. Alice acknowledges that "women on their own run in [her] family." Neither she nor Taylor feel the need for a husband or a traditional family, at least until they face losing Turtle. Both have had men come and go in their lives and have learned to live independently.
Taylor's sense of individuality prevents her from establishing a stronger relationship with Jax. She reveals her own tendency to cut herself off from others in her observation that there is "one thing about people you can never understand well enough: how entirely inside themselves they are." Jax's conversation with Gundi at one point in the novel illustrates the problematic nature of individuality: Jax asks, "How can you belong to a tribe, and be your own person, at the same time? You can't. If you're verifiably one, you're not the other." Gundi, however, foreshadows the compromise that will be reached at the end of the novel when she responds, "Can't you alternate: Be an individual most of the time, and merge with others once in a while?"
Alienation and Loneliness
Several characters experience loneliness in the novel. Alice feels alienated from her husband Harland and so decides to leave him. Jax suffers excruciating loneliness after Taylor flees with Turtle. Eventually, Taylor also admits to feeling lonely on her own with just Turtle. As the characters experience these emotions, they are forced to redefine their notions of individuality and family.
Custom and Tradition
Annawake insists that Turtle must learn the customs and traditions of her race for her to gain a satisfying sense of who she is and where she belongs. She argues that Taylor would not be able to help her gain this knowledge on her own. When Annawake tries to explain this to Taylor, she focuses on the differences between white and Native American culture. Native Americans are "good to their mothers. They know what's planted in their yards. They give money to their relatives, whether or not they're going to use it wisely." They have extended families that share in the upbringing of the children. Eventually it is that strong sense of community that becomes Annawake's most compelling argument for Turtle to be reunited with her relatives.
Point of View
Kingsolver employs the third-person point of view throughout the novel. As a result, she is able to give a balanced portrait of each faction of the argument for custody of Turtle. Sybil Steinberg in her review of the novel in Publishers Weekly writes that one of its strengths is Kingsolver's ability to "make the reader understand and sympathize with both claimants on Turtle's life, the Cherokee Nation and Taylor."
Topics for Further Study
- Research the adoption of Native American children by white families in America in the past. How many children did this involve? How many others became wards of the state or were forced into boarding schools? How do Native American groups handle this situation today?
- Some experts insist that interracial adoptions are damaging to the children involved. Investigate the sociological and psychological effects this kind of adoption can have on a child. What is your opinion on the matter?
- Research the cultural aspects of the Cherokee people. What other customs are typical of this tribe besides the ones mentioned in the novel?
- What other laws besides the Indian Child Welfare Act have been passed to help establish Native American rights? Has this legislation been beneficial for the Native American community? In what ways?
Kingsolver effectively shifts between characters and their stories. This structure, coupled with the use of the third-person narrator, allows the author to present many perspectives so the reader can see all sides of the issue.
Kingsolver often uses storytelling to symbolize the novel's conflicts and themes. For example, the story of "Six Pigs in Heaven" is told twice in the novel, each with a different interpretation. The story, an old Native American myth, involves six boys who would not do their chores, which included work for the tribe. As a result, their mothers cooked their leather balls and served them for lunch. When the boys complained to the spirits that their mothers treated them like pigs, the spirits agreed. The spirits then turned them into pigs and pulled them up into the night sky where they remain to this day.
Annawake informs Jax that "Six Pigs in Heaven" illustrates the importance of "do[ing] right by your people," while Americans learn to "do right by yourself." When Annawake is able to understand Taylor's point of view, she finds a different moral when she tells the story to Alice. Then she explains that the point is "to remind parents always to love their kids no matter what, I guess, and cut them a little slack." When she and Alice look up into the night sky and see seven stars, Annawake calls them "the Six Pigs in Heaven, and the one mother who wouldn't let go."
Annawake's Uncle Ledger tells the final story about two mothers fighting over a child and of the medicine man who makes a wise decision that will identify the mother who loves the child the most. When Annawake recognizes the "old Indian legend" as the Biblical story of Solomon, she understands that the power of a mother's love for her child is as strong in white as well as Native American cultures.
Some critics have found the resolution of Turtle's custody issue too sentimental and unrealistic; others find it a satisfying compromise. The denouement does not, however, provide a happy ending for all. While the decision to split Turtle's time between Taylor and her grandfather (and now Alice) will be beneficial for Turtle, Taylor will be separated from her daughter for a few months each year. She admits that having to give up exclusive custody of Turtle "makes her feel infinitely small and alone."
The Trail of Tears
After years of pressure from white settlers who urged the government takeover of Native American land, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. Prior to that time, the Cherokee had developed a strong agricultural economy and political system in the American Southeast; moreover, they were determined to keep their land. In 1827 the Cherokee Nation formulated its own constitution, which called for total jurisdiction over its own territory.
However, Congress soon determined that Native Americans had only temporary rights to the property. As a result, eight years later they were forced to evacuate their homes in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee and travel 800 miles along the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas Rivers to reservations west of the Red River. The arduous journey, which came to be known as "The Trail of Tears," started in March 1838 and took one year to complete. En route approximately 4,000 Cherokee—mostly children and elderly—died after contracting measles, whooping cough, pneumonia, pleurisy, tuberculosis, and pellagra. Today approximately 4,500 Cherokee live in North Carolina, descendants of some members of the tribe who successfully resisted removal from their homes in 1838 as well as those who later returned after being relocated.
Native Americans Push for Civil Rights
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many Native Americans, including members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), actively protested the treatment of Native Americans in the United States. During those years, groups of Native Americans seized the federal prison at Alcatraz Island and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which garnered much media attention. Their protests against government policy reached their peak in 1973: in February of that year, the Movement, led by Russell Means and Dennis Banks, occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where three hundred Sioux had been massacred by federal troops in 1890. The group held eleven residents of the town hostage and determined to keep them until certain demands were met.
As a result of subsequent negotiations, encouraged by extensive media coverage, the American government created a task force to investigate past injustices, including broken treaty agreements. In 1978 a more peaceful demonstration occurred
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during "The Longest Walk," a 3,000-mile march across the United States that ended five months later in Washington, D.C. Native Americans from eight different tribes participated in this event, which helped them gain a stronger sense of solidarity.
A popular novelist, Barbara Kingsolver's fiction has garnered much critical and commercial success. Since its publication in 1993, most reviewers and literary critics have responded positively to her third novel, Pigs in Heaven. In fact, it was nominated for an ABBY award and received the American Library Association award, the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize, and the Cowboy Hall of Fame Western Fiction Award.
Many commentators have praised King-solver's appealing characters and insightful and sympathetic portrait of familial bonds. Victoria Carchidi suggests "we read her for the homey quality of her writing. The characters are like someone we know, or would like to know, living on the interstates and small towns we grew up in or drive through." She maintains that "Kingsolver teaches her readers the language of tolerance and negotiation through characters with human failings and human nobility."
Travis Silcox contends in Belles Lettres that despite "a midpoint flatness … Kingsolver's supporting characters enrich the story." Some critics, however, fault Kingsolver for avoiding the novel's more unpleasant characters. A reviewer in Kirkus Review argues that while "all will be amicably, hilariously, and heartwarmingly settled to everybody's satisfaction," it is not "the truly wonderful book it might have been—characters who seem important disappear; carefully marked trails turn out to be merely picaresque, leading nowhere." The reviewer concludes that the novel is "a terrific read nonetheless."
Other critics praise the novel's focus on social issues like adoption, abuse, poverty, and ethnicity. The reviewer for Publishers Weekly comments:
Kingsolver's intelligent consideration of issues of family and culture—both in her evocation of Native American society and in her depiction of the plight of a single mother—brims with insight and empathy…. In taking a fresh look at the Solomonic dilemma of choosing between two equally valid claims on a child's life, Kingsolver achieves the admirable feat of making the reader understand and sympathize with both sides of the controversy…. In the end, both justice and compassion are served.
A Los Angeles Times Book Review, critic asserts: "That rare combination of a dynamic story told in dramatic language, combined with issues that are serious, debatable and painful … [Pigs in Heaven,] is about the human heart in all its shapes and ramifications."
In her review for The New York Times Book Review, Karen Karbo claims that Kingsolver "somehow manages to maintain her political views without sacrificing the complexity of her characters' predicaments." She continues: "Possessed of an extravagantly gifted narrative voice, she blends a fierce and abiding moral vision with benevolent, concise humor. Her medicine is meant for the head, the heart and the soul and it goes down dangerously, blissfully, easily."
However, some commentators deride the novel's sentimental predictability. Maureen Ryan refers to Karbo's review in her Journal of America Culture essay, insisting that Karbo
unconsciously articulates the unease that King-solver's books inspire. Her medicine is meant for the head, the heart, and the soul and it goes down dangerously, blissfully, easily. The dangers in King-solver's novels are not the challenges and perils that her characters all too easily overcome; they are the soothing strains of that old-time religion, lulling us into oblivion with her deceptive insistence that if we love our children and our mothers, and hang in there with hearth and home, the big bad world will simply go away.
Ryan concludes that Kingsolver's work to be "contemporary American fiction lite. It's what we're supposed to eat these days, and it's even fairly tasty, but it's not very nourishing and we go away hungry." Most critics, however, would agree with Wendy Smith's assessment of the novel in the Washington Post Book World: "There is no one quite like Barbara Kingsolver in contemporary literature. Her dialogue sparkles with sassy wit and the earthy poetry of ordinary folks' talk; her descriptions have a magical lyricism rooted in daily life but also on familiar terms with the eternal."
Perkins is an Associate Professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland and has published several articles on British and American authors. In the following essay, she examines how the characters in Pigs in Heaven struggle with the concepts of individuality and community.
In an interview with critic Robin Epstein in The Progressive, Barbara Kingsolver explains:
In Pigs in Heaven I wanted to choose a high-profile event in which a Native American has been adopted out of the tribe and in which that adoption is questioned and challenged. Because it brings into conflict two completely different ways of defining good, of defining value. The one is that the good is whatever is in the best interest of the child; the other is that the good is whatever is in the best interest of the tribe, the group, and the community. What I really wanted to do in that book was not necessarily write about Indians. I wanted to introduce my readers to this completely different unit of good and have them believe in it by the end, have them accept in their hearts that that could be just as true as the other.
This conflict between the individual and the community lies at the heart of the novel. As Taylor Greer and Annawake Fourkiller each insists on her own notion of what is "good" for Turtle, Taylor's adopted Cherokee daughter, each delineates boundaries and constructs borders that separate and isolate one from the other. When they are forced eventually to cross those borders, as they struggle to determine Turtle's fate, they begin to redefine their concepts of self and family.
After Taylor and Turtle help rescue Lucky Buster from a Hoover Dam spillway, his mother Angie explains that Lucky often wanders away from the house: "He just don't have a real good understanding of where home ends and the rest of the world takes up." At the beginning of the novel, Taylor and Annawake, unlike Lucky, know the boundaries of their own individual worlds and determine to keep within them. Taylor's boundaries delineate her individualism while Annawake's mark her sense of tribal community. Taylor has defined herself and Turtle as a family unit and has only allowed Jax to exist on the borders. Annawake divides her world into two parts—Cherokee and white—and sees little need for any border crossings.
Kingsolver foreshadows the border disputes that will soon arise in the novel in three symbolic scenes. In the opening scene, Alice, whose independent spirit and love for her daughter will prompt her to help Taylor retain custody of Turtle, complains that her garden is constantly overrun with her neighbor's pigs eating her flowers. Desert birds infest Taylor's apricot tree in Tucson. She finds inventive ways of chasing them away, including blasting Jax's music at them, but inevitably "one by one the birds emerge from the desert and come back to claim their tree." Cash notes before he leaves that pigeons from the city have been swarming in his town in Wyoming. These incidents foreshadow Taylor's and Annawake's movement into each other's territory. Jax's conversation with Gundi reflects this struggle between individual and community that lies at the heart of the custody battle over Turtle. Jax asks, "how can you belong to a tribe, and be your own person, at the same time? You can't. If you're verifiably one, you're not the other." When Gundi responds, "can't you alternate: Be an individual most of the time, and merge with others once in a while?" she proposes a compromise that Taylor and Annawake will eventually come to embrace.
Initially, both Taylor and Annawake refuse to consider the other's point of view. Taylor values the independence she gained as a young child when she had to accept the departure of her father. This independent spirit also resulted from the sense of otherness she developed when she was a young girl, during the time that Alice supported the two of them by cleaning houses. One afternoon while Taylor was helping her mother clean, she overheard a boy say to his friend, "you don't have to talk to her, that's the cleaning lady's girl." Taylor admits she grew up that day. As a result, she has learned to keep a part of herself detached from others, especially men, since as she notes, they often leave.
When she decides that there is "one thing about people you can never understand well enough: how entirely inside themselves they are," she reflects her own feelings of separateness. Taylor, however, has been able to forge a special bond with Turtle and as a result considers the two of them to be a family unit. Alice observes that they "share something physical, a beautiful way of holding still when they're not moving. Alice reminds herself that it's not in the blood, they've learned this from each other." Taylor's independent spirit, though, prompts her refusal to broaden her concept of family to include Jax or especially Turtle's Cherokee ancestors.
Annawake is equally committed to her sense of community. She becomes adamant about Turtle's return to the Cherokee Nation, citing the illegal nature of her adoption and the necessity of helping Turtle gain a sense of her heritage. In a letter to Taylor, she writes that the Cherokee children who have been taken from their homes "have no sense of themselves as Native Americans, but live in a society that won't let them go on being white, either. Not past childhood." After sharing the tragic story of her brother, Gabriel, who was sent to live with a white family after their mother was hospitalized, she ends the letter with "as a citizen of Turtle's nation, as the sister of Gabriel Fourkiller, I want you to understand why she can't belong to you."
Annawake constructs borders between the Cherokee and white worlds when she points out their differences. As she defines her tribe's sense of community, she creates a hierarchical value system. Cherokees, she claims are "good to their mothers. They know what's planted in their yards. They give money to their relatives, whether or not they're going to use it wisely." She also finds their sense of family, which actively involves relatives in the process of raising children, superior to the white version. She insists that the entire Cherokee nation is Turtle's family: "We don't think of ourselves as having extended families. We look at you guys and think you have contracted families."
The old myth "Six Pigs in Heaven" that she relates to Jax reflects the importance she and the Nation place on the concept of community. In this story, six boys refuse to do their work, are thus transformed into pigs, and then become the constellation known as the Pleiades. Annawake explains that like other Native American myths, this one teaches children to "do right by your people" unlike American stories that teach children to "do right by yourself." When Alice and Annawake meet to discuss Turtle's future, Kingsolver offers a symbol of Taylor's and Annawake's inability to venture outside the borders they have each constructed around themselves. As Alice tells Annawake about Turtle's relationship with Taylor, she draws a pig with fences around it in the sugar that has spilled on the table. At that point Alice and Annawake admit that they each have trouble communicating with the other. When Annawake declares, "words aren't enough," Alice responds, "if we could get [our views] across, we wouldn't be sitting here right now."
After Alice spends time in the community of Heaven, she becomes a bridge between the two sides of the argument over Turtle. She encourages Taylor and Annawake to expand or redefine their concepts of family and community in order to effect a compromise. Taylor had already been prompted to reevaluate the "family" she has created on the road with Turtle. She acknowledges that she had trouble supporting the two of them and that she missed Jax. She admits to Alice, "I thought that … the only thing that mattered [was] keeping the two of us together. But now I feel like that might not be true. I love her all right, but just her and me isn't enough. We're not a whole family." This change of heart prompts her decision to take Turtle to Heaven and try to settle the custody dispute.
Alice also helps Annawake redefine her vision of community and family when she describes the strong bond that exists between Taylor and Turtle. Uncle Ledger encourages Annawake to consider Taylor's point of view when he tells her a story about two mothers fighting over a child and of the medicine man who makes a wise decision that will identify the mother who loves the child the most. When Annawake recognizes the "old Indian legend" as the Biblical story of Solomon, she understands that the power of a mother's love for her child is as strong in white as well as in Native American cultures. As a result, Annawake is able to find a different moral when she tells the "Six Pigs in Heaven" story to Alice. She explains that the point is "to remind parents always to love their kids no matter what, I guess, and cut them a little slack." When she and Alice look up into the night sky and see seven stars, Annawake calls them "the Six Pigs in Heaven, and the one mother who wouldn't let go."
When Taylor and Annawake begin to tear down the borders that have separated them, they are able to agree to a compromise that will be in Turtle's best interests. Taylor decides to provide a more secure sense of family for Turtle by making Jax her "official daddy" and by allowing her to spend vacations in Heaven with Cash, her grandfather, and her Cherokee relatives. Annawake realizes that the strong familial bond established between Taylor and Turtle should not be broken.
Maureen Ryan, in her essay on Pigs in Heaven, writes: "each of the protagonists in Kingsolver's novels must come to acknowledge the authority of seasoned customs, which is variously embodied in an appreciation for continuity, a sense of place, and family values that prevail over danger and instability in their fictional world." Thus, by the end of the novel, Alice recognizes that "the family of women is about to open its doors to men. Men, children, cowboys, and Indians."
Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
An American critic, editor, and journalist. Smith is the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931–1940 (1990). In the following review, she provides a highly favorable assessment of Pigs in Heaven.
There is no one quite like Barbara Kingsolver in contemporary literature. She writes about working-class lives with an exhilarating combination of grit and joy that only Lee Smith among her peers can match, and Smith's work is more firmly rooted in a specific region (Appalachia), while Kingsolver engages the whole of American culture in novels and short fiction—The Bean Trees, Homeland and Other Stories, Animal Dreams—that sympathetically explore the worlds of people from many different backgrounds. She is the equal of any bestselling author in her gift for engaging, accessible storytelling, and she illuminates her themes through imagery woven into her plots with a technical aplomb that would delight any English professor. Her dialogue sparkles with the sassy wit and earthy poetry of ordinary folks' talk; her descriptions have a magical lyricism rooted in daily life but also on familiar terms with the eternal. Her political sophistication is as impressive as her knowledge of the human heart. It seems there's nothing she can't do.
What Do I Read Next?
- In her first novel, The Bean Trees (1988), King-solver chronicles the beginning of the relationship between Taylor Greer and her adopted Cherokee daughter Turtle. Their story continues in the sequel, Pigs in Heaven.
- Kingsolver's Homeland and Other Stories, published in 1989, contains twelve short stories focusing on various characters who struggle to form and maintain meaningful relationships.
- The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (1999), by Linda Gordon, narrates the harrowing real-life story of the abduction and relocation of forty Irish orphans by Catholic nuns, and their subsequent adoption by Mexican American families in Arizona.
- Jacquelyn Mitchard's best-selling novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, was published in 1996. It focuses on the devastating consequences suffered by a family after the disappearance of a three-year-old child.
Pigs in Heaven, her third novel, resoundingly reinforces that impression. Even the ungainly title, at first glance a startling lapse for someone as careful with words as Kingsolver, turns out to be a key metaphor, drawn from a Native American myth about the stars we know as the Pleiades, that en-capsulates the book's most important theme: the delicate, often painful balancing act any society must perform between the needs of the community and the rights of the individual. But that's a dry way of describing an issue Kingsolver has embodied in a dramatic, emotionally complex story that sets up a powerful situation—a mother threatened with the loss of her child—and proceeds to gently thwart our preconditioned response to it.
Taylor Greer, heroine of Kingsolver's first novel, returns here with her adopted daughter, Turtle, the Indian girl who was abandoned in Taylor's car in The Bean Trees. While visiting Hoover Dam, the 6-year-old sees a man fall into the spillway; the ensuing nationwide media coverage of his rescue attracts the attention of Annawake Fourkiller, a lawyer for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, who travels to Taylor's home in Tucson to warn her that the adoption of a Native American child without the consent of her tribe is illegal.
The reader's sympathies, of course, are immediately with Taylor, who rescued a girl who had been tortured and sexually abused. Smart, angry Annawake comes across as obsessed with the desire to avenge the disastrous adoption of her twin brother by a white family; her explanation of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act appears abstract compared with Taylor's love for Turtle. When the panic-stricken adoptive mother takes off with her daughter to avoid submitting to the Cherokee Nation's judgment, it appears that Pigs in Heaven will be a tale of a courageous individual defying interfering authorities.
But Kingsolver would never make things so simple. People's hunger for a meaningful place within a loving community has been a central subject in all her books; she has a working-class person's understanding of the ways in which the ideal of individualism can be twisted into a justification for the strong to oppress the weak and the victims to blame themselves. In her perfectly calibrated narrative, which juggles several simultaneous storylines, she prompts us to see the need for collective justice as well as personal fulfillment—not, as Annawake misguidedly does, by making blanket statements, but by showing how these issues work themselves out in particular lives.
Taylor's mother, Alice, goes to visit a cousin on Annawake's reservation (it's typical of King-solver's craftsmanship that this development was set up in The Bean Trees), allowing the author to give emotional weight to the Cherokee Nation's claim on Turtle by painting an attractive portrait of a neighborly environment in which everyone looks out for each other and by bringing to light the girl's grieving grandfather. Even the forbidding Annawake becomes human when viewed through Alice's shrewd, tolerant eyes.
At the same time, Taylor's life on the run with Turtle heartbreakingly demonstrates how impossible it is to be a good mother when you're totally cut off from any support system. Barely scraping by in a series of low-paying jobs, forced to leave Turtle with a flaky, larcenous ex-waitress named Barbie who is hardly the ideal babysitter, Taylor finally despairs when she learns the milk she's been urging her daughter to drink is actually making Turtle sick; like many Native Americans, she's lactose intolerant.
Those who see political correctness lurking behind every bush will doubtless be irritated by King-solver's careful, warmhearted denouement, which asserts that conflict between the individual and the collective can be resolved to everyone's benefit. But within the context of her sensitive story replete with appealing people who deserve to find happiness, her conclusion is both dramatically and emotionally satisfying. Like all of Kingsolver's fiction, Pigs in Heaven fulfills the longings of the head and the heart with an inimitable blend of challenging ideas, vibrant characters and prose that sings.
Source: Wendy Smith, "The Mother and the Tribe," in Book World—Washington Post, June 13, 1993, p. 3.
In the following review, Koenig offers a negative assessment of Pigs in Heaven, faulting the novel's political implications and reliance on tidy resolutions.
The six pigs in Heaven, explains a character in Barbara Kingsolver's [Pigs in Heaven], are the American Indian version of the Pleiades, or the seven sisters (one more example of Indians' being shortchanged). Originally six naughty boys who complained about being punished, they were turned into a constellation by the gods as a warning to other children. But if the moral of that story is the novel's stated theme—"Do the right thing"—the title unfortunately suggests its tone, a cute, dreamy mindlessness that subverts the issues of conflict and choice it propounds. Starting with charm, King-solver drifts into ingratiation.
Two years into a dismal second marriage, Alice feels she has made another mistake. Her silent, uncompanionable husband "has no words for Alice—nothing to contradict all the years she lay alone, feeling the cold seep through her like cave air, turning her breasts to limestone from the inside out." Ripe for flight, Alice takes off when she gets a call from a daughter in distress. Taylor has adopted a little Indian girl, Turtle, who had been sexually molested, beaten, and abandoned. Turtle's help in saving a life gets her on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where she attracts the attention of Annawake Fourkiller, an aggressive defender of Indian rights. Annawake tells Taylor that Turtle was improperly adopted, since the necessary tribal consent was never obtained, and that she is bringing an action to return Turtle to the Cherokee. Taylor's response is to scoop up her kid and head, with her mother, for the open road.
Barbara Kingsolver has a lovely eye (and nose) for details: the "face-powder" scent of peonies, a "quilt-cheeked" crowd pushing against a wire fence. In Alice and Taylor she creates women who are decent and good-natured, with a sisterly camaraderie and a tart sense of reality (though suspiciously articulate for, respectively, a housecleaner and an auto-parts saleswoman). But television seems to provide not only the motor for King-solver's plot but the tone of her characterization and prose. A sticky cloud of niceness soon envelops all but one of the main characters and most of the minor ones, too. I would be far more interested in Annawake's determination to take a child from the woman who has mothered her for half her life if she were envious or demented or pursuing the case out of a desire for personal gain. But Annawake is merely the kind of character we can easily forgive (and patronize): A Bright Girl Who Is Too Hard on Herself.
The prevailing coziness dissolves any chance of suspense: Who can envision a tragic ending for any of these sweet people, all of them terribly concerned about doing the right thing? (The ramshackle narrative, with characters roaming here and there and settling down for picnics and Kaffeeklatsches, doesn't help, either.) Split between real life and literature on one hand and soap opera and sitcom on the other (the dialogue is part honest talk, part TV banter), Pigs in Heaven introduces a number of serious problems (failed marriage, child abuse, ethnic identity), then resolves them with a dopey benignity and a handful of fairy dust.
The one rotten apple is Barbie, a waitress who has legally changed her name to match the doll's and has a Barbie hairstyle as well as an identical wardrobe of "thirteen complete ensembles and a lot of the mix-and-match parts." Barbie is fired for her obsession ("They say I tell people too much about my hobby. This is, like, so stressful for me, that choice of words. Barbie is not a hobby, do you understand what I mean? This is a career for me, okay?") and goes off with Turtle and the two women for a while, eventually proving to have not only the mental equipment of a Mattel toy but the morals of Klaus. But why, one wonders, would the sensible Alice insist on taking up with someone who is clearly inflammable plastic from the neck up? (It is perhaps best not to think about such things as consistent characterization in a novel like this; you might then start thinking, Why, if Alice is so nice, does she abandon a husband merely for being dull, and why does he make no attempt to find her?)
What is most dismaying is that Kingsolver, clearly a nice, well-meaning woman herself, with a large and affectionate public, has no idea of the appalling implications of her work. Having seen what passions Turtle inspires, Taylor decides to marry her adoring live-in boyfriend, who thinks she's "the Statue of Liberty and Abbey Road and the best burrito of your life." She has come to realize that children feel more secure if their parent figures are married and, come to think of it, heck, she would feel things were more permanent herself. ("When you never put a name on things, you're just accepting that it's okay for people to leave when they feel like it.") After a generation of the greatest freedom and opportunity women have ever known, we're supposed to feel a warm glow at one of them emotionally reinventing the wheel? I don't know about the pigs in Heaven, but the naïve self-congratulation here is enough to make the angels weep.
Source: Rhoda Koenig, "Portrait of the Artists' Friend," in New York (magazine), Vol. 26, No. 24, June 14, 1993, pp. 99-100.
Karbo is a novelist. In the review below, she praises Kingsover's blending of political commentary and emotional insight in Pigs in Heaven.
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Source: Karen Karbo, "And Baby Makes Two," in New York Times Book Review, June 27, 1993, p. 9.
In the following positive review, Shapiro provides a thematic analysis of Pigs in Heaven.
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Source: Laura Shapiro, "A Novel Full of Miracles," in Newsweek, Vol. CXXII, No. 2, July 12, 1993, p. 61.
Merrill Joan Gerber
An American novelist, short story writer, educator, and author of children's books, Gerber was one of the judges on the committee that awarded Kingsolver the 1993 Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction. In the following essay, she offers a stylistic and thematic analysis of Pigs in Heaven.
Talk shows have recently made their way to the center of our culture: the media has declared the media its subject—we hear and read impassioned debate about talk show hosts, their guests, their content. These shows are not just a reflection of our times but have become a major force—a public forum, a judge, a hanging jury. While there used to be a respectful separation between subjects and categories, we now see presidential candidates and heads of state on the same couch and in the same setting where only the day before sat cross-dressers and male exotic dancers. In an excess of democracy, we have allowed issues to become mixed up, we don't quite know what attitude to take toward any issue. Is this serious stuff, or entertainment?
Early in Barbara Kingsolver's energized novel, Pigs in Heaven, Turtle, the adopted Cherokee child of Taylor, a single mother, finds herself on the Oprah Winfrey Show. She has saved the life of a man who tumbled into Hoover Dam. Her appearance seems an innocent enough moment of recognition: Turtle appears as one of a group of "Children Who Have Saved Lives." The talk show, seen by millions, turns out to be the instrument not of Turtle and Taylor's happy notoriety, but of their possible ruination. As soon as Turtle is noticed by Annawake Fourkiller, a Cherokee Indian activist/attorney, the talk show provides the stage on which the electronic village meets the Indian village. When Annawake Fourkiller is alerted to the fact that the child may have been illegally adopted by Taylor, who found Turtle in her car (details of this discovery are told in Kingsolver's earlier novel, The Bean Trees) she becomes determined to wrest Turtle from her mother and return her to her tribe.
The subject of the novel coincides with what brings high ratings to talk shows: adoption, ethnicity, child abuse, single motherhood (you name it, Pigs in Heaven has it). In fact, the "talk show" concept becomes a metaphor for the book's structure. On a talk show, people with Big Problems get to tell their stories straight from the heart. We hear their voices, see the tears on their cheeks, can judge firsthand the sincerity of their confessions, listen to the logic (or illogic) of their reasoning. By then we're thoroughly invested in the outcome and are willing to stay tuned through the commercials, the arguments of the experts, the prissy righteous statements or the passionate and sometimes violent outbursts of those who have been wronged—or feel they have been. Finally, the bit players come in, the speakers from the audience step forth and add their opinions, interpretations, their judgments and their praise. In fact, every character in Pigs in Heaven stands for some philosophical point of view, some political idea, some standard of behavior, and many of the situations operate, likewise, on a symbolic level.
Because Taylor and Turtle are soldered together by an accident of fate, by love, by a powerful psychic bond and by the rightness of their union, we want it to come out right for them. In Pigs in Heaven, Kingsolver asks us to hear everyone out, wait till all the evidence is in. We're happy to. She's an expert entertainer, is supremely able to command our attention, involve our opinions, arouse our sense, engage us—and what better combination of responses can a novel call forth in any reader?
Pigs in Heaven is that rare combination of a dynamic story told in dramatic language, combined with issues that are serious, debatable and painful. Kingsolver knows the world well, she's compassionate, she's smart, she can get into the skin of everyone from the airhead baby-sitter to the handicapped air-traffic control worker, to Taylor's mother who is having a late-in-life romance.
On a recent radio interview, I heard Kingsolver discussing Pigs in Heaven. She said that in 11th grade she learned what fiction had to be about: "Man against Nature, Man against Man, and Man against Himself." "Why all this against-stuff?" she said, suggesting how puzzled she was about this way of looking at the world. It certainly wasn't her way. Barbara Kingsolver is for, not against, and her fiction is about getting people together, getting them to live in the global village (not just the Indian village or any other exclusive fenced and guarded fort). When the interviewer asked her if her ability to understand all her characters was something like Flaubert's saying "Madame Bo-vary, c'est moi," she replied: "I think he knew what she felt like and it wasn't like female-anatomy-stuff. It was the human heart."
That's what Pigs in Heaven is about—the human heart in all its shapes and ramifications.
Source: Merrill Joan Gerber, "Those Ideas in the Air," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 31, 1993, pp. 10, 12.
Carchidi, Victoria, "Barbara Kingsolver: Overview," in Contemporary Popular Writers, edited by Dave Mote, St. James Press, 1997.
Karbo, Karen, "And Baby Makes Two," in The New York Times Book Review, June 27, 1993, p. 9.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1993.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 4, 1993, pp. 2, 8.
Ryan, Maureen, "Barbara Kingsolver's Lowfat Fiction," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 18, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 77-82.
Silcox, Travis, review, in Belles Lettres, Fall, 1993, pp. 4, 42.
Smith, Wendy, "The Mother and the Tribe," in Washington Post Book World, June 13, 1993, p. 3.
Steinberg, Sybil, review, in Publishers Weekly, April 5, 1993, p. 62.
Demarr, Mary Jean, Barbara Kingsolver: A Critical Companion, Greenwood, 1999.
This reading is a critical study of Kingsolver's novels which provides insight into her background as a both journalist and feminist.
Epstein, Robin, "An Interview with Barbara Kingsolver," in The Progressive, Vol. 12, No. 9, February, 1996, p. 337.
In this interview, Kingsolver discusses the novel's defining themes.
Lyall, Sarah, "Termites Are Interesting But Books Sell Better," in The New York Times, September 1, 1993, pp. C1, C8.
Lyall examines the book's thematic concerns and asserts that it reveals "a droll wit and an intricate understanding of the almost imperceptible subtleties of relationships."