Kingsolver, Barbara

views updated May 17 2018


Nationality: American. Born: Annapolis, Maryland, 8 April 1955. Education: DePauw University, B.A. 1977; University of Arizona, M.S. 1981; additional graduate study. Family: Married Joseph Hoffmann in 1985 (divorced); one daughter. Career: Research assistant in department of physiology, University of Arizona, Tucson, 1977-79, technical writer in office of arid lands studies, 1981-85; freelance journalist, 1985-87; full-time writer, 1987; book reviewer, 1988. Awards: Feature-writing award (Arizona Press Club), 1986; American Library Association award, 1988, 1990; citation of accomplishment from United Nations National Council of Women, 1989; PEN fiction prize, 1991; Edward Abbey Ecofiction Award, 1991; Woodrow Wilson Foundation/Lila Wallace fellow, 1992-93; D. Litt., DePauw University, 1994. Agent: Frances Goldin, 305 East 11th Street, New York, New York 10003, U.S.A.



The Bean Trees. New York, Harper, 1988.

Animal Dreams. New York, Harper, 1990.

Pigs in Heaven. New York, HarperCollins, 1993.

The Poisonwood Bible. New York, HarperFlamingo, 1998.

Short Stories

Homeland and Other Stories. New York, Harper, 1989.


Another America/Otra America (with Spanish translations by RebecaCartes). Seal Beach, California, Seal Press, 1992.


Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (nonfiction). Ithaca, New York, ILR Press, 1989; with new introduction, 1996.

High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never. New York, HarperCollins, 1995.

Contributor, Rebirth of Power, edited by P. Portwood, M. Gorcey, and P. Sanders. Mother Courage Press, 1987.

Contributor, Florilegia, an Anthology of Art and Literature by Women, edited by M. Donnelly. Calyx Books, 1987.

Contributor, New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, 1988, edited by Shannon Ravenel. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin Books, 1988.

Contributor, I've Always Meant to Tell You: Letters to Our Mothers, An Anthology of Contemporary Women Writers, edited by Constance Warlow. Pocket Books, 1997.

Contributor, The Eloquent Essay: An Anthology of Classic and Creative Nonfiction from the Twentieth Century, edited by John Loughery. New York, Persea Books, 1999.

Introduction, Off the Beaten Path: Stories of Place, edited by Joseph Barbato and Lisa Weinerman Horak. New York, North Point Press, 1998.


Critical Studies:

Tell It on the Mountain: Appalachian Women Writers (sound recording), Whitesburg, Kentucky, WMMT-FM, 1995; Barbara Kingsolver: A Critical Companion by Mary Jean DeMarr, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1999.

* * *

Barbara Kingsolver's novels emerge as answers to implicitly embedded "very big" questions that she devises in hopes that she might "shift the world a little bit on its axis." Rising from her unwavering commitments to social justice, her novels, as well as her nonfiction, address political issues such as Western colonialism, cultural imperialism; disappearing cultures, particularly of Africans and Native Americans; class and economics; nature and ecology; along with race and gender issues. Not a preacher, Kingsolver skillfully weaves her political ideologies into the fabric of her fiction, often subtly enlightening her reader through educating a character. She first creates a detailed world right down to the appropriate flowers, and then invents characters who, through interaction with one another and the setting, answer her devised question.

In The Bean Trees, Kingsolver's question probes how friendship and community sustain and assist people through periods of great difficulty. Spurning a predictable life of early pregnancy, spunky Marietta Greer flees Pittman, Kentucky, renames herself Taylor in Illinois, ironically has thrust upon her a Native American infant in Oklahoma, and halts in Tucson. In this bildungsroman, reworked from a woman's point of view, Taylor's rich Kentucky voice introduces the new community and family she fashions for herself. With its "instant motherhood" and multitude of problems, Taylor's new life collides with social injustices. Forced to seek medical treatment and then social services for the withdrawn, abused infant Turtle, so named for her tenacious clinging, Taylor learns of the physical and emotional aftermath of child abuse. Through her activist employer Mattie, she meets and grows to love Estevan and Esperanza, illegal aliens, and thus learns of political unrest, torture, and disappeared ones in Guatemala. With her housemate Lou Ann Ruiz, a new mother whose husband has left her, Taylor redefines family. Through Kingsolver's gradual revelations, Taylor matures to greater self-assurance and political sophistication; thus without hesitation she aids her Guatemalan friends to safely relocate and secures fraudulent adoption papers for Turtle.

The prize-winning sequel Pigs in Heaven, Kingsolver's third novel, catches up with Taylor and Turtle several years later. Here Kingsolver's motivation is to explore the complications created when the beliefs and needs of an individual and a community clash, in this instance the illegally adopted child Turtle and the Cherokee Indian Nation, represented by lawyer Annawake Fourkiller of Heaven, Oklahoma. At issue is the removal, through adoption by white families, of Native American children from their people and culture. Dedicated to multiple points of view, Kingsolver uses the novel's title to illustrate different ways of seeing and telling things. Annawake relates her tribal myth of the "Six Bad Boys" who are changed into "The Six Pigs in Heaven." She interprets this Cherokee variation of the Pleiades or Seven Sisters as meaning "Do right by your people." A white man's credo might be "Do right by yourself." These incompatible value systems of individualism versus community and tradition provide the conflict for the plot, which some have criticized as too coincidental and manipulated with too many settings.

One of the glaring manipulations brings together Taylor's mother Alice Stamper Greer, who appeared in the previous novel only in phone conversations, and Turtle's Cherokee Grandfather, Cash Stillwater. In an effort to help Taylor, Alice travels to Heaven where she joins her cousin, Sugar Boss, who introduces Alice to the Cherokee community and explains its traditions and history, such as the Trail of Tears, the stomp dance, and the Indian Child Welfare Act. Not surprisingly, the affection between Alice and Cash helps resolve the conflict and by novel's end, a matured Taylor returns to Tucson committed to a family with Jax, her rock musician boyfriend, and Turtle, for whom she now shares custody with Pop-Pop Stillwater, her new stepfather.

Kingsolver's fiction is not autobiographical. Her characters are what she calls "complex conglomerates" based on features that she has carefully observed or experienced. Her second novel, Animal Dreams, illustrates this point. The strong Mexican-American women she interviewed while researching the nonfiction Holding the Line provided the models for the novel's Emelina Domingos and the elder women of the Stitch and Bitch Club; in addition, their remote southern Arizona villages outlined the novel's Grace, Arizona, a fictionalized town set in a nurturing yet dying landscape. Intrigued by why individuals either engage or detach themselves from life, to dramatize the answer Kingsolver creates undirected, passive Codi Noline and her idealistic younger sister Hallie, who has gone to Nicaragua to teach crop management. Codi returns to Grace to teach high school and care for her Alzheimer's-stricken father, Homer, the respected town doctor. His short narrations brilliantly capture his wandering mind's inability to determine present from past. Through his confused flashbacks and Codi's incomplete memories, eventually filled in by women in the community, Kingsolver provides partial answers to her fundamental question about engagement.

Citing Doris Lessing's "Children of Violence" series as an influence, Kingsolver believes that writing is a form of political activism; thus, she readily accepts the classification of "political novelist"; however, author Jane Smiley criticizes Kingsolver for packing Animal Dreams with too many issuesNative Americans, U.S. involvement in Nicaragua, parental relationships, acculturation, environmental issues, loss and grief, anti-violence, women taking charge. And again, although integral to the character development and plot, some of the political issues lead to predictable outcomes. Hallie is kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in Nicaragua; numbed by this loss, Codi mounts a national campaign to first rescue and, then, memorialize her sister. Loyd Peregrina, the father of teenaged Codi's miscarried child and now her adult, supportive lover, proves to be unmarred emotionally from the death of his twin brother, perhaps because of his loving matriarchal family. After Codi succeeds as an offbeat teacher whose students discover the silent environmental catastrophe of the town's "dead" river, her lecture to the Stitch and Bitch Club sparks the women to fight the mining company's plan to build a dam and, thus, flood the town and cover up their culpability. Raising money through selling piñatas as folk art, they succeed.

All of Kingsolver's novels portray women taking charge, many narrating their own success stories of personal growth through political involvement. In fact, her novels are often labeled "chick books," implying that they are written for women and, hence, seemingly about unimportant issues. The Poisonwood Bible put this unfortunate assumption to rest.

This long-awaited novel grew from Kingsolver's brief childhood experience in Africa as well as the 1991 short story "My Father's Africa," but was developed through extensive research (the novel contains a bibliography) and a careful reading of the King James Bible. Within the Bible, Kingsolver found the novel's structure, leitmotif, cadences, and vocabulary for the vivid voices who narrate their missionary family's experiences in Kilanga, Belgian Congo. Set on the eve of Zaire's independence, Africa, as the catalyst in irrevocably shaping and changing lives, becomes a character in the novel, reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Historical incidents, such as Patrice Lumumba's assassination and Mobutu's betrayal through complicity with the CIA, play out as background to the Price family's destruction by a land that they completely misunderstand in a village where they are not trusted. The novel's brilliance originates in Kingsolver's stunning development of characters through language. Through first-person narration, five female voices provide the shifting points of view that develop the complex portrait of their family, headed by an evangelical Baptist Reverend, the smugly superior, abusive Nathan Price. Although never a narrator in his own story, Nathan is nevertheless fully developed by narratives of his wife and four daughters.

One of Kingsolver's constant reference books was K. E. Laman's Dictionnaire Kikongo-Français, a Kikongo-French dictionary that she read daily to grasp the "music and subtlety of this amazing African language, with its infinite capacity for being misunderstood and mistranslated." Characteristically, as with Pigs in Heaven, she uses her accumulated knowledge of another culture to enrich the novel's title as well as reveal Nathan's character. In Kikongo, "bangala," pronounced one way, describes something very precious; pronounced slightly differently it refers to the deadly poisonwood tree, whose woodsmoke can kill. Stubborn Nathan Price insists on preaching "Tata Jesus is 'bangala,"' complete with mispronunciation so that he insists, "Jesus is poisonwood." Ironically, his fierce, strict interpretation of the Bible coupled with his arrogant superiority poisons his very mission in Africa.

Another research tool was a pile of popular magazines. Kingsolver used them to attune her ear to the language of the Price teenagers. Rachel, a shallow, self-centered fifteen year old, walks right out of the beauty advertisements in Look and Life of the late 1950s. Her voice provides some comic relief to the family's nightmarish situation. A second playful voice is that of Adah, a mute twin suffering from hemiplegia but who thinks in palindromes and quotes Emily Dickinson. Readers are amused by Rachel, but they gravitate to the other twin, Leah, as she struggles to understand Africa; eventually Leah becomes a part of the continent by marrying her father's interpreter, the revolutionary Anatole, and living in Angola with their four sons. The childish voice of Ruth May, who parrots overheard discussions, is stilled by her death, then seen as senseless, in Africa in 1961; that tragedy provides the impetus for the girls' mother, Orleanna, to gather her three remaining daughters and flee the village, leaving Nathan to his own increasingly insane devices.

Kingsolver moves the novel into the mid-1980s in the introspective sixth section, titled "Song of the Three Children," from the Apocrypha, which exposes the adult sisters' views of one another at a reunion and as they discuss their father's awful death in Africa and update their mother's new life in Georgia. Orleanna's voice opens the novel, reconstructing an African picnic. By partially addressing the reader with an invitation to become the conscience and the eyes in the trees of the African forest and partially addressing Ruth May, long buried in African soil, Orleanna seeks some insight into her responsibility for the destruction of her family as well the international issue of the West's destruction of Africa. By the novel's epilogue, "The Eyes in the Trees," a symbolic Ruth May eerily speaks of forgiveness and understanding as muntu Africa"all that is here."

Appearing on best-seller lists for months and hailed for its rich style and language, fully fleshed out, believable characters and complex plot woven through with political issues such as social injustice, colonial occupation, and genocide, The Poisonwood Bible drew inevitable comparisons with novels by Lessing and Nadine Gordimer. Following their lead, Kingsolver will no doubt continue to speak out to contemporary issues through her fiction. By establishing the Bellwether prize, awarded for literature that supports social responsibility, Kingsolver guarantees that others will follow her lead.

Judy Kohl

Kingsolver, Barbara

views updated May 17 2018

Barbara Kingsolver


Born April 8, 1955, in Annapolis, MD; daughter of Wendell R. (a doctor) and Virginia (a homemaker; maiden name, Henry) Kingsolver; married Joseph Hoffmann (a chemistry professor), April 15, 1985 (divorced, 1993); married Steven Hopp (a ornithologist), c. 1995; children: Camille (from first marriage), Lily (from second marriage). Education: DePauw, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1977; University of Arizona, M.S., 1981; additional graduate study.

Addresses: Office—c/o HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd St., New York, NY 10022.


Research assistant, department of physiology at University of Arizona, Tucson, 1977-79, technical writer in office of arid lands studies, 1981-85; freelance journalist, 1985-87; author, 1987—; also worked as copy editor, typesetter, medical document translator, X-ray technician, and biological researcher.

Member: Amnesty International, National Writers Union, National TV Turnoff, Environmental Defense, PEN West, Phi Beta Kappa.

Awards: Feature-writing award, Arizona Press Club, 1986; American Library Association Award for The Bean Trees, 1988; American Library Association Award for Homeland, 1990; Citation of Accomplishment, United Nations National Council of Women, 1989; PEN Fiction Prize for Animal Dreams,1991; Edward Abbey Ecofiction Award for Animal Dreams, 1991; Woodrow Wilson Foundation/Lila Wallace fellow, 1992-93; D.Litt, DePauw University, 1994; Book Sense Book of the Year Award for The Poisonwood Bible, 2000; National Humanities Medal, 2001.


Dubbed "the Woody Guthrie of contemporary American fiction" by Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe, Barbara Kingsolver is an author and social activist. Many of her writings, both fiction and nonfiction, feature social commentary on some level. Through the years, Kingsolver slowly built a following and by the early 2000s, her novels often sold in millions of copies as she fulfilled her goal of both entertaining and informing her readers. Kingsolver told Lisa See of Publishers Weekly, "I like to remind people that there's nothing wrong with living where we are. We're not living 'lives of quiet desperation,' but living in the joyful noise of trying to get through life."

Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955, in Annapolis, Maryland, the daughter of Dr. Wendell R. Kingsolver, a physician, and his wife, Virginia. She grew up in rural Kentucky, specifically Carlisle, where her father was the only doctor in Nicholas County. Her childhood home was located in an alfalfa field. Her father grew a garden, which became one of her interests as she grew up. Kingsolver spent the whole of her childhood in Kentucky, save a year that her father took the family to Central Africa to work as a doctor in a village that needed medical help in 1963. While in Africa, Kingsolver missed second grade.

Because of the rural environment that Kingsolver grew up in, she was not exposed to many things. For example, she did not see a tennis court until she attended college. A sensitive, intelligent child, Kingsolver was an outcast socially. She was interested in writing and reading from an early age, and was a fan of the writings of Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor when she was young. Though she did not receive a great high school education, her parents expected her to go to college. Kingsolver's experiences in Kentucky later influenced the topics and characters she explored as an adult author.

After high school, Kingsolver entered DePauw University. Kingsolver had a music scholarship for classical piano, but majored in biology because of the career limitations for someone with a music degree. Though she knew she wanted to be a writer, she took only one creative writing course. She often wrote poems in the margins of her textbooks. She also participated in the protests against the Vietnam War at its end. When Kingsolver graduated, she wanted to be a writer, but did not know how to make a living at it.

When Kingsolver graduated, she traveled to Europe for a time, living in Greece and France. She worked on the fringes of publishing, working as a copy editor, typesetter, and medical document translator. Kingsolver also worked as an X-ray technician and biological researcher. Upon her return to the United States, Kingsolver entered the University of Arizona where she earned her master's degree in biology (some sources say environmental technology). As a graduate student, she studied the social life of termites. She also took another writing class.

After obtaining her master's degree, Kingsolver worked as a science writer for the university's arid lands studies department. She did not pursue a career as a biologist nor complete the Ph.D. program she was entered in because the demands of academia were not to her liking. Many of her advisors thought she was wasting her talents in the sciences. By this time, Kingsolver was writing poems and short stories on her own time, but not showing them to anyone. Kingsolver began thinking about becoming a fiction writer in 1982, after winning a contest in a Phoenix newspaper.

In the early to mid-1980s, Kingsolver worked primarily for the university, but by 1985, was a full-time freelance journalist. She first sold articles to journals such as the Progressive and Smithsonian. Kingsolver later progressed into doing short fiction works for Redbook and Mademoiselle.

While attending school and working in Arizona, Kingsolver continued to be a political and social activist. Her first book, which she began writing in the early 1980s, was an extension of this interest. It was about the strike of unionized copper workers against the Phelps Dodge Corporation in Arizona. Kingsolver's focus was on the female union workers as she documented their struggles and growth over the course of the strike. After her agent could not sell Kingsolver's half-completed manuscript that she wrote over two years, Kingsolver temporarily gave up writing the nonfiction work.

In 1985, Kingsolver married Joe Hoffman, a chemistry professor at the University of Arizona. While pregnant with their daughter, Camille, she suffered from insomnia, a condition which actually helped her write her first novel, The Bean Trees. Somewhat based on her own life, it was about a woman, Taylor Greer, who leaves behind a rural life in Kentucky for the more urban Tucson, Arizona. There, she encounters the sanctuary movement. Over the course of the novel, she adopts a young Cherokee girl named Turtle, and hits the road.

Kingsolver's agent successfully auctioned the book, and Kingsolver used her advance to finish her book about the female miners. Entitled Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, it was published in 1989. That same year, Kingsolver published a collection of short stories, Homeland and Other Stories. Like the mining book, many of the stories were political and it was set in the Southwest, but with a variety of characters, many of whom were different than herself and those found in her first novel.

While Kingsolver published nonfiction works and short story collections, novels remained her primary publications. She carefully planned her novels, focusing on themes and craft. In these aspects, she was greatly influenced by Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, and John Steinbeck. One novel by Kingsolver that was carefully constructed was her second, 1990's Animal Dreams. The novel focused on Codi Noline, a character who is rather lost at the beginning of the book. Her sister has left to go to Nicaragua to engage in battle for social justice. Noline goes to her hometown where she deals with past pains, her father's struggle with Alzheimer's disease, and family and environmental problems. Despite these struggles, she grows in her family life, her community, and the world at large. Kingsolver found the novel hard to write because the issues were close to her heart, yet she developed a following of readers for her combination of politics and social activism in a fictional milieu.

As Kingsolver was publishing her third novel in the early 1990s, her personal life was undergoing some changes. Her marriage to Hoffman ended in divorce in 1993. Within a few years, she was remarried to Steven Hopp, an ornithologist, with whom she had another daughter, Lily, in 1996. The same year as her divorce, Kingsolver published her third novel, Pigs in Heaven. This was a continuation of the story she told in The Bean Trees. In the novel, Taylor Greer has to fight the Cherokee Nation to retain custody of her adopted daughter, Turtle. The nation's lawyers believe the girl should be raised among her own people and tries legal means to get her back. Kingsolver explores issues of community and different points of view on a difficult issue. She was compelled to address the Native American point of view she felt she left out in The Bean Trees.

Pigs in Heaven became a best-seller for months, and the first book by Kingsolver to reach the New York Times best-sellers list. Kingsolver followed this two years later with a collection of essays called High Tide in Tucson. In the essays, many of which were written specifically for the book, she addressed issues such as activism, love, motherhood, and her relationship with her daughter and the world around her. This book also sold well, and its popularity gave her hope.

Kingsolver's biggest and best-selling book to date was published in 1997, the novel The Poisonwood Bible. Drawing somewhat from her experiences in Africa as a child, the novel was primarily set in Africa's Belgian Congo in the late 1950s and early 1960s just as the Republic of Congo was being established. She focused on the lives of a family of evangelical Baptist missionaries headed by Nathan Price over a span of 30 years. Price wants to civilize the Africans, though his efforts do not turn out the way he expected and profoundly affects him and his family. The story is told by the five women in his life, his wife and four daughters, each of whom offers their own point of view and voice. Kingsolver had wanted to write this book since her childhood, and when she finally did, it was with a new maturity in its breadth, tone, and themes. The sweeping epic was also the longest book she had written, nearly 550 pages.

The book proved extremely popular. While it was a best-seller soon after publication, sales of The Poisonwood Bible zoomed after talk show host Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club in 2000. The novel sold at least two million copies. After this success, Kingsolver was unsure what to do next creatively. One thing she did was found and endow the Bellwether Prize for Fiction. She did this to support and promote literature of social change. While benefiting other writers, Kingsolver continued to write herself.

In 2000, Kingsolver published her next novel, Prodigal Summer, which was also a best-seller. Unlike any of her previous novels, this book explored themes of relationships and sex and was set in the Appalachias. Prodigal Summer had a complex narrative structure in that the stories were linked together through Deanna, a naturalist who lived with a man named Eddie Bono. In addition to looking at sex, it was also about biology, the preservation of wilderness, small farmers, and the challenges they face.

While Kingsolver was becoming a very successful novelist, she continued her political activism. She participated in the dissent against the American war in Afghanistan, and published many outspoken editorials and essays critical of U.S. President George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Because she supported her country, but was critical of its leaders, some critics pushed booksellers to remove her books from their shelves. Kingsolver's writings about politics and America, as well as nature and humanity, were published in a collection of essays called Small Wonder in 2002.

Over the years, many critics praised Kingsolver's ability to balance social and political concerns with the demands of a novel's narrative. Yet because many of her readers were women, many male critics were accused of giving her negative reviews because they did not understand her writing the way women did. As she explained to the Boston Globe's Gilbert, "The power of fiction is that it creates empathy. It differs from nonfiction in that way.... If I write a novel, I'm not just informing you, I'm inviting you into someone's life. And fiction takes place in real time. So you put your own life away and you put on this other life and you hear the things she hears and sees the things she sees and you feel her feelings . And then you close the book and go back to your own life, but that set of feelings is embedded in you somewhere. I think creating empathy is a political act. It's the antithesis of bigotry and meanness of spirit."

Selected writings

The Bean Trees, HarperCollins (New York City), 1988.

Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona MineStrike of 1983, ILR Press (Ithaca, NY), 1989.

Animal Dreams, HarperCollins (New York City), 1990.

Another America/Otra America, Seal Press (Seal Beach, CA), 1992.

Pigs In Heaven, HarperCollins (New York City), 1993.

High Tide in Tucson, HarperCollins (New York City), 1995.

The Poisonwood Bible, HarperCollins (New York City), 1997.

Homeland and Other Stories, Buccaneer Books, 1999.

Prodigal Summer, HarperCollins (New York City), 2000.

Small Wonder, HarperCollins (New York City), 2002.



Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume 206: Twentieth Century American Western Writers, First Series, Gale Group, 1999, pp. 180-90.


Boston Globe, June 23, 1993, p. 25.

Denver Post, May 30, 2004, p. F12.

Guardian (London, England), November 18, 2000, p. 48; June 22, 2002, p. 10.

Independent on Sunday (London, England), July 8, 2001, p. 17.

Nation, January 8, 2001, p. 7.

Newsweek, November 13, 2001, p. 66.

New York Times, September 1, 1993, p. C1; October 11, 1998, sec. 6, p. 53.

Organic Style, May/June 2003, p. 83.

People, October 11, 1993, p. 109.

Progressive, February 1996, p. 33.

Publishers Weekly, August 31, 1990, p. 46; February 10, 1997, p. 19; June 26, 2000, p. 20; October 9, 2000, p. 22.

Rocky Mountain News, October 18, 1998, p. 1E.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1995, p. 3D.

Washington Post, July 14, 1993, p. D1.

Women's Review of Books, July 2002, pp. 10-11.

World and I, April 1999, p. 254.


Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002.

—A. Petruso

Kingsolver, Barbara

views updated May 29 2018


Born 8 April 1955, Annapolis, Maryland

Daughter of Wendell R. and Virginia Henry Kingsolver; married Joseph Hoffman, 1985 (divorced 1993); Steven Hopp; children Camille, Lily

Barbara Kingsolver, working as a journalist in 1983, drove into the mining town of Clifton, Arizona, to cover the strike against the Phelps Dodge Copper Corporation. Her book, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (1989), was Kingsolver's tribute to the women who kept the strike alive. It was also her introduction to the way politics work for women—down and dirty.

Born in Maryland, Kingsolver grew up in eastern Kentucky and subsequently moved to Arizona. She graduated from DePauw University (B.A., 1977) and later completed a master's degree in biology at the University of Arizona. Her work as a journalist and political rights activist has been the source of many of the themes of her poetry and fiction, but her central concern in all of her writing is the way women relate to the world.

The 12 stories of Homeland and Other Stories (1989) depict enduring women who seek to reconcile their quest for individual fulfillment with their sense of responsibility to the community. Their progress is often thwarted by political, social, or economic circumstances. Magda of "Island on the Moon" is a woman who would have been an artist "if her life had been better." Instead, she "just has to ooze out a little bit of art in everything she does."

Kingsolver's novels focus on women seeking their place in community while developing a sense of self. In her first, The Bean Trees (1988), protagonist Taylor Greer flees rural Kentucky and entrapment in what happens to all her friends—pregnancy. Her odyssey includes finding a Cherokee baby, whom she names Turtle, in her car. They settle in Tucson, finding a place in the Jesus Is Lord Used Tire Shop, whose proprietor offers sanctuary to Central American refugees. In that world, Taylor and Turtle find their own sanctuary and become a family.

In Pigs in Heaven (1993), the sequel to Bean Trees, the community Taylor and Turtle have forged is under threat. Annawake Fourkiller, a Cherokee lawyer dedicated to returning Native American children to the custody of the tribe, starts proceedings to gain custody of Turtle. The struggle for the child sends Taylor on another odyssey to escape her responsibility to Turtle's people. Finally, she returns to the reservation and finds that, because of a Cherokee great-grandmother, it is also her tribe.

Animal Dreams (1990) combines the personal quest for identity with the larger quest for human rights. Codi Noline, a medical doctor turned high school teacher, returns to Grace, Arizona, to understand her family's past. Her sister, Hallie, chooses commitment to the politics of the future and goes to Nicaragua while Codi retreats into herself to try to understand her place in the cosmos of Grace.

The balance of the personal and the political is a hallmark of Kingsolver's fiction and has parallels in her poetry. Another America (1992), a dual-language text with Spanish translations by Rebeca Cartes, captures women's entry into the arena of politics, violence, and survival. Kingsolver's poems chronicle the struggle for community that keeps women strong.

Throughout her work, Kingsolver seeks a dialogue among women of the many cultures of the U.S.—Native American, Latino, Anglo—as they encounter each other and find ways to establish community in difference. Among these women is the Cherokee great-grandmother who appears again and again in Kingsolver's work and who, like the Great Mother, watches the unfolding history of all her children.

Kingsolver writes about family, community, and the natural world. Her exploration of these themes continue in both the fiction and nonfiction of two recent works. High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never (1995) is a collection of 25 essays the author said gave her the opportunity to step from behind her mask of fiction and to say, "I, Barbara Kingsolver, believe this." The essays include her comments on motherhood, property, the place of humans in the animal kingdom, the effects of the Gulf War, her attitude toward housework, the art of fiction writing, as well as her stint as a keyboard player in a band of bestselling authors that included Stephen King and Amy Tan. Her honest and witty personal and political observations cover the defiance of her two-year-old daughter, the ethics of a wild pig who eats up her garden, and the experience of buying a love fetish in a West African market.

In the early 1960s Kingsolver lived in the Congo when her parents were health care workers. Out of this experience came The Poisonwood Bible (1998), a symbolic parallel to the Congo's struggle for independence, this novel is the story of a minister who comes to a small African village in 1959 to convert the natives. There he not only fails to deliver his message of Christianity because he mispronounces basic words in the tribal language, but he also refuses to seek help from the village community in times of flood, drought, malaria, and ant attacks. Ultimately, he and his family are ejected from the village when the villagers decide their traditional gods are better than Jesus. As always in Kingsolver's books, the story unfolds from the perspective of the female characters—the preacher's wife and four daughters.

Kingsolver's powerful and simple writing style addresses the problem of getting on with the business of living. While political issues such as race, sex, wealth, poverty, greed, and justice appear as driving forces, her emphasis is on probing into how personal relationships fit into the overarching picture. She continues to enlighten her readers as she delves into this question by expressing her views in her own words and in the words of her women characters.


Reference works:

ANR 60 (1998). CA 129 (1989). CLC 55 (1992). Other works: Ms. (April 1988). NYTBR (10 April 1988, 5 June 1988, 11 June 1989, 7 Jan. 1990, 2 Sept. 1990, 28 July 1991). The Progressive (Dec. 1998, Feb. 1996). Time (24 Sept. 1990, 9 Nov. 1998). Trachtman, P., "High Tide in Tucson," in Smithsonian (June 1996). WRB 5:8 (May 1988). Wootten, S., "In a State of Hopefulness: Barbara Kingsolver Swims At High Tide," in Sojourners (May/June 1996).



Kingsolver, Barbara

views updated May 21 2018


KINGSOLVER, Barbara. American, b. 1955. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories, Poetry, Natural history, Essays. Career: University of Arizona, Tucson, research assistant in department of physiology, 1977-79, technical writer in office of arid lands studies, 1981-85; freelance journalist, 1985-87; full-time writer, 1987-. Publications: NOVELS: The Bean Trees, 1988; Animal Dreams, 1990; Pigs in Heaven, 1993; The Poisonwood Bible, 1998; Prodigal Summer, 2000. OTHER: Homeland and Other Stories, 1989; Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (nonfiction), 1989; Another America (poetry), 1992; High Tide in Tucson (essays), 1995; Small Wonder (essays), 2002; last Stand: America's Virgin Lands (natural history), 2002.