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  • The Southern Family Farm as Endangered Species:Possibilities for Survival in Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer
  • Suzanne W. Jones

In your father's day all the farmers around here were doing fine. Now they have to work night shifts at the Kmart to keep up their mortgages. Why is that? They work just as hard as their parents did, and they're on the same land, so what's wrong?

—Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer

At the same time some southern studies scholars are positioning the U.S. South in a larger cultural, historic, and economic region that encompasses the Caribbean and Latin America, some southern environmentalist writers, such as long-time essayist and novelist Wendell Berry and activist-turned-memoirist Janisse Ray, are finding a pressing need to focus on smaller bioregions and the locatedness of the human subject.1 These writers believe that agribusiness and consumer ignorance are driving small farmers out of business and that clear-cutting timber and farming practices dependent on chemicals are threatening local ecosystems.2 Best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver has joined their ranks. With her most recent novel Prodigal Summer (2000), Kingsolver returns to her home region and her academic roots to explore both the crucial ecological issues that most interest the South's environmentalist writers and some of the transnational questions that currently preoccupy literary critics. Setting her novel in southern Appalachia,3 where she grew up and where she now owns a cabin, she fictionalizes problems that she has [End Page 83] since published impassioned essays4 about: failing family farms, fragmented communities, ecosystems out of balance, and rural-urban, insider-outsider tensions.

In Prodigal Summer Kingsolver's academic training in evolutionary biology and ecology, her abiding concern for community and family, and her intimate knowledge of a particular place combine to produce no less than a blueprint for saving the small family farm and for restoring ecological balance in a southern Appalachian bioregion that is struggling to survive. Kingsolver, who is at the height of her verbal powers in this novel, employs elaborate Darwinian conceits to link human and natural worlds, both to show how they are connected and how they are similar in needing variety to sustain the health of a complex interdependent ecosystem. Near the end of the novel, Kingsolver places an important Darwinian principle in the mouth of the organic apple grower, Nannie Rawley: "There is nothing so important as having variety. That's how life can still go on when the world changes" (390). And the world of southern Appalachia has changed dramatically. The majestic chestnut trees that once provided a livelihood for some and shelter for many have succumbed to an Asian fungal blight, farming can no longer be relied on to support a family, rural people commute long hours to work in factories or to supplement meager farm income, and their children know little about the ecosystem they inhabit.

Kingsolver thinks of place in much the same way as Arif Dirlik, who has argued that to focus on the groundedness of places through ecology and topography is "not to return to some kind of geographic determinism or bounded notion of place" or to posit an "immutable fixity." For Dirlik, place is the "location," "where the social and the natural meet, where the production of nature by the social is not clearly distinguishable from the production of the social by the natural" (18). He argues that "[a] place suggests groundedness from below, and a flexible and porous boundary around it, without closing out the extralocal, all the way to the global" (22). As Darwin pointed out, difference becomes an important resource for survival. In Prodigal Summer Kingsolver employs non-native human and animal species to suggest solutions to local economic and ecological problems in southern Appalachia.

At the same time Kingsolver reveals how introducing exotic species into the southern landscape can harm the nonhuman ecosystem, she demonstrates that not all exotics are necessarily invasive—thereby providing biological background for the human social parallel that she sets up. Certainly kudzu, which has no natural enemy in the South, and the [End Page 84] Asian fungus that has killed off the American chestnut are damaging, invasive species...


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