- Charting Authors, Mapping Readers
Two recent works in southern and Appalachian studies invite consideration of the relationships between writers, readers, and the texts that connect them. While Priscilla Leder's edited collection Seeds of Change: Critical Essays on Barbara Kingsolver focuses on the author and production end of the circuit, Emily Satterwhite's monograph Dear Appalachia: Readers, Identity, and Popular Fiction since 1898 reasserts the relevance of the reader and reception end in evaluating the cultural work of literary texts.
Barbara Kingsolver's career is in the fullness of bloom. Her brand of literary fiction brings together elements that do not often speak politely in public: fiction and politics, the mountain south and the desert southwest, the past and the present, the local and the global. Her vivid characters can be as small as a girl named Turtle, or as large as Trotsky. A Pulitzer nominee for The Poisonwood Bible, a Pen/Faulkner nominee, and Orange Prize winner for The Lacuna, Kingsolver's big bold novels [End Page 131] keep coming at us, interspersed with fearless forays into poetry, essay, and creative nonfiction.
This new collection of essays is, surprisingly, the first book-length collection of criticism to survey her work in its entirety. Perhaps because Kingsolver generates so many words, it has been difficult for critics to catch their breath. It is indicative of her prowess that she has published not one, but two giant new novels, The Lacuna and Flight Behavior, since Leder's collection was published.
Seeds of Change consists of fourteen essays and an excellent bio-critical introduction by Leder. The essays are structured into three segments, "Identity," "Social Justice," and "Ecology." This organization makes sense for Kingsolver's body of work, although one can imagine other rubrics: Maternity, Ecofeminism, Politics, Race and Region, for example. The book also features a comprehensive works cited, comprising all the Kingsolver criticism to date, as well as a detailed index, making it easy to navigate as a teaching or research tool. The essays are generally strong. While three have been published previously, the authors' range of backgrounds—from American literature to disability studies to women's studies to ecocriticism—reflects the range of Kingsolver's appeal and relevance. One of the major contributions of this collection, therefore, is that Leder is able to corral an array of critical voices into one room for a conversation.
While Kingsolver's status as popular is unquestionable, her status as a regional writer has been more complicated. Born in Maryland, raised in Kentucky, transplanted to Arizona, and now settled in the mountains of Virginia, Kingsolver has also sojourned in and written of Africa and, more recently, Mexico. If Kingsolver's relationship to place has been somewhat south-by-southwest, the human relationship to place has consistently been a topic for contemplation, in both her fiction and nonfiction.
Prodigal Summer (2000), Kingsolver's most undeniably Appalachian novel, was the least acclaimed and, according to her, the most misunderstood. In her essay on that novel, Priscilla Leder notes that Kingsolver has argued Prodigal Summer is "not even mostly" about its characters, but rather is about "whole systems," a sort of biological parable of the human/ animal/ insect/ plantscape we inhabit. "I think biology is my religion," Kingsolver reported in an interview. Interestingly, her literary forays into these biological themes have most consistently been located in the mountain South. In addition to Prodigal Summer, her coauthored [End Page 132] zeitgeist treatise Animal, Vegetable, Miracle details her family's 2004 return to and live off of the southern Appalachian land itself, while her forthcoming novel Flight Behavior is a tale of global warming set in the mountains of Tennessee. Kingsolver's relationship to place is intriguing, and some of the best essays in the collection take this question up.
There are few shortcomings in this collection. At times, editorial control seemed uneven, but if...