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169 Ten Startling Morals: Teaching Ecofiction with Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer felicia mitchell Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails. In the music of the harp which trembles round the world it is the insisting on this which thrills us. —Henry David Thoreau, Walden A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. —Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac T o l e a r n w h a t i s w r o n g with our environment, and why one ought to think about saving the world, a reader need only turn to a number of treatises, case studies, congressional hearings, and scientific measures giving alarming readings. The Environmental Protection Agency, along with “watchdog” agencies such as Environmental Defense, is more than happy to provide details about the air we breathe, toxins in our streams, and miscellaneous risks humans face if they do not modify certain behaviors. If scientific 170 Felicia Mitchell treatises are difficult to interpret, other environmental nonfiction abounds. Barbara Kingsolver’s own Small Wonder (2002b) is a popular choice in college courses. Also widely read since its publication is her foreword to The Essential Agrarian Reader (2003), edited by Norman Wirzba, an essay that explains how Kingsolver’s commitment to the land is exhibited through not only her imaginative writing but also her life’s choices,most recently the choice to farm, a choice discussed in, among other writings, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007), written with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. Why, then, read Kingsolver’s fiction—or any fiction—to learn about ecology? Donna Seaman offers a good rationale: Fiction . . . is all about flaws,errors,weakness,and confusion.Stories and novels make room for everyone; and while fiction exposes our faults and failings, it also expresses compassion and finds nobility in our struggles and strengths. Stories can be funny and irreverent.Fiction is more tolerant of ambiguity and contradiction.It asks questions without forcing answers.Fiction is about feelings , not statistics. (2002, 14) In addition to showing how cooperation with the environment can be beneficial , fiction addressing ecological issues helps readers to strike a balance between emotional reactions to and scientific dimensions of nature. Ecofiction integrates the goals of the writer with the goals of the ecologist in order to invite a reader to enter an imaginative dimension that not only points out problems with the environment but also entertains the reader,both literally and figuratively, with alternatives. Appalachian fiction traditionally includes references to ecological concerns. The lush landscape of the region can provide a striking backdrop to human interactions, and it can cultivate symbolism to illustrate concerns about the relationship of its inhabitants to the environment. In the Appalachian classic River of Earth ([1940] 1989), James Still illustrated conflicts between farming and mining, or pastoral values and change, that have continued to influence Appalachian literature. More recent, Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven (1987) provides a provocative examination of the ravages of coal mining on the land and its inhabitants as it shows how women can be empowered by the assertion of alternative choices. One character in Sharyn McCrumb’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1992) suffers the consequences of a chemical spill in a river, while another character in The Rosewood Casket (1996) is a naturalist whose values educate the reader.According to Elizabeth Harrison (1990), Southern women writers especially have 171 Startling Morals: Teaching Ecofiction with Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer illustrated ways a sense of community can help characters develop relationships with the land that honor cooperation. Thesewriterswithwhathavecometobecalledecofeministconcernsmore aggressively assert, according to critic Barbara T. Gates,“the interconnectedness of all living things” as they explore opportunities for social change that will benefit a more inclusive perspective (1998,20–21).Well before the publication of Prodigal Summer (2000),1 which is situated within her familiar territory of Appalachia, Kingsolver had established a reputation as a literary activist with her fiction as well as her prose. Animal Dreams (1990), with multilayered themes addressing Native Americans, US politics, human relationships, and women’s strengths, invited its readers to look at complicated relationships we have with the land. When a small farming town addresses the threat of water pollution, the community learns, along with the novel’s readers, to be wary of easy solutions...


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