Novelist Barbara Kingsolver fills, somewhat feistily, the role of what was once called a “peoples' artist.” Go ahead and laugh, but if a high school kid reads a recent American novel, it's likely Kingsolver's The Bean Trees or Pigs In Heaven. Like John Steinbeck or Harper Lee, her novels—about working people, Native Americans and refugees—are part of a literary canon conservatives love to hate but can't really object to: these dreaded “social realist” writers happen also to be best-sellers, and who dares question the intelligence of the marketplace?
Kingsolver is also a powerful essayist. She used her biblio-bully pulpit to rain on the post-Sept. 11 parade of national chauvinism, flaggery and war-hooting. In widely printed editorials, she argued that the attacks were an opportunity for reflection, for rejoining the world community. She challenged the predictable military response. She pointed out the “stinging truth that we aren't loved for our ways in this world”—and bravely explained why. Those essays led to Small Wonders.
But Kingsolver's vision is more ambitious than opposing the next war. This collection's title essay considers her “small wonder” at a parable about, of all things, a mama bear finding a human child and nursing it until the baby's rescue. True story, but more to the metaphorical point about our national obsession with power: “Like the bear, this thing could eat us up or save us.”
Kingsolver believes we can save ourselves primarily through the therapeutic non-therapies of kids, community, gardening and bio-regionalism. She comforts herself by remembering Emma Goldman (“Out of the chaos, the future emerges in harmony and beauty”), even as she finds herself, like Goldman, “cast as a traitor simply because I raise questions”: The actual purpose of the Afghan war? The pending Iraq war? Of most of our wars? The desire to shape domestic politics, she observes, pointing out that the Cold War attacked, in no particular order: organized labor, progressivism, internationalism, Esperanto—for god's sake!—the United Nations, and yes, a once-vital people's culture and vibrant literary arts movement.
Kingsolver is neither progressive windbag nor utopian dreamer. She's an activist for harmony and beauty, arguing in an essay on television against letting this “one-eyed monster” into your home. She convinces her own daughter to list favorite daily activities—school, music, pets, friends—then asks which she'd sacrifice to watch TV. It's a lesson in the stark economics of being alive.
“Anger,” sang another famous anarchist, “is an energy.” Barbara Kingsolver's energy, her elegant impatience with what's worst about us—our wars at home and abroad—and her desire for so much more, make that impolitic emotion a virtue.
Small Wonders by Barbara Kingsolver; Harper Collins. Hardcover, 288 pages, $23.95.