Alone on her mountain, Deanna is hugging a secret. A coyote pack has recently moved to the Appalachian Mountains overlooking Zebulon Valley, Virginia, where this story is set. Despite Deanna's determination to protect them, the coyotes' fate is precarious. Will they survive the malevolence of farmers and bounty hunters to the last page of Prodigal Summer? This suspense is but one of the many factors that makes Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel a haunting page-turner. Deanna has more in common with Lusa, a young widow living in the valley, than either woman knows. Both are scientists and environmentalists, striving to reconcile the economic interests of their Virginia tobacco farming town with the larger needs of the planet.
We wait for their lives to intersect, but Kingsolver spins their stories slowly, bringing them closer and closer together until their meeting is inevitable.
Prodigal Summer isn't the first novel in which Kingsolver reveals her environmental ethos, but it is perhaps the first one that openly demonstrates how formidably well versed she is in natural history. Her detailed knowledge of the Appalachian ecosystem is especially impressive. But where science writing is frequently dry, Kingsolver makes the sex life of moths and coyotes riveting reading. In her hands, the silent war between organic farmers and those that believe in pesticides has the firm grip of a 1950s detective thriller.
Though Kingsolver's politics are transparent in Prodigal Summer, she never reduces her characters to stereotypes. In the elderly Garnett, for instance, the novelist delivers a heartwarming, sometimes humorous portrait of an aging gentleman farmer, baffled at the changing mores which assail him from all sides, even in a rural Virginia farming town.
Without ridiculing him, Kingsolver shows that Garnett's troubles the extinction of the American chestnut and a hardy strain of crop-devouring insects are the result of pesticide use and clear cutting, practices which Garnett still naively supports. Yet Kingsolver's portrait of him is overwhelmingly forgiving and sympathetic. His diminishing eyesight, his Friday afternoon seafood buffet ritual, his inner turmoil, in which chivalry contends with petty revenge, are portrayed with uncanny realism. Readers will be deeply moved by his longing to restore the chestnut to the forests of America. They will perceive early on that he is in love with his neighbor, the rebel Nannie, a woman close to his own age. And they will ache for him to make this discovery himself.
It will be tempting for reviewers to call Prodigal Summer a manifesto against agricultural pesticides and bounties on predator animals. But Prodigal Summer should not be sold short. It is beautifully conceived fiction, with symmetry, suspense and complex characters as subtly crafted as any being written today.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.