Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Kingsolver, Barbara from The Columbia Encyclopedia

1955–, American writer, b. Annapolis, Md.; grad. DePauw Univ. (B.S., 1977), Univ. of Arizona (M.S., 1981). She studied biology and ecology and was a science writer before completing The Bean Trees (1988), a novel about a young woman who leaves Kentucky for Arizona, where she lives with a young Cherokee girl. Kingsolver's Arizona novels also include Animal Dreams (1990) and Pigs in Heaven (1993), a sequel to her first book. These works feature carefully drawn heroines, often single mothers, struggling with their roles as individuals and members of families and communities. The Poisonwood Bible (1998) is a sprawling colonial morality tale told through the saga of a missionary family in the Belgian Congo. Her fifth novel, Prodigal Summer (2000), is set in rural Appalachia. The Lacuna (2009) explores the period of 1929–51 and such real-life characters as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky through the eyes of a fictional American diarist. Science in the form of climate change and the miraculous are elements of Flight Behavior (2012), which describes the impact of the arrival of migrating monarch butterflies in a rural town. Kingsolver has also written short stories, bilingual poetry, essays, and a study of an Arizona mine strike (1989). In 2004 she moved to a farm in SW Virginia; her Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (2007) recounts a year during which her family ate only what they grew themselves or bought from local sources.

  • See DeMarr, M. J., Barbara Kingsolver: A Critical Companion (1999).

Summary Article: Kingsolver, Barbara (1955-) from Encyclopedia of the Environment in American Literature

“First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees…. This forest eats itself and lives forever.” In these opening lines of The Poisonwood Bible (1998), Barbara Kingsolver reveals her characteristic grace and introspection as an accomplished novelist, essayist, short story writer, and poet. Her work often portrays an ineluctable sense of wonder and respect for the natural world, paired with a passionate dedication to social change. Having grown up in the American South, in Appalachia, lived much of her adult life in the American Southwest, in Arizona, and traveled and lived in Africa and Europe, Kingsolver brings a rich worldliness to the intimate portraits of her storytelling. She reflects deeply on the interrelation between the human organism and its animal, vegetable and mineral counterparts, infusing her fiction and nonfiction alike with an ecological consciousness at once passionate and shrewd, stirring and candid.

Born in Annapolis, Maryland in 1955, and raised in rural Kentucky, Kingsolver was profoundly affected by the wild hills and woods in which she grew up, as well as by the more domestic issues of class and racial segregation that plagued the area. A “wrinkle on the map that lies between farms and wildness” (Prodigal Summer, x), Kingsolver's hometown of Carlisle in Nicholas County, Kentucky, depended on tobacco farming for its agricultural wealth. But like many other neighboring towns, there remained in Carlisle a clear division between the poor tobacco farmers and its middle-and upper-class merchants. While the latter lived comfortably in town, the former struggled to maintain their farms in the same wilds in which Kingsolver wandered throughout her childhood — growing intimately familiar with both the land and its people. Her ability to move comfortably between town and country, coupled with her keen observations of endemic injustices, helped nurture the liberal, humanistic conscience so vividly and cogently expressed in her writing (Snodgrass, 8).

Kingsolver's apparently “amphibious” nature was firmly grounded in the dynamic compassion and social activism of her parents, Dr. Wendell R. King-solver, a rural family physician, and Virginia Lee Henry Kingsolver, an avid birdwatcher and nature rambler. When Kingsolver was seven years old, her family moved to the former Republic of Congo on a two-year medical exchange, living in a small village without electricity and running water while both parents worked for the public health. It was this experience in particular that inspired The Poisonwood Bible, written over 35 years later. In the preface to this novel, Kingsolver thanks her parents directly for bringing her “to a place of wonders,” teaching her “to pay attention,” and setting her “early on a path of exploring the great, shifting terrain between righteousness and what's right” (x).

In addition to nurturing Kingsolver's resolute moral compass and her love of nature, the Kingsolver parents instilled in all their children a fond and disciplined appreciation for books and reading. King-solver herself read fiction alongside anatomy and physiology, prose alongside poetry, and discovered “that literature could enable her to live many lives besides her own and that language — words — has power and beauty” (DeMarr 3). She consequently went on to earn both her bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from DePauw University and the University of Arizona, respectively, while also taking a few creative writing courses along the way. Since 1985, Kingsolver has been working as a freelance journalist and author, producing numerous award-winning works across a wide range of genres. Her first novel, The Bean Trees (1988), is now widely adopted in college courses across the nation, and has helped pave the way for some of her most well-known works. From The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer (2000) to Animal Dreams (1990), Pigs in Heaven (1993), and The Lacuna (2009), King-solver's novels consistently return to the enlightening intersections of the natural world as biological system and human diversity as a comparable cultural system of imperfection and promise (Leder 1). Likewise, her essay and short story collections, such as Homeland and Other Stories (1989), High Tide in Tucson (1995), and Small Wonder (2002), as well as her 1992 book of poems, Another America, explore an ecology of individualism and community informed by her experiences both abroad and in her native environs. In 2007, Kingsolver released her first nonfiction narrative, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, in which she documents her family's move back to a farm in rural Virginia and their efforts at eating locally. As both memoir and journalistic investigation, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle celebrates the life cycles of animal and vegetable harvests alongside those of the human mind; it offers a story of how a return to our agricultural roots can help us not only to grow good food, but to reform bad habits — to understand the challenges and benefits of “realigning our lives with our food chain” (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 6).

Although sometimes accused of an idealism that is more escapist than activist (Leder 20), Kingsolver effectively weaves together political and spiritual themes, social and environmental concerns. She highlights ecological responsibility as a wellspring for human rights advocacy, and vice versa. Her varied works emphasize the importance of place to identity and the necessity for shared education to better ourselves and our world.

Bibliography
  • DeMarr, Mary Jean. Barbara Kingsolver: A Critical Companion. Greenwood Press Westport CT, 1999.
  • Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Harper Perennial New York, 2007.
  • Kingsolver, Barbara. Barbara Kingsolver: The Authorized Site. http://www.kingsolver.com.
  • Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. Harper Flamingo New York, 1998.
  • Leder, Priscilla ed. Seeds of Change: Critical Essays on Barbara Kingsolver. University of Tennessee Press Knoxville, 2010.
  • Snodgrass, Mary Ellen, ed. Barbara Kingsolver: A Literary Companion. McFarland Jefferson NC, 2004.
  • Janelle A. Schwartz
    © 2013 Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article Kingsolver, Barbara
    Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature

    K. enjoys the reputation of a best-selling novelist who adeptly manages to combine entertainment with political activism....

    Full text Article Kingsolver, Barbara (1955-)
    Encyclopedia of Women in the American West

    Born in Maryland in 1955 and raised in eastern Kentucky, Barbara Kingsolver's fiction is nonetheless firmly rooted in the American West. Her...

    Full text Article 1999
    The Hutchinson Chronology of World History

    Subject: fiction Area: USA US writer Barbara Kingsolver publishes The Poisonwood Bible.

    See more from Credo