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Barbara Kingsolver does not limit herself when it comes to settings. In that way, she is quintessentially, and unusually, American.
In my quest to read more short stories, I unearthed Barbara Kingsolver’s one short story collection, which was published in 1989. Thirty years ago, if you can believe it.
Many fiction authors begin with short stories. Some keep writing them, and others move on to novels and slow down or stop.
Kingsolver is apparently in the latter group; the only other short work she has published since Homeland include two collections of essays.
The unusual thing about Kingsolver’s short story collection is that she sets her fiction in so many different places but still…I think…manages to have a pretty authentic voice.
There are a few reasons for this. First, Kingsolver herself has lived in a wide variety of American places. She was born in Annapolis, Maryland, grew up in Kentucky, went to university in Indiana, went to graduate school in Arizona and lived there for a long time, traveled extensively and lived overseas (making a life in an overseas location is not the same AT ALL as passing through), then ended up in the Appalachians in Virginia.
It’s rather unusual for an American to have lived in so many different regions of the U.S. Most people either move around in states close to their home or grow up in the sticks somewhere (which can be very relative) and move someplace bigger in adulthood, where they stay or only move if work requires it.
Kingsolver has never lived in one of the really big metro areas, especially those where authors usually congregate, and she has lived in two different sections the eastern mountains, the far west, and the Midwest, not counting her time in fancy Annapolis because she says she doesn’t remember it.
Another thing, and another reason why her work is a bit different, that I notice in particular about this collection, is that the focus is more on inherent human nature and less on the effect of outside circumstances on behavior.
Although I could pretty closely identify the time and place of each of these stories if I wanted to, the idea behind the stories, to me, is that people are more or less the same, regardless of setting. Our relationships have to do with recognizing those similarities…the good, and the bad.
And there is a dark side to many of Kingsolver’s characters. Not a crippling darkness, but a darkness we don’t want to know too much about, just the same.
And you know that we all pretty much have something inside of us that we don’t want to admit we have or even know about, which I suppose might have something to do with why her work is so popular.
And lest you think her work is depressing, it’s not. Most, if not all the characters in her stories have redeeming factors, and usually I like the protagonists. But these things make me appreciate the darkness even more.
Read an excerpt from Kingsolver’s 2018 novel Unsheltered from LitHub here.
Because it was an Oprah Pick, The Poisonwood Bible is perhaps Kingsolver’s most famous book.
She actually moved with her young family to Africa in order to research this book, which is probably why it’s so good.
Like her short story collection, Kingsolver’s longer works cover a wide range of topics. If you like The Poisonwood Bible, and want to read more about Africa, here are some ideas.
If not, scroll down. I have more for you.
If you haven’t read Chinua Achebe, you should start with this classic, Things Fall Apart, which is about colonization and religious proselytization from a different perspective.
Nadine Gordimer was a White South African who wrote many stories about apartheid in that country, which was much like segregation in the Southern United States. I prefer her earlier stories, but in this collection you have a wide choice. I’m really happy they are back in print in the U.S.
When I read her later work compared with her earlier work, it becomes clear how the sense of oppression increased in South Africa, and this is coming from a White woman!
Prior to The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver was already well known for The Bean Trees. It is set in Kentucky and Oklahoma with attention to the Cherokee nation (many of whom were historically forcibly relocated from the Southeastern United States). Pigs in Heaven is its sequel.
In a rare full length work of nonfiction, Kingsolver describes a year of attempting to eat locally with her family in their home in the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia.
Barbara Kingsolver has an excellent website that includes an illustrated autobiography to help you see what a rich and varied life she has led…and where she got the knowledge for all of her different settings.
Cover Photo Credit
It was difficult to choose a cover photo since Kingsolver sets her stories in so many places, but the stories begin near Tucson, where she went to college and started her career, so this is a photo from Saguaro National Park, which is nearby.
Murray Foubister [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]