I know the exact moment I saw a luna moth for the first time and I have Barbara Kingsolver to thank for it. Five and a half years ago, we had just moved to Grand Rapids. I took the kids to see the butterflies at the Meijer Gardens. The Gardens has a great printed guide to give you all the names of the butterflies and moths that you’ll see in the conservatory. The one I couldn’t wait to see was the luna moth. I usually do not notice or care if I’ve seen a bug for the first time, but as soon as I saw it in that pamphlet, I remembered reading about it six years prior in Prodigal Summer, and I couldn’t wait to see it in real life. It’s funny the things that stick with you when you read something. Because of Kingsolver, I knew that luna moths do not even have mouths in their moth stage. They do all their eating as caterpillars. Once they emerge from their cocoons, their sole purpose is to mate. Eating is unnecessary for them as a moth. I’d never heard such a thing before, and it made an impression on me. Eleven years later, I re-read and enjoyed it all over again, letting even more interesting little facts flutter into the corners of my mind.
Prodigal Summer gives us the story of the residents in and around Egg Fork, Kentucky, in Southern Appalachia. Three separate protagonists tell us their stories. Deanna Wolfe, a Forestry Service worker, living in an isolated cabin on a mountainside, where she maintains trails, monitors wildlife, and sends poachers packing. Lusa Landowski, an intelligent, educated “bug scientist” whose farmer husband dies, leaving her in the middle of nowhere with a family who doesn’t know what to make of her. And Garnett Walker, a nostalgic, conservative octogenarian who believes in chemical weed control, and longs to design a blight resistant chestnut tree variety.
At the beginning, we don’t know how the lives of these three people are (or will become) entwined, but along the way, they all find their lives upended and forever changed. This is a story about people, family, love and nature, and how those things can clash and mesh at the same time. A consequential benefit is how Kingsolver educates the reader about nature and farming and life in Appalachia. She does this within the context of the story, one character telling another through the course of their daily lives.
Ratings (For an explanation of my rating factors, please visit the Rating System Key page.)
Crack Factor – 9. Both times through, I found this book to be completely addicting.
Tears Shed Factor – ? This isn’t really the kind of book to make you cry, but it does make you laugh and you will feel for each character’s personal struggles.
Distraction Factor – 9. Kingsolver’s version of environmentalism will creep its way back to you when you least expect it. I let a spider web develop in the corner of my kitchen for two weeks until the maid service eventually swept it away…those little arachnids took care of many unwanted pests for me. You’ll definitely think twice before you squash a spider after reading this book.
Enrichment Factor – 10+. You will learn something new on almost every other page of this book: Complexities of eco systems, the importance of predators, the problems with modern agriculture, ceremonial religious foods, animal husbandry, combine casualties, you name it. Kingsolver leaves you smarter and more curious by the end of this book. And she’s not subtle about it either. More like she clubs you over the head with it. It’s a fictional lecture about many non-fictional challenges we face in our world.
PeopleFactor – 9.5. The best characters are ones with whom you not only fall in love, but with whom you grow as well. These characters aren’t stagnant. They all blossom during the course of this novel, opening themselves to new possibilities they never imagined would happen in their lives. They are richly drawn and loveably flawed, and I didn’t want to say goodbye to them. Kingsolver made teachers out of all of them, and I took away little tidbits of wisdom from each. The secondary characters are wonderful as well.
Story Telling Factor – 9. Kingsolver’s talent lies in displaying these three characters’ lives so that their connections are several layers deep. The second time through, I really noticed these subtle mentions, like little hidden treasures, right down to the discarded chair that one character misses and the other one enjoys.
Writing Skills Factor – 9.5. If forced to critique, I’d call Kingsolver preachy, but I think that’s more a philosophy critique than a writing one. Her prose is beautiful and clear and her characters’ personalities shine through. And since I believe her philosophy and count myself as one of her disciples, she’s not preachy to me.
Bad Ass Babe Factor – 9.5. Kingsolver’s female characters are SMART and worldly and wise and feminine.
Total Rating: 9.357