Barbara Kingsolver's reputation achieved something like critical (and commercial) mass with The Poisonwood Bible (1998). Her three earlier novels, The Bean Trees (1988), Animal Dreams (1990) and Pigs in Heaven (1993), built a considerable readership, particularly among women, as offbeat, eco-feminist romances, and Kingsolver could have gone on repeating the elements that made those books popular: independent females vaguely adrift in the U.S. Southwest with strong views on such matters as honoring Native American rights and sheltering Latin American political refugees. But she extended her range dramatically in Poisonwood, a long, incantatory meditation, filtered through the memories of an American mother and her four daughters, on the evils of Western colonialism in Africa. Because of its subject and geopolitical sweep, the novel attracted admiring comparisons to the works of Joseph Conrad and Nadine Gordimer.
With Poisonwood still riding near the top of paperback charts, thanks at least in part to its June selection by the Oprah Book Club, here comes Kingsolver's new novel, Prodigal Summer (HarperCollins; 444 pages; $26), which is something of a return to the author's earlier form. It is an altogether lighter and more easygoing affair than its immediate predecessor. Its setting has narrowed from the vast heart of Africa to a mountain and valley in southern Appalachia over the course of a single hot and unusually rainy summer. Its subject is not the clash of ideologies but the rhythms of nature and man's misguided attempts to interfere with them.
Yet in Prodigal Summer there is, despite the relaxed tone, Kingsolver's by now trademark didacticism. She does not subscribe to the view that novelists with a message ought to send a telegram. It can be no accident that three of the four main characters in the novel have worked as teachers in the past and aren't at all shy about giving lectures.
Deanna Wolfe, 47, lives alone in a cabin up on Zebulon Mountain performing a "hybrid job" for the National Park Service and the Forest Service. The appearance of a handsome drifter named Eddie Bondo unsettles her sexually--"A pulse of electricity ran up the insides of her thighs like lightning ripping up two trees at once, leaving her to smolder or maybe burst into flames"--and disturbs her in another way. She has discovered a nest of coyotes on the mountain, the first sighting in the region in decades, and Bondo, who grew up on a sheep ranch in Wyoming, hates coyotes.
Meanwhile, down in the valley, the newly widowed Lusa Maluf Landowski--"My mom's parents were Palestinians, and my dad's were Jews from Poland"--struggles with the farm her husband has left her and tries to think of something profitable to grow besides tobacco. She complains to a sister-in-law, "We're sitting on some of the richest dirt on this planet, and I'm going to grow drugs instead of food?" And on farms nearby, Garnett Walker III, nearly 80, a widower for eight years, maintains a long-running battle with his neighbor Nannie Rawley, 75, over her refusal to use pesticides on her apple orchards, thereby inundating, he is convinced, his land with bugs.