Did you know that Barbara Kingsolver majored in biology in undergrad and earned a Master’s in biology in grad school? Needless to say, she has a lot of opinions about the natural world and our role in it. Kingsolver has been ahead of the curve when it comes to warning us about the consequences of our actions on this planet, and how by living in harmony with it, we can heal the earth and ourselves.
Oh and by the way, she went to university based on a music scholarship, but switched to biology while there. It’s no wonder Kingsolver is able to compose such lyrical tales. Below are just a few of the books she has offered us over the years. Her trademark style, which is never preachy and always inviting, writes to us as the guardians of our one and only home.
When an author is asked about their favorite book, they usually answer that it’s the one they were just working on. My favorite Kingsolver novel is Unsheltered, which is her most recent written in 2016. My copy of this novel has a foreword to the reader with her reasons for writing the book at the time, namely the uptick in natural disasters and the difficulty coming to an agreement over facts regarding climate change.
In the story, Kingsolver uses the advent of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species as an analogy to our approach to climate change in present day. Using one house, two sets of characters set over a hundred years apart but both reckoning with life-altering circumstances, and her writing alchemy, Kingsolver encourages us not to lose sight of the fact that there have been times of disagreement amongst us as human beings before, yet there has always been a way forward.
The Poisonwood Bible
Kingsolver moved to the Congo for a time with her family and that experience left a mark on her. This comes through in The Poisonwood Bible, perhaps her most famous novel thanks to its inclusion in Oprah's Book Club. In this story taking place over three decades, the Pierce family comes as missionaries to Africa. They intend to transform this space into their preconceived notions of home and community and teach the people there how to live a godly life.
Instead, they find that the people, the politics, and the land itself will forever transform them. After receiving accolades for the handling of the topic of appropriation, Kingsolver set up an endowment called the Bellwether Prize for Fiction to encourage the continued creation of literature that features social change.
Many new to Kingsolver have heard of this novel, in particular. The title clues in to the time frame that the reader will spend with the characters in this story, both human and otherwise. The reader is introduced to three story lines that intermingle, including Deanna Wolfe (her name is no coincidence) who is a ranger in Appalachia in the Zebulon National Forest.
She finds herself torn between a hunter from Wyoming and the coyote population that she studies. She has a passion for both the man and the beast but they are enemies to each other. This is a quintessential work of Kingsolver’s that takes human predicaments out of just their impact on humans and puts them in the context of the wider lens of the environment and the connection of all living things.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
This nonfiction book is where the biologist in Kingsolver speaks directly and invites you to participate in the treasures that Mother Nature has to offer in intangible experiences and in her tangible food bounty. Go beyond thinking existentially about how you could have a positive impact on this planet and follow her family living in rural Virginia on a year-long experiment to eat as locally as possible including growing their own food.
This book was written in 2007 and may have been the reason the word "locavore" is in the dictionary today. Grab the latest edition that has a 10-year retrospective by Kingsolver and all her family members on how that time period living off the land in Appalachia impacted them.
Here, Kingsolver turns her attention (and therefore ours) on the West and the Native American experience. Once again the story is influenced by real life experiences of Kingsolver during her time spent in Arizona.
This novel also weaves in the drama of the human experience due to the problems that inherently arise from human relationships and the effects that circle back to humans when they have not been good stewards of the earth. Animal Dreams explores Native American customs, the fallout of pollution from mining and the relatable conundrum of understanding one’s own identity. This novel won the Edward Abbey Award for Ecofiction.
How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons)
Kingsolver tells her stories in miniature form in this, her second book of poetry. In this collection that's accessible even to those who don't normally read poetry, Kingsolver explores what has been in front of us the whole time but was too small to notice. She also examines those bigger concepts of love and death, which we cannot see at all.
As in the title of the book, she offers up what seem to be straightforward instructions on how to fly (or live) with the caveat that there is a magic to living that cannot be taught or dissected.
Perhaps particularly relevant in this year of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, this book of essays is a response Kingsolver had to those events in 2001. In full transparency, she does start off this nonfiction work with a parable, but it serves to ready us for what’s to come. After that, she is speaking quite directly to us as readers and as fellow passengers on this rotating planet.
Kingsolver is contemplative about our world in big ways and in the tiniest moments. She forces us to confront what we believe to be true and challenge it with another point of view. The themes range from the joyful to those that make us uncomfortable to discuss openly.
Whatever you choose to read, there is a through line to all of Kingsolver’s writings. She challenges us to contemplate what story we ultimately want to write with the actions of our life choices.