In this lesson on American writer Barbara Kingsolver, you’ll learn about her life, her major literary awards, and a couple of her best-selling books. You can test your understanding at the end with a short quiz.
Barbara Kingsolver, prolific American novelist, poet, and essayist, never set out to be famous, but fame found her anyway. Kingsolver once said, ‘I never wanted to be famous, and still don’t…the universe rewarded me with what I dreaded most.
‘ Heck, she didn’t even want a website, but she finally put one up because there were so many fake ones about her on the Internet! She might not want the spotlight, but she’s earned it. Kingsolver is a current American writer who is a literary threat on multiple fronts. She’s published novels, stories, poems, essays, and book-length non-fiction.
Barbara Kingsolver was born in 1955, and she really started her literary career at the age of 30 when she began publishing as a freelance writer. She’s written so extensively that she can honestly claim to have been published in nearly every major newspaper and magazine.
Kingsolver has a wealth of experiences to draw upon in her writing. As a child, her family moved to what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa to work on public health matters. They lived there without electricity or running water. Kingsolver also lived in France for a year, and later, after having a child of her own, she spent a year in the Canary Islands.
It’s not just that she’s moved around a lot; Barbara Kingsolver is a writer who has been exposed to a lot of ideas. She studied classical piano in college but graduated with a degree in biology. She has been both a war protestor and a science writer, and she even has a graduate degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. With a past like that, there’s no wonder that her fiction is packed with travel, conflict, politics, and a nice dose of science.Kingsolver not only rocks at writing, but for a few years, she rocked the stage as part of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band made of famous writers like Amy Tan (Joy Luck Club), Matt Groening (The Simpsons), and some guy named Stephen King.
Barbara Kingsolver has racked up on the medals in her literary career, and some of her awards are rather unconventional. For instance, she is a recipient of the James Beard Award. No, that’s not a medal for best facial hair; it’s a prize generally reserved for the best chefs in the world. It’s also given to the best food writers, and Kingsolver won it for her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Her greatest achievement came in 2000 when President Clinton presented her with the National Humanities Medal, the highest honor in the United States for service through the arts.
The Poisonwood Bible
If you’re in high school, or if you’ve been through the joys of high school English, the Kingsolver book you’re most likely to have read is The Poisonwood Bible.
This one is about a family from America that moves to the Congo and has to deal with a new culture and a sudden lack of modern conveniences, like electricity and running water. Hey, wait a minute! If you think that sounds like Kingsolver’s childhood, you win a prize, but it’s really only loosely based on her own experiences.The book is about a family of missionaries, the Price family. They might look all peachy on the outside, but when they have to deal with the culture shock of the Congo, their flaws come bubbling to the surface. Think back, if you’re old enough, to the dawn of competition reality TV – the first big season of Survivor.
You have a bunch of people taken out of their comfortable modern environments and thrown onto an island that forced them well outside of their comfort zones.Viewers got one taste of that show, and they were hooked! Survivor launched that series in 2000, two years after the publication of The Poisonwood Bible, and the Kingsolver novel has a plot line that’s just as gripping and characters that are considerably more memorable. Plus, her book has some real social commentary about religion and science and culture, but even if you read it and miss all that deep stuff, you still get a great book about a family that has to learn to adapt to a difficult situation, and like Survivor, someone gets voted off the island, so to speak.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
More recently, the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has gathered a lot of attention.
Have you ever heard the term localvore? It’s become one of those buzzwords, and it refers to someone who attempts to only eat food made from local ingredients. If that sounds easy to you, then you might be living on a farm in the 1700s, and you’re viewing this video through your magic futurescope, because these days the average plate of food travels 1,500 miles before it arrives on your table!Even if you manage to raise most of your food on your farm, you’ll have to do without many modern ingredients, like olive oil, sugar, or coffee. And that’s just the start of the list! In 2005, Kingsolver and her family of four decided to go as local as possible. They grew their own veggies, raised chickens, and learned to can the extras.
The book propelled the localvore movement into the national spotlight, and it also opened thousands of eyes to problems with our modern food industry. Sure a bowl of lettuce only has 80 calories, but did you know that it takes around 4,600 calories of energy produced by burning fossil fuels to get the salad to your table?Kingsolver’s family not only felt better about the lack of fossil fuels needed for their meals, but they enjoyed the lack of pesticides and preservatives. She writes, ‘Households that have lost the soul of cooking from their routines may not know what they are missing: the song of a stir-fry sizzle, the small talk of clinking measuring spoons, the yeasty scent of rising dough, the painting of flavors onto a pizza before it slides into the oven.’
Barbara Kingsolver has had a life full of rich experiences, and those show up in her wide variety of literary works.
Her novels, poems, stories, and essays deal with political, religious, scientific, and cultural issues, but they remain easy for readers to access. Kingsolver knows how to balance heavy ideas with gripping situations.Her most widely read books are The Poisonwood Bible and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. The first one tackles cultural issues when an American missionary family moves to Africa, while the second sheds light on the corporate food industry and the challenges (and rewards) of being a localvore – a person who strives to only eat locally produced food.
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Recall the early years of Barbara Kingsolver
- Identify the topics of her best known works, The Poisonwood Bible and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life