Monday, March 15, 2010

A Review of "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" By Barbara Kingsolver

In case anyone is interested, I had to write a review of a book surrounding the topic of global climate change. My life has been a little stressful lately, so I chose a more light-hearted and enjoyable read, but I thought I'd include this review on here because it might spark some interest in one or two of you who are still reading. The book was wonderful and I'd love to hear if any of you have read it. Sorry it's so long (there was a word count requirement :) )

If anyone ever wondered if they were cut out for local farm living, this book by Barbara Kingsolver showed the audience that it was a) a lot more difficult than it seems, and b) the benefits of a life lived so locally are innumerable and unsurpassable. Although the tone and purpose of the book was a little confusing at the beginning, as I completed the book, it felt as if this book was something that Kingsolver wrote for herself and those who love her. At times it felt like a journal, other times political platform, other times recipe book, and other times a fictional novel. This book, although seemingly written out of Kingsolver’s self-motivated pleasure, draws in an audience of interested and hungry readers who wonder how they too can tap into the human and healthy lifestyle of local living, if only for a moment.

Barbara Kingsolver is a beloved author of the most recent decades and is a true American gem of an author. Born and raised on a farm in rural Kentucky, she learned the importance of land and nature through her complete immersion in the dirt around her. She attended college at DePauw University in Indiana and majored in Biology. After graduation, she traversed the fields in Europe only to return to the University of Arizona where she received a masters degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. Kingsolver, always an avid writer, began writing full-time upon graduation in many forms from journalism to poetry to novels and was first noticed by HarperCollins Publishers with her first novel The Bean Trees. She wrote numerous other works, but her most popular and notable work was titled The Poisonwood Bible which was a fictional account of a Christian missionary family from the United States who travelled to Africa in hopes of conversion in all sense of the word. The impetus for the writing and publishing of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was the joint decision of Kingsolver’s family to move to the Appalachian region and learn to live with the land, rather than live off of it.

This book was broken down into the major moments of a year that is spent working on the land. From the perspective of someone like myself, I would have immediately assumed that there would have been four chapters coinciding with the seasons (but really, I could have been convinced that there are fewer remarkable moments on a farm than that since all I could imagine was “Little House on the Prairie”). In reality however, this book had 20 chapters and each one really did have something remarkable to focus on.

The first chapter, titled “Called Home” recounts Kingsolver’s decision, along with her family, to move their entire life to some place foreign yet intimately familiar. Kingsolver’s husband had owned a farm in the Appalachian region and the family had always enjoyed vacationing there, but it felt like it was time to make their vacationing simplicity a reality. The reality of the U.S. food industry had been weighing on their hearts, minds, and bellies, and they finally decided that their arid existence in Arizona was not sustainable. Kingsolver wanted her family to become educated in the production of food, complete from conception to death.

The next three chapters, titled respectively: “Waiting for Asparagus: Late March,” “Springing Forward,” and “Stalking Vegetannual,” described the jumping off point of this project, the beginning. Kingsolver painfully describes the family’s meeting to create a grocery list that lived up to the local living promise they had made. Imagining a young child and a teenager giving up refined sugar and processed food without much of a struggle, led me to believe that this book was more fiction than autobiographical. Kingsolver then goes on to inform the reader of the importance of heirloom seeds and their place in the farming industry. Throughout these chapters, the reader is interrupted with episodic moments of scientific information and shocking current statistics and trends, but also a little gem from her daughter which also included a recipe for great Spinach Lasagna.

The next three chapters “Molly Mooching: April,” “The Birds and the Bees,” and “Gratitude: May,” shift gears a little. The month of April was one where the Appalachian community came together to gather mushrooms. Kingsolver highlights the genius of communal living and small farms rather than large farms when thinking of sustainability, but then illustrates the joy her daughter had upon receiving her first baby chicks. Another moment that was beautifully narrated was the struggle Kingsolver had in finding ingredients to use for throwing a large birthday party while maintaining the local living pledge. These moments, which were so precious to read about, must have been even more beautiful to witness first-hand, yet they are so simple. As simple as digging in the dirt, looking at a child, and preparing food for a party. But they were completed with such thoughtfulness.

The following four chapters were completely focused on the month of June, titled: “Growing Trust: Mid-June,” “Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Late June,” “Eating Neighborly: Late June,” and “ Slow Food Nations: Late June.” These chapters focus on the struggles of farming, especially the struggles of small farms. Some of these struggles are par for the course - like long hours, sore muscles, cooking responsibilities, patience, etc. Other struggles are seemingly imposed by the U.S. economy’s reliance on immediacy - small farms trying to stay afloat alongside cheaper goods produced more quickly and less expensively by larger farms. But one joy that the large farms cannot take away is that of the communal living that small farm communities have, and this lifestyle cannot be replicated.

The remaining chapters follow a similar model that illustrates the real difficulties of farm living, both natural and unnatural, but also included moments of sadness at the current state of our world tempered with moments of grace found in a young child’s recipe. In the final chapter titled “Time Begins,” Kingsolver summarizes the year or local living while describing a turkey who had naturally given birth.

It’s hard to explain how irrationally proud I felt of this success. Their success, a mother’s and, in his clumsy way, a father’s too, but most of all these creatures who had pecked themselves heroically into the bright wide world to give this life a go (352).

The main objective of this book was, as was mentioned before, to show the world what local living and farm life looked like. Most of the readers will never live on a farm or grow their own tomatoes, but after reading this book, they may take a second to think about which tomato they choose at the grocery store, or contemplate who grew that tomato and what their life is like.

Kingsolver created a work of art that was simple and statistically complex at the same time. Her list of resources found in the back of the book reminded the reader of how much information they had just witnessed, but in a non-abrasive way. Not only did her reference section include a plethora of further reading, it also made it completely possible for the reader to take the next step and find a CSA or contact a local governmental agency regarding food. By including these references, Kingsolver revealed what her true intention for this book was: encouraging those who read this book to become more educated and to take the next step towards a sustainable life when considering food production.

I loved this book. I thought that the scattered episodes and interruptions of statistical information and recipes kept me guessing while at the same time not allowing me to get too disheartened or too wishy washy either. I loved and have always loved Kingsolver’s voice in her writing, but this autobiographical journey made me feel intimately connected with her family and her passions. I would have liked to have seen more examples of the struggles of this year because then I would have been able to identify with these characters more effectively. Maybe her family did not struggle any more than was illustrated, but for me, I know I would have had moments of weakness upon driving past a Dairy Queen, and I would have liked to have seen this human side of these characters I grew to love.

This book would be a great way to introduce a group of people to the environmental crisis that is looming and currently underway. It informs, educates, but also empowers the reader into action. Many books about such subject matter leave the reader feeling hopeless, and this was just the opposite. A book study or Sunday school class could really benefit from this especially if paired with some theological discussion about the relationship between humanity and the earth, possibly looking at the current Western interpretation of Genesis and the relationship of humans to earth in the creation story.

This book was a true testimony of how one person, one family, can make a difference when it comes to environmental degradation. I would recommend this book to those I wish to educate about climate change, but more specifically, I would recommend this book to those whom I love and respect.

Copyright 2009 Windy-Wisdom