It’s felt like a long time since I’ve been able to absorb myself in a lengthy book. My reading recently has been fitful and focused; a tight, sharp jab at something specific, not without reward but lacking in patience. This book didn’t have a particularly auspicious provenance. I picked this up at the library book sale for the vast sum of 20p perhaps five or more years ago, certainly before the Manchester Central Library refurbishment which stripped the heart out of that glorious place (the pulping remains unforgivable). Perhaps it was the cheapness of the book itself which has held me from reading it. I have wondered about this a great deal, particularly recently, about my capacity for collecting and shelving and never getting around to reading books. Had it cost me £20, perhaps I would have read it immediately. Maybe it is easy not to value books that are immoderately cheap.
Immoderately cheap it may have been, but it’s not a cheap read at all. Instead I found myself entraced by a book bursting with life, a fullsome, luscious read that hooked me with its primal beauty. The book comprises three intertwined stories, all set around the town of Egg Fork in the deep country. The characters in the stories are all linked in a way, though none of them really know it, and the stories explore the idea of community and isolation, family and the relationships humans hold with nature. It’s a frail connection which strengthens as each story develops adding to that sense of being drawn in, as a biologist might be drawn deeper into an understanding of their subject until the relationship becomes more than that of subject an object, something symbiotic. Connected.
One story, Predators, follows Deanna, a woman who has chosen to live in isolation on the Zebulon Mountain, acting as gamekeeper, warden and protector of the wild environment. When the story begins Deanna is tracking something, coyotes she thinks, which have arrived at her mountain for the first time. Coyotes, predators in general, are a love of Deanna’s, the subject of her thesis and something she’d been desiring to encounter her whole life. What she encounters instead is a different kind of predator, in the form of Eddie Bondo, a drifter and a hunter whose presence threatens the successful integration of the coyote population. Deanna enters into a passionate relationship with Eddie, one that is constantly conflicted by the knowledge that she seeks to protect and he aims to destroy and in which she seeks to turn the certainty of his hatred into a grudging respect of the role of predators in the ecosystem.
“The hemlock grove was on a tributary that fed Bitter Creek, in a strange, narrow hollow where long updrafts carried sound peculiarly well. Sometimes she’d heard sounds all the way up from the valley: a dog barking, or even the high, distant whine of trucks on the interstate. That was in winter, though, when the trees were bare. Today, as she worked to pry up boards, she heard mostly the heavy quiet that precedes a summer evening, before the katydids start up, when the forest’s sounds are still separated by long silences. A squirrel overhead scolded her halfheartedly, then stopped. A sapsucker worked its way around a pine trunk. Eddie Bondo had spoken of acorn woodpeckers he’d seen in the West, funny creatures that worked together to drill a dead tree full of little holes, cached thousands of acrons in them, and then spent the rest of their days defending their extravagent treasure from marauding neighbours. How pointless life could be, what a foolish business of inventing things to love, just so you could dread losing them.”
The second part of the story, Moth Love, follows Lusa, an outsider to Egg Fork who married into the Widener family only to lose her husband Cole in an unfortunate motor vehicle accident shortly after their marriage. Lusa, who is from the ‘city’ (for want of a better name, a larger town perhaps), who is of mixed race and who had spent most of her life studying the life cycle of the moth, finds herself inheriting the farm and an extended family she has not learned to trust and who seem to dislike her. Lusa has to find her own path, one, too, which minimises destruction, whilst respecting the intricacies of the lives of her in-laws and the tenacity of those who seek to make a living, as best they can, from the land around them.
The final story, Old Chestnuts, follows Garnett Walker, an old man who is trying in his dying years to cross breed a strain of the American chestnut tree which had been largely wiped out by blight in his youth. Garnett’s wife died several years ago and much of his attention is now focused on his ongoing feud with his neighbour Nannie Rawley who runs an organic apple farm. Garnett and Nannie have a fundamental disagreement on the use of pesticides which fuels their endless bickerings and misunderstandings. Both Garnett and Nannie are old and grumpy and rigid in their own ways, but they are both, too, deeply caring individuals, flawed perhaps, but all the more humane for it.
The three stories interweave throughout the book, revealing more of their character’s ideas, philosophies and dilemmas as they develop. Running through all of their stories is the idea of environment, of community, of the ways in which we can misunderstand both each other and the functioning of other creatures around us. With the exception of Garnett, all of the characters are seeking to live in a more balanced way with the world around them, not pretending that we do not use and consume other creatures, that we will kill those that don’t serve us, but allowing nature rather than violent human interventions (bullets, chemicals) to perform that service. Through Deanna we come to see the role predators play in controlling the populations of creatures that we might otherwise deem pests. Through Lusa we learn how following the traditional use of land does not necessarily yield the results we desire. Garnett is the anomaly, because whilst he espouses ideas which seem to oppose this concept of balanced, natural approaches, his commitment to the reintegration of a native species – the American chestnut – shows that he, too, is committed to his environment, recognising what belongs and what does not. And through his relationship – tetchy and grudging as it is – with Nannie Rawley that he comes to understand that nature has been helping him along the way, although he didn’t realise it.
Prodigal Summer is a glorious book, it is like a long, perfectly balanced summer full of warmth and thunder, just the right amount of rain, lush green valleys ripe with fruits and wild butterflies and all the gorgeous abudance of nature. It is a book which shows how delicate the balance of nature is, and how foolish we are when we seek to control without understanding it. Wiping out predators without knowing how reliant we are upon them, thoughtlessly destroying a whole population of trees out of curiosity for something new. But this question of understanding ripples not just through the relationship of human and animal, but through the relationships of human and human too. As communities we are reliant upon each other, we need to listen and learn and care because in that balanced space between us it is possible to find greater meaning, a way of being that allows us all space to breathe. Kingsolver manages to interweave all of these things in three breathtakingly humane stories which show how something woven together from disparate materials can become something much greater than anything standing alone.