I believe that there are a few authors who really speak to each of us in an extremely personal and almost eery way. Maybe they’re not always on the mark, maybe every piece of work they churn out isn’t our favorite, but in some small way, their writing has made a profound and unparalleled impact on us that will forever burn their names in our hearts and minds.
This is how I feel about Barbara Kingsolver. I haven’t been able to fully immerse myself in all of her novels, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really moved me in a way that few pieces of nonfiction have ever been able to and so did her collection of short essays entitled Small Wonder.
Inspired by the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Kingsolver meditates on a wide range of issues, most of them pertaining to what it means to be an American and what it means to be a parent. Bolstered by Third World parables, stories of foreign travel, anecdotes from her own family life, and a revolutionary sensibility inspired by the likes of Susan B. Anthony, Emma Goldman, and Martin Luther King Jr., Kingsolver has woven a stunning fabric of truth and authenticity that makes the personal political.
The thing I find most inspiring about Kingsolver is her optimism, her belief in the goodness of human nature and the potential for change. Nearly all of her ideas ultimately come back to love, peace, and respect. Though she may write on international conflicts, humanitarian crises, the domestic homeless population, or the war on terror, her views are remarkably accessible to all because they are grounded upon the small wonders of everyday life. The love a mother feels for her chid, the comfort of having a family to come home to, the right to live a healthy life – these are the things upon which she frames her larger critiques and interpretations of modern American society.
Armed these so-called revolutionary standpoints, Kingsolver’s point is not to inspire guilt about the wasteful and selfish ways of America, but rather to inspire a sense of responsibility to make a change. Despite the many national decisions made with which she entirely disagrees, Kingsolver does not allow these discrepancies between her country’s ideals and her own to diminish her sense of national pride. Instead, she draws upon the same ideas that inspired the founders of our nation as she holds out hope that change is possible. The United States holds the resources and the power to be a role model, to make changes that will improve the whole world, not just our small corner of it. Kingsolver implores us to take that potential and do something productive with it, to create a movement to spend our money more wisely and generously while restoring our sense of contentment grounded in something other than our latest purchase at the mall.
Kingsolver dreams of an America that cares just as much about its homeless citizens as those that are safely housed with their families every night. She envisions a country where the local independents can thrive, where unnecessary desires and obsession with consumption takes a backseat to the simple joy of working to put food on the table and fulfillment from relationships and family. As a storyteller, Kingsolver’s imagination is obviously in great form but this ideal US is not some unattainable dreamland in her head. Reading the pieces contained within Small Wonder will make you realize how possible and necessary these changes can be, from the impact of harvesting vegetables in your own garden, to caring about your fellow citizen enough to sacrifice a few dollars of luxury spending.
Small Wonder will make you reconsider what you thought you knew, and it will raise questions you may have never thought to ask before. But Kingsolver will also undoubtedly instill in you a sense of hope and the revolutionary spirit to alter your life for the betterment of yourself, future generations, and those in need all around. And she’ll perform this great feat of inspiration by pulling on the most fundamental and universal of human heartstrings: love and family.