Synopses & Reviews
Plot Summary We don't think of ourselves as having extended families. We look at you guys and "think you have contracted families.
- Annawake Fourkiller in "Pigs in Heaven"
" Women on their own run in Alice's family." So thinks Alice Greer, sixty-one years old, as she is about to leave her second husband, Harland; and the novel appears to offer no argument against this. She, her daughter Taylor, and Taylor's informally adopted daughter, Turtle, all seem fated to lives uncomplicated by relationships with men. But simplicity is gone forever when Taylor and Turtle (who is Cherokee) appear on TV by a coincidence of fate, and come to the attention of Annawake Fourkiller, a lawyer for the Cherokee nation. Taylor finds herself in a conflict between her own and what she thinks of as Turtle's best interests, and those of the tribe. Citing the Indian Welfare Act, which states that all adoptions of Native American children must be authorized by their tribes, Annawake detrmines to try to invalidate Turtle's adoption. Meanwhile, fearing that she will lose her daughter, Taylor takes Turtle and flees Arizona, leaving behind her devoted boyfriend, Jax. Along the way to resolution of this seemingly irresolvable conflict, many lives are changed.
-1993 Los Angeles Book Award for Fiction
-1994 Mountain and Plains Booksellers Association Award
Kingsolver on Pigs in Heaven:
" Every book I write begins with a question. With Pigs in Heaven the question had to do with ideas of community and individualism, and how we can integrate those very different -- sometimes even antagonistic--senses of value. Living in the West, I've seen many real-life cases of Native Americankids who've been taken outside their tribes to be raised by non-native parents, and whose tribes later want them brought back. The way these cases are played out in the media is very telling. The mainstream media focus on the adoptive mother and child; that's a holy icon, literally, in our culture. The news stories ask, how can it be in the best interest of this child to lose its children? When you think about it, those questions are coming from very different assumptions about what is most important in this world. What's best for the individual? What's best for the group? Those questions seem to pass each other in the air. I began to wonder if there was any point of intersection in that dialogue. I decided to try to write a story that would compel you to think, and laugh, and really love both sides of that particular fight.
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Topics for Discussion
1. When Annawake first meets Taylor, she states the book's central problem this way: " There's the child's best interest and the tribe's best interest, and I'm trying to think of both things." What is Turtle's best interest -- in Taylor's view? in the tribe's view? in your view? Did the book change the way you might respond to such a case if you read about it in the newspaper? Do you think the events of the novel relate at all to the complexities of interethnic adoptions in general? Particularly in a racist society?
2. What motivates Taylor when she runs away? What motivates Annawake's pursuit of Taylor? How do you feel about these two women? In what ways are they similar? How do they change, and why?
3. Talking to Annawake, Jax poses the question: " How can youbelong to a tribe, and be your own person, at the same time? You can't. If you're verifiably one, you're not the other." (chp. 15, " Communion" ). Are there ways to reconcile the claims of individuality and those of the group? Does the novel suggest any of them? What does Alice discover, for instance, during the stomp dance (in Chp. 26, " Old Flame" )? How do the values of the Cherokee community described here differ from those of dominant U.S. culture, particularly around this question of community vs. individualism?
4. The novel seems to suggest that cultural emphasis on independence, mobility, and self-reliance can lead to loneliness and alienation. How do individual characters -- Alice, Barbie, Rose, Cash, Taylor, Jax -- reflect this view of independence as isolation? Do you agree with the novel's judgement? How have you, or people you know about, been affected by the cultural celebration of " self-reliance?" Do you think men and women relate differently to this cultural value?
5. In explaining why it's important for the tribe to get Turtle back, Annawake tells Alice, " We've been through a holocaust as devastating as what happened to the Jews, and we need to keep what's left of our family together" (Chp. 27, " Family Stories" ). How does the novel go about demonstrating the validity of this comparison? How do you feel about it? How should people living today deal with histories of oppression?
6. The title, Pigs in Heaven, refers to the Cherokee legend about the six bad boys that got turned into pigs before their mother's eyes. Annawake tells this story -- in two entirely different ways -- on page 87 and again on page 313. Howdoes this story, in its two versions, demonstrate the book's theme, and Annawake's growth? In what other ways do pigs enter the story, as symbols of renegade individualism and community spirit?
7. How -- physically and spiritually -- does povery affect people's lives? How does poverty affect Taylor? Does this novel offer a judgement on poor people? On our society's attitudes towards poor people?
8. The novel is divided into three sections: Spring, Summer, and Fall, written in English and Cherokee. What significance for you is there in the fact that the novel is structured according to the cycles of nature, ending during harvest, just short of winter?
9. When Cash shoots his TV at the end, it's a rather complex image. If you think about the other scenes in which TVs and TV-watching figure, or how TV may be said to function in the U.S. culture at large, what possible meanings might his gesture have?
10. Occasionally, readers have felt that Kingsolver's heroines and endings are idealized -- that is, too good to be true. How do you feel about this criticism? First of all, would you agree that this is so in Pigs in Heaven ? Second, do you think that good fiction ought not to idealize its characters or situations?
Tips for Running Book Discussions
Many groups have found it helpful to choose a group member to be the facilitator for each discussion. The facilitator might bring in biographical and other outside information about the author and book, come prepared with a set of topics for discussion, and keep the conversation moving and on track.
One good way to generate discussion is to have everyone write down a comment or question on an index card at the beginning ofthe group. Then make a pile of the cards, select and talk about them in random order. Or you might simply go around the room, with each person raising a topic for discussion.
If you plan to use the discussion topics in this guide, here are some suggestions. Try tossing out only the first couple of questions in a cluster to see if they stimulate discussion. I
Six-year-old Turtle Greer witnesses a freak accident at the Hoover Dam, leading to a man's dramatic rescue. But Turtle's moment of celebrity draws her into a crisis of historical proportions that will envelop not only her and her mother, Taylor, but everyone else who touched their lives in a complex web connecting their future with their past. With this wise, compelling novel, the acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, and Animal Dreams vividly renders a world of heartbreak and redeeming love as she defines and defies the boundaries of family, and illuminates the many separate truths about the ties that bind us and tear us apart.
About the Author
Barbara Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955. She grew up "in the middle of an alfalfa field," in the part of eastern Kentucky that lies between the opulent horse farms and the impoverished coal fields. While her family has deep roots in the region, she never imagined staying there herself. "The options were limited--grow up to be a farmer or a farmer's wife."
Kingsolver has always been a storyteller: "I used to beg my mother to let me tell her a bedtime story." As a child, she wrote stories and essays and, beginning at the age of eight, kept a journal religiously. Still, it never occurred to Kingsolver that she could become a professional writer. Growing up in a rural place, where work centered mainly on survival, writing didn't seem to be a practical career choice. Besides, the writers she read, she once explained, "were mostly old, dead men. It was inconceivable that I might grow up to be one of those myself . . . "
Kingsolver left Kentucky to attend DePauw University in Indiana, where she majored in biology. She also took one creative writing course, and became active in the last anti-Vietnam War protests. After graduating in 1977, Kingsolver lived and worked in widely scattered places. In the early eighties, she pursued graduate studies in biology and ecology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she received a Masters of Science degree. She also enrolled in a writing class taught by author Francine Prose, whose work Kingsolver admires.
Kingsolver's fiction is rich with the language and imagery of her native Kentucky. But when she first left home, she says, "I lost my accent . . . [P]eople made terrible fun of me for the way I used to talk, so I gave it up slowly and became something else." During her years in school and two years spent living in Greece and France she supported herself in a variety of jobs: as an archaeologist, copy editor, X-ray technician, housecleaner, biological researcher and translator of medical documents. After graduate school, a position as a science writer for the University of Arizona soon led her into feature writing for journals and newspapers. Her numerous articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Nation, The New York Times, and Smithsonian, and many of them are included in the collection, High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never. In 1986 she won an Arizona Press Club award for outstanding feature writing, and in 1995, after the publication of High Tide in Tucson, Kingsolver was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from her alma mater, De Pauw University.
Kingsolver credits her careers in scientific writing and journalism with instilling in her a writer's discipline and broadening her "fictional possiblities." Describing herself as a shy person who would generally prefer to stay at home with her computer, she explains that "journalism forces me to meet and talk with people I would never run across otherwise."
From 1985 through 1987, Kingsolver was a freelance journalist by day, but she was writing fiction by night. Married to a chemist in 1985, she suffered from insomnia after becoming pregnant the following year. Instead of following her doctor's recommendation to scrub the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush, Kingsolver sat in a closet and began to write The Bean Trees, a novel about a young woman who leaves rural Kentucky (accent intact) and finds herself living in urban Tucson.
The Bean Trees, published by HarperCollins in 1988, and reissued in a special ten-year anniversary hardcover edition in 1998, was enthusiastically received by critics. But, perhaps more important to Kingsolver, the novel was read with delight and, even, passion by ordinary readers. "A novel can educate to some extent," she told Publishers Weekly. "But first, a novel has to entertain--that's the contract with the reader: you give me ten hours and I'll give you a reason to turn every page. I have a commitment to accessiblity. I believe in plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want the people I grew up with--who may not often read anything but the Sears catalogue--to read my books."
For Kingsolver, writing is a form of political activism. When she was in her twenties she discovered Doris Lessing. "I read the Children of Violence novels and began to understand how a person could write about the problems of the world in a compelling and beautiful way. And it seemed to me that was the most important thing I could ever do, if I could ever do that."
The Bean Treeswas followed by the collection, Homeland and Other Stories(1989), the novels Animal Dreams(1990), and Pigs in Heaven(1993), and the bestselling High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now and Never(1995). Kingsolver has also published a collection of poetry, Another America: Otra America(Seal Press, 1992, 1998), and a nonfiction book, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of l983(ILR Press/Cornell University Press, 1989, 1996). The Poisonwood Bible, published in 1998, earned accolades at home and abroad, and was an Oprah's Book Club selection.
Barbara's Prodigal Summer, released in November of 2000, is a novel set in a rural farming community in southern Appalachia. Small Wonder, April 2002, presents twenty-three wonderfully articulate essays. Here Barbara raises her voice in praise of nature, family, literature, and the joys of everyday life while examining the genesis of war, violence, and poverty in our world.
Barbara Kingsolver presently lives outside of Tucson with her husband Steven Hopp, and her two daughters, Camille from a previous marriage, and Lily, who was born in 1996. When not writing or spending time with her family, Barbara gardens, cooks, hikes, and works as an environmental activist and human-rights advocate.
Given that Barbara Kingsolver's work covers the psychic and geographical territories that she knows firsthand, readers often assume that her work is autobiographical. "There are little things that people who know me might recognize in my novels," she acknowledges. "But my work is not about me. I don't ever write about real people. That would be stealing, first of all. And second of all, art is supposed to be better than that. If you want a slice of life, look out the window. An artist has to look out that window, isolate one or two suggestive things, and embroider them together with poetry and fabrication, to create a revelation. If we can't, as artists, improve on real life, we should put down our pencils and go bake bread."