Examining the Ecological and Sociopolitical Commentaries in Barbara Kingsolver’s Work


There must be limits, somewhere, to the human footprint on this earth. When the whole of the world is reduced to nothing but human product, we will have lost the map that can show us how we got here, and can offer our spirits an answer when we ask why. Surely we are capable of declaring sacred some quarters that we dare not enter or possess.

Page 87, Small Wonder (2002) by Barbara Kingsolver, Faber & Faber

These words by acclaimed author and activist Barbara Kingsolver encapsulate the tone and essence of her literary oeuvre. Throughout her illustrious career, Kingsolver has consistently produced thought-provoking novels and nonfiction books that delve deep into the sociopolitical fabric of humanity and the ecological quandaries that we currently face.

From her debut novel, The Bean Trees (1988), to her award-winning masterpieces, The Poisonwood Bible (1998) and Demon Copperhead (2022), and to her bestselling nonfiction book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007), Kingsolver’s works offer profound commentaries on a wide range of social, ecological, and political issues. With her unique blend of storytelling and insightful observations, Kingsolver invites readers to engage critically with her narratives, prompting introspection and amplifying the urge for change.

Kingsolver’s Portrayal of Nature and Ecological Issues

Kingsolver’s portrayal of nature and ecological issues in her books is a central theme that runs throughout her body of work. In both her novels and nonfiction books, she weaves narratives that underscore the intricate relationship between humans and the natural world, advocating for environmental awareness and sustainability.

Kingsolver’s work not only entertains but also educates, urging her readers to reflect on their relationship with the world around them. Her portrayal of nature and ecological issues is both a warning and a beacon of hope, offering pathways toward a more sustainable and harmonious existence with the earth. Kingsolver’s narratives are a testament to the power of literature to inspire change, making her one of the most important environmental voices in contemporary fiction.

The Bean Trees

Through the arid landscapes of rural Kentucky and, later, Arizona, Kingsolver transports readers to the American Southwest in her debut novel, The Bean Trees. Using her book as a vehicle, she provides a context for ecological discussions regarding the importance of land and the environment.

Through the eyes of her protagonist, Taylor Greer, she highlights the harsh beauty of the desert, drawing attention to the delicate balance of life in such a challenging environment, with the theme of human connection to the earth subtly interwoven with the protagonist’s journey toward self-discovery.

kentucky transitioning arizona as depicted in barbara kingsolvers book the bean trees

Kingsolver uses the growth of plants and the care of the earth as metaphors for human relationships and community, suggesting that nurturing our environment is synonymous with nurturing each other.

Through Taylor’s experiences, Kingsolver sheds light on the challenges faced by individuals navigating through life’s unexpected twists and turns. Along the way, she encounters a series of unexpected events and forms deep connections with a diverse group of individuals, including a young Native American girl named Turtle.

One key passage in The Bean Trees that exemplifies Kingsolver’s exploration of environmental concerns is when Taylor witnesses a chemical spill in a river. She describes the scene with vivid imagery, stating, “The water was the color of a rusty bathtub, and the stink was enough to gag a buzzard. I thought about what it would be like to drink that water and live with it day after day. I thought about the fish and the birds and the turtles and the snakes, all the creatures living in it, and what it would be like for them.”

Through this passage, Kingsolver not only highlights the immediate impact of the spill on the river and its inhabitants but also prompts readers to consider the long-term consequences of such environmental disasters. By focusing on the interconnectedness of all living things, Kingsolver emphasizes the importance of recognizing the human-nature relationship and the responsibility we have towards the environment.

The Poisonwood Bible

In The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver takes a different approach to exploring ecological themes by setting the story in the Congo during the 1960s. The novel follows the Price family, who move to the African country as Christian missionaries. As the narrative unfolds, Kingsolver weaves in themes of deforestation, exploitation of natural resources, and the consequences of colonialism on the environment.

Through the perspectives of the Price women—Orleanna and her four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May—Kingsolver skillfully weaves together the voices of multiple narrators, each offering a unique perspective on the ecological and cultural clashes that shape their lives. Each character represents a different viewpoint and how they experience the Congo in a unique way, allowing readers to witness the complexities of the ecological as well as the sociopolitical landscape’s impact on both the locals and the Price family.

The novel also serves as a critique of Western influence and imperialism, shedding light on the historical and present-day consequences of colonization. Through the narrative of a missionary family’s tragic unraveling, Kingsolver critiques Western colonial exploitation of the environment, highlighting the devastating consequences of imposing foreign agricultural methods on the Congolese ecosystem. The novel is a poignant reminder of the delicate balance between human endeavors and the natural order.

One significant character in The Poisonwood Bible who embodies Kingsolver’s concerns about environmental sustainability is Nathan Price, the patriarch of the Price family. Nathan’s relentless pursuit of converting the Congolese people to Christianity and his disregard for the natural world around him symbolize the destructive nature of human arrogance and ignorance towards the environment. Kingsolver uses Nathan as a vehicle to critique the exploitative and unsustainable practices that have plagued the Congo and other parts of the world.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

Diverging from fiction, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a nonfiction narrative that chronicles Kingsolver and her family’s year-long experiment to live on locally produced food. This book is a powerful testament to Kingsolver’s commitment to environmental sustainability, critiquing the global industrial food complex and advocating for a return to more sustainable farming and food consumption practices.

Unlike her fictional narratives, this book presents a real-life experiment undertaken by Kingsolver and her family, who commit to a year of eating foods either grown by themselves or sourced locally. It celebrates the connection between the land and the food we eat, emphasizing the importance of understanding and respecting this connection for the health of our planet.

Kingsolver uses her family’s journey to highlight the broader ecological imperative of rethinking our food systems. She delves into the issues of biodiversity loss, soil degradation, and the perilous reliance on fossil fuels inherent in modern agriculture.

sustainable living as depicted in barbara kingsolvers book animal vegetable miracle

The narrative is interspersed with discussions on the importance of heirloom seed preservation, organic farming practices, and the potential for regeneration of land through thoughtful, sustainable food production. Kingsolver’s story is a testament to the idea that individual and collective choices about food can be a powerful form of engagement with and protection of our ecological systems.

Kingsolver also includes seasonal recipes, gardening tips, and resources for readers interested in making similar lifestyle changes. This educational aspect is integral to Kingsolver’s portrayal of nature and ecological issues, emphasizing that awareness and action are key to environmental stewardship.

Kingsolver’s narrative suggests that by choosing how and what we eat, we can forge a more sustainable and ethical relationship with the environment, one that honors the land, supports biodiversity, and nurtures our bodies and communities. The book argues that such a reconnection can transform our understanding of food from a commodity to be consumed into a vital link with the earth and its cycles.

Flight Behavior

Flight Behavior (2012) tackles the pressing issue of climate change through the lens of a small Appalachian community confronted with an unusual ecological phenomenon. Kingsolver deftly explores the intersections of science, faith, and rural life, bringing to the fore the immediate realities of climate change for those living on the front lines. The novel serves as a call to action, urging readers to acknowledge and respond to the environmental crises shaping our world.

Set in the Appalachian Mountains, the story revolves around Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman who stumbles upon a valley filled with what appears to be a lake of fire but is actually millions of monarch butterflies. This unusual phenomenon sets the stage for a deep exploration of ecological issues, human interaction with nature, and the complexities surrounding the climate crisis.

monarch butterflies as depicted in barbara kingsolvers novel flight behavior

Kingsolver uses the monarch butterflies’ altered migratory pattern as a vivid symbol of the broader environmental shifts affecting our planet. She skillfully uses this anomaly to delve into the science of climate change, presenting it in a manner that is accessible and compelling to the reader.

Through the protagonist’s journey of discovery, the novel educates its audience about the dire consequences of global warming, highlighting the urgent need for collective action. Kingsolver explores how environmental degradation, driven by unsustainable agricultural practices and climate change, disrupts natural systems. The butterflies’ unexpected migration serves as a metaphor for the broader ecological disturbances caused by human activity, urging readers to reflect on their own environmental footprints.

Flight Behavior also addresses the socioeconomic and cultural dimensions of environmental issues. Through the portrayal of a rural Appalachian community that is economically disadvantaged and initially skeptical of climate science, it reflects broader societal divisions in the perception and understanding of climate change. Kingsolver navigates these complexities with empathy, emphasizing the importance of dialogue and education in overcoming misconceptions and resistance to environmental initiatives.

At its core, the novel’s purpose is to call for environmental stewardship and activism. Kingsolver illustrates how individual actions are interconnected with global ecological health, urging a re-evaluation of personal and collective choices. Through Dellarobia’s transformation from a passive observer to an engaged advocate for the environment, the novel inspires readers to consider their roles in combating climate change and protecting our world’s natural habitats.

Layers of Social Commentary in Kingsolver’s Books

As an author deeply committed to environmental conservation and sustainable living, Kingsolver’s novels are not only compelling narratives but also powerful calls to action. Whether addressing the plight of undocumented immigrants, the ravages of colonialism, the existential threat of climate change, or the polarizing effects of political ideology, Kingsolver’s work is a testament to her deep engagement with the world around her.

In this section, we try to explore the depth and breadth of social commentary in more of her fiction and nonfiction works, highlighting her unique ability to blend storytelling with critical reflections on contemporary social issues. Through her vivid characters and immersive plots, Kingsolver not only entertains but also challenges readers to think critically about their place in the world and the impact of their actions on society.

The Lacuna

This historical novel, published in 2009, spans the 1930s to 1950s, telling the story of Harrison William Shepherd, a man caught between two worlds—Mexico and the United States. It delves into issues of identity, political activism, and the McCarthy era’s witch hunts, offering commentary on art, freedom of expression, and the oppressive nature of political fearmongering.

Through the life story of Shepherd, Kingsolver offers a profound commentary on the social and political issues of his time—issues that continue to resonate in the present day. The novel also tackles themes of censorship, the power of narrative, and the role of art and literature in society. Being a famous author, Shepherd becomes a target for his associations and the perceived subversiveness of his work.

blend of mexico and united states as depicted in barbara kingsolvers the lacuna

While The Lacuna is set in the mid-20th century, its themes are remarkably relevant to contemporary discussions on identity politics, the role of media in shaping public opinion, and the fragility of democratic institutions in the face of authoritarianism. Kingsolver uses several aspects of Shepherd’s life to comment on the essential role of artists and intellectuals in questioning and critiquing societal norms and political systems.

The novel asserts that art and literature are vital to a healthy society, serving as a mirror of the human condition and a catalyst for change. Kingsolver’s embedding of social and political commentary within the book serves as a reminder of the cyclical nature of history and the ongoing struggle for justice, freedom, and understanding in an ever-changing society.

Small Wonder

This book is a collection of essays by Kingsolver that was published in 2002, in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States. It offers a window into Kingsolver’s reflections on the world post-9/11, blending personal narrative with broader social, political, and environmental commentary.

Through these essays, Kingsolver delves into a variety of topics, from the American response to the attacks and the nature of grief and fear to the beauty of the natural world and the importance of sustainability and community. She invites readers to consider the interconnectedness of all peoples and the shared responsibility for creating a more just and peaceful world.

Kingsolver critiques the cycle of violence and retribution that characterizes much of global politics, advocating instead for understanding, compassion, and a re-evaluation of the narratives that drive national and international relations. She articulates a vision for a world where compassion and understanding transcend borders and conflicts, where sustainability and respect for the earth guide human endeavors, and where the small wonders of the natural and human worlds are valued and protected.

This compilation serves as a compelling example of Kingsolver’s skill in weaving together social, political, and environmental critiques, providing profoundly personal and universally applicable insights. Her capacity to navigate the intricacies of the human condition with empathy serves as a testament to her literary talent and inspires us to re-evaluate our search for peace in the context of our social responsibility.

Unsheltered

In this book, Kingsolver portrays characters who are struggling with job loss, a lack of healthcare, and the erosion of the middle class—issues that resonate with many of today’s readers’ experiences. Unsheltered (2018) critiques the economic systems and policies that have led to such instability, urging a re-evaluation of what constitutes a good life and how societies might better support their members.

Through the parallel narratives of 21st-century characters grappling with the Great Recession and 19th-century figures facing the challenges of a post-Civil War society, Kingsolver masterfully intertwines the stories of two families living in the same house but separated by over a century in Vineland, New Jersey. The novel’s title itself reflects the central metaphor of the narrative: the idea of being unsheltered, both literally and figuratively, in a world that is rapidly changing and increasingly precarious.

uncertainty and change as depicted in barbara kingsolvers novel unsheltered

By setting half of the novel in the 19th century, Kingsolver draws parallels between two periods of significant scientific and social upheaval. The historical narrative centers around Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher who champions the ideas of Charles Darwin in a community deeply resistant to them. This struggle mirrors the contemporary characters’ confrontation with denialism—be it of climate change or economic realities—and serves as a commentary on the perennial conflict between science and ideology, progress and tradition.

Kingsolver uses these historical and contemporary narratives to critique the political climate that fosters denialism and resistance to change, suggesting that such attitudes are unsustainable in the face of incontrovertible environmental and economic crises. Through the character of Mary Treat, a real-life 19th-century scientist who corresponds with Darwin, Kingsolver champions the values of inquiry, openness, and adaptation—qualities that are presented as essential for survival in both the past and present.

Through its dual narratives, the novel offers a nuanced commentary on the necessity of confronting uncomfortable truths, the importance of community and resilience, and the potential for growth in the face of adversity. Kingsolver’s work continues to resonate because it speaks to the core issues of our time, urging readers to engage actively with the world around them and to seek out new forms of shelter in increasingly modern times.

Demon Copperhead

Demon Copperhead (2022) is a haunting exploration of human nature and the impact of societal expectations. Set in the Appalachian region of southwest Virginia, the narrative masterfully retells Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1850) in a modern American context. Through the life story of its protagonist, Damon Fields, nicknamed Demon Copperhead, Kingsolver delves into the heart of Appalachian life, addressing the region’s beauty and hardships with equal measure.

The novel is a poignant exploration of addiction, poverty, the foster care system, and the resilience of the human spirit, all set against the backdrop of a community grappling with the impacts of economic decline and the opioid epidemic. Kingsolver uses Demon’s journey to highlight the complexities of addiction, including the role of pharmaceutical companies in the epidemic, the challenges of recovery, and the stigma attached to addiction.

The novel also addresses the decline of coal mining, the lack of sustainable employment opportunities, and the resulting impact on community cohesion and individual lives. Through Demon’s eyes, readers gain insight into the struggle for survival and dignity in a region often overlooked or misrepresented by mainstream narratives, making a strong case for economic justice and investment in rural communities.

Furthermore, the novel casts a critical eye on the foster care system, illustrating how children like Demon navigate a world of uncertainty, neglect, and abuse. Kingsolver uses these experiences to comment on the broader societal failure to protect and nurture its most vulnerable members. The novel raises important questions about the nature of family, community support, and the interventions necessary to break cycles of poverty and trauma, advocating for systemic change to support children and families in crisis.


Kingsolver’s extensive body of work, which includes both works of fiction and nonfiction, explores profoundly significant matters such as the interplay between humanity and nature, the repercussions of societal behaviors on the environment, and the complex intricacies of social justice systems. Kingsolver’s narratives transcend being just simple stories; rather, they function as canvases for introspection and proactive awareness regarding the ecological crises and societal dilemmas of our time.

Through a variety of settings and characters, Kingsolver’s writings highlight the interconnectedness of human well-being and environmental health. By integrating layers of social and political commentary, she amplifies the dialogue on crucial contemporary issues, advocating for a more compassionate, equitable, and sustainable society.

Through her compelling blend of storytelling and activism, Kingsolver not only critiques the present but also offers a vision of hope for a better future.


Further Reading

Analysis of Barbara Kingsolver’s Novels by Nasrullah Mambrol, Literariness.org

Barbara Kingsolver’s Interview by Lidija Haas, The Guardian

On History, Marriage, and Politics: A Q-and-A with Barbara Kingsolver by Sarah Boon, Los Angeles Review of Books

How Barbara Kingsolver makes literature topical — from climate change to opioids by Meredith Maran, Los Angeles Times

Barbara Kingsolver Was Writing Social Justice Novels Before They Were Cool by Dan Kois, Slate Magazine

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