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Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver




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What We Can Do

Barbara Kingsolver said she began what turned into her new essay collection, Small Wonder, on September 12, 2001. A newspaper asked for her reflections on the events of September 11. One thing led to another, and twenty three essays were written or assembled into this 250-page book. It may be the response of writers and other artists who begin to help many of us absorb what took place on that day.

Here’s an excerpt from the essay, Lily’s Chickens, about her five year old daughter’s care for chickens and the impact of that on the family:

“I approach our efforts at simplicity as a novice approaches her order, aspiring to a lifetime of deepening understanding, discipline, serenity, and joy. Likening voluntary simplicity to a religion is neither hyperbole nor sacrilege. Some people look around and declare the root of evil to be sex or blasphemy, and so they aspire to be pious and chaste. Where I look for evil, I’m more likely to see degradations of human and natural life, an immoral gap between rich and poor, a ravaged earth. At the root of these I see greed and overconsumption by the powerful minority. I was born to that caste, but I can aspire to waste not and want less.
I’m skeptical of evangelism, so I’m not going to have a tent revival here. But if you’ve come with me this far, you are in some sense a fellow traveler, and I’m glad for your company. In this congregation we don’t confess or sit around chanting ‘we are not worthy’; we just do what we can and trust that the effort matters. Of all the ways we consume, food is a sensible one to attend to.”

Kingsolver goes on to describe a variety of ways in which Americans can continue to eat well, but consume fewer resources in the process. Her light tough keeps her from wagging a finger or becoming a scold. Any guilt a reader assumes comes from reflection and insight, not from Kingsolver throwing stones. Some essays are better written than others. She’s at her most passionate when rooted in biology and natural history. My favorite essay was “A Fist in the Eye of God” which addressed the consequences of genetically altered products. Here’s the context for that title:

“Recently I heard Joan Dye Gussow, who studies and writes about the energetics, economics, and irrationalities of global food production, discussing some of these problems in a radio interview. She mentioned the alarming fact that pollen from genetically engineered corn is so rapidly contaminating all other corn that we may soon have no naturally bred corn left in the United States. ‘This is a fist in the eye of God,’ she said, adding with a sad laugh, ‘and I’m not even all that religious.’ Whatever you believe in – whether God for you is the watchmaker who put together the intricate workings of this world in seven days or seven hundred billion days – you’d be wise to believe the part about the fist.”

Some of Kingsolver’s comments about patriotism and the flag were edited, taken out of context, and mis-interpreted, causing something of a brouhaha over the past year. Reading the entire essay shows her patriotism and her insight into the kind of community we want to build as citizens in a democracy. In response to 9/11, here’s one final quote: “What I can find is this, and so it has to be: conquering my own despair by doing what I can. Stealing thunder, tucking it in my pocket to save for the long draught. Dreaming in the color green, tasting the end of anger.” Whether you share Kingsolver’s approach to life or not, you’re likely to find some benefit in reading the essays in Small Wonder.

Steve Hopkins, May 8, 2002


ã 2002 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the June 2002 issue of Executive Times


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