“Women on their own run in Alice’s family. This dawns on her with the unkindness of a heart attack and she sits up in bed to get a closer look at her thoughts, which have collected above her in the dark.” So begins Barbara Kingsolver’s third novel, Pigs in Heaven. I’ll introduce this recommendation by saying that this book entirely satisfied my summer’s appetite for road-lit, idiosyncrasy, and arid landscapes. I approached Kingsolver cautiously, having been told to read her by so many friends. (I’ve got a bad track record of hating good books that are thrust on me at the wrong time.) But, be it luck or the undeniable charm of Kingsolver’s book, my heart was won by this novel, totally and completely. Known for her examination of social issues in her work, (The Bean Trees, The Poisonwood Bible, etc) in Pigs in Heaven Kingsolver tackles a range of ideas, including the oppression of the Cherokee Nation, the importance of community versus individuality, the struggles of single-motherhood, and the difficulty of straddling multiple cultures. Kingsolver introduces these subjects with grace, and never proselytizes or preaches. She explores the issues through the conflict of her characters, who all are sympathetic and all have a convincing argument to make.
Pigs follows roughly a year in the lives of several interconnected characters. Taylor Greer is a single mother living in Tucson with her adopted Cherokee daughter, Turtle. Yes, naming a character Turtle did seem a bit writerly of Kingsolver at first, but once accustomed to the world of the novel and the context of the name, it won me over. Alice Greer is Taylor’s mother, living in Kentucky. Alice has just left her husband of two years, and is contemplating her next move in life, once again independent and unburdened. Enter Annawake Fourkiller, a Cherokee attorney who catches word of Turtle’s adoption to a non-Cherokee (3 years after the fact) and sets out on the warpath, outraged that white America feels it has the authority to uproot Cherokee children from their rightful culture.
What ensues is a lot of driving, a memorable array of characters, some gorgeous prose, and a novel-length discussion of the nature of family. Kingsolver elegantly juggles the sublimely comedic with the heartbreaking, ultimately painting for us a picture of why life is so hard sometimes, but so beautiful all the time.