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Essays that Illuminate

Barbara Kingsolver's Small Wonder

It's been seven years since Barbara Kingsolver published High Tide in Tucson, her last essay collection. By my count, that's about six years too long to wait.

I'm an inverted Kingsolver fan, reading her novels, like The Bean Trees, years after their publication, gravitating first toward her non-fiction work as a science journalist. I have a whole wing of my heart roped off for fiction writers like her, who still find room for the newspaper commentary, the personal essay and a leisurely piece of literary journalism. Not having a serviceable term for it, when asked to explain, I usually say "Oy jeez, I love really smart people writing smartly about things we don't normally think too much about."

Barbara Kingsolver's back at it with Small Wonder, a smoothly dense collection of essays, commentary and nature journalism begun on the morning of September 12, 2001. That date is important, the author reminds us in her introduction, and then strides masterfully into her thesis which tells us why. The "small wonders" of life -- a maternal gesture, the quiet of a forest -- remind us that, despite the horror the world seems engulfed in, there is both another way to live and a reason to at all. Written in a howl of pain and anger, Small Wonder nonetheless finds hope in the tiny candles of goodness that light the sudden onset of darkness.

It's a gutsy attitude toward a national tragedy that elicited more in the way of jingoism and mindless calls for blood, and Kingsolver wisely structures the book to support it. Small Wonder fans out like a hurricane with fiercely argued, "issue" pieces at the front and back and meditative natural studies (co-written with her husband, Steven Hopp) between them. The middle sections reminded me of my earliest admiration for Kingsolver and the clear-eyed serenity with which she writes about nature. She's been called a "tree-hugger" (rightly) more than once but the essays here on wild parrots in Latin America and bobcats outside her kitchen window are firm rather than misty-eyed, kind without being mawkish. The tone, poured into elongated, confident sentences, works equally well in her more strident commentaries on patriotism and environmental justice, which thus read with both with passion and reason.

How you buy into the premise probably depends less on your politics (though I doubt Kingsolver has many Republican friends) than your optimism. Small Wonder doesn't hold up to even the slightest gust of cynicism and Kingsolver doesn't help by weaving in about a half-dozen too many anecdotes from her personal life. A two-piece combo on mothers and daughters seems to fall out of the sky and a discussion on maintaining an environmentally friendly diet switches way too quickly to "In the Kitchen with Barbara." Here, Kingsolver sounds didactic rather than analytical and leaves herself way too open to charges of what Salon once described in her work as "politically correct fundamentalism."

Still, you'd have trouble convincing me that Small Wonder is anything less than the engine of Barbara Kingsolver roaring back to life. I found her last novel, Prodigal Summer, a bit mushy in the middle after the National Book Award-nominated Poisonwood Bible. Maybe I really just missed Barbara Kingsolver the essayist and how satisfying her nature writing is in the early San Francisco summer (August) when animals and greenery seem in full strut. But here she is, in the wake of the first great horror of the 21st century, writing through the pain with intelligence, dignity and no small dose of courage.

Small wonder then that I feel like we'll be reading her for a long time to come.

Small Wonder: Essays
By Barbara Kingsolver
Hardcover: 288 pages (April 2002)
HarperCollins; ISBN: 0060504072