In my 1999 article on women scientists in fiction, I identified the prevalent theme of the women’s scientist’s withdrawal from science. Discouraging, to say the least, but I’m chagrined to say that, until I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, I never asked myself what happened next?
[Note: I go into detail about events and resolution in these novels (particularly Prodigal Summer and Animal Dreams), so if you haven’t read them, and mind such things, then please read them first!]
In Prodigal Summer, Lusa, an entomologist, meets and marries a farmer, Cole. When he is killed in an accident before their first anniversary, she decides to assert her claim to his farm and settle there. Ultimately, as well as her husband’s profession, she adopts both her husband’s name and the children of her dying sister-in-law.
On my first read, I characterized it as another withdrawal from science novel. But when I re-read the book, I saw how Lusa continued to be a scientist, and once I saw that in Prodigal Summer, I saw it in Kingsolver’s other books, too.
Kingsolver’s descriptions are informed by a biologist’s intimate knowledge of the natural world. Kingsolver’s scientists, although no longer identified as belonging to the institutions of science, continue to apply the same observation and analysis they used in their work to the world. Lusa’s experience in agriculture and entomology help with her farming. Her knowledge of the wider society lead her to take the novel step of raising goats, knowing that with three major religious holidays coinciding, they will be in demand.
Kingsolver also points up the environmental and social responsibility of the scientist in the world. Lusa expresses her responsibility through her resistance to pesticide-intense farming methods, her refusal to grow tobacco as a cash crop, and her refusal to allow hunting on her land, even by members of her own extended family-in-law. Cody (Animal Dreams) is a dropout from the profession of medicine, who has been drifting around the world with her lover, an emergency-room locum as alienated as herself. When her father’s faltering health brings her back to her hometown, she falls into the job of substitute science teacher at the town high school. On a field trip, she and her students discover that the water in the town’s river is so acidic with industrial effluent that it is sterile under the microscope. Cody turns activist, helping organize efforts to save the river, and lending her authority as a scientist and teacher. (Ironically, it is not science that saves the town—the proposed rescue plan being to contain the pollution by damming the river—but culture. To raise money for their activism, the ladies of the town have turned to their traditional crafts. Their distinctive piñatas become collector’s items, and attract the attention of a shrewd expert who advises them how to apply to become an historic site, which gives the town the protection that the environmental laws cannot.)
The second expression of Cody’s social responsibility is her quirky one-woman sex-education campaign. At the age of fifteen, she gave birth to a premature, stillborn child, alone, and in secret. So when yet another one of her female students falls pregnant, she whips out a condom in class and gives an impromptu demonstration of its application to a zucchini. Trouble ensues, but in a reversal from her avoidant past, she stands firm.
Kingsolver’s scientists also use their science to make a connection to estranged children. Cody shows her students the power in knowledge. Lusa’s dying sister-in-law has a daughter whom Lusa initially takes for a boy because of her dress and fierce manner. The girl resists all the aunts’ efforts to nurture her, mixed as they are with denial about her mother’s condition, emotional coercion, and expectation of gender conformity. She is sent to Lusa as a last resort. In an extended scene, the pair work their way through Lusa’s chores and then go hunting bugs. Lusa shares her knowledge with Crystal, and that conversation moves on to touch on matters of sexuality and mortality. In Kingsolver’s Bean Trees, Taylor reads to her little adopted daughter from a library book about rhizomes and nitrogen fixation. It’s a moment of intimacy and safety for an abused child, and a metaphor for the interrelationship of their community.
Science also cinches a connection between Cody and her own origins. Her father, a proud man from the wrong side of the tracks, married the cherished daughter of one of the town’s elite families, and then estranged himself and his daughters from them when his wife died. When Cody finds the yellowing records and fading pictures of her father’s study of an idiosyncratic feature of the town’s newborns, and recognizes her own picture among them, she is able to feel herself as one of them.