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Small Wonder

Small Wonder

4.6 21
by Barbara Kingsolver

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In her new essay collection, the beloved author of High Tide in Tucson brings to us from one of history's darker moments an extended love song to the world we still have. From its opening parable gleaned from recent news about a lost child saved in an astonishing way, the book moves on to consider a world of surprising and hopeful prospects, ranging from an


In her new essay collection, the beloved author of High Tide in Tucson brings to us from one of history's darker moments an extended love song to the world we still have. From its opening parable gleaned from recent news about a lost child saved in an astonishing way, the book moves on to consider a world of surprising and hopeful prospects, ranging from an inventive conservation scheme in a remote jungle to the backyard flock of chickens tended by the author's small daughter.

These essays are grounded in the author's belief that our largest problems have grown from the earth's remotest corners as well as our own backyards, and that answers may lie in those places, too. In the voice Kingsolver's readers have come to rely on — sometimes grave, occasionally hilarious, and ultimately persuasive — Small Wonder is a hopeful examination of the people we seem to be, and what we might yet make of ourselves.

Editorial Reviews

Barbara Kingsolver's essays move at an unrushed pace, but they grab you. Take, for example, the tender choreography of opening lines of "Letter To My Mother": "I imagine you putting on your glasses to read this letter. Oh, Lord, what now? You tilt your head back and hold the page away from you, with your left hand flat on your chest protecting your heart." Or the one paragraph teaser for "Stealing Apples": "I have never yet been able to say out loud that I am a poet." Like the pieces in her High Tide in Tucson, these essays stretch out in front of us with a leisure of a quiet, overdue conversation.
Principally known as the author of such bestselling novels as The Bean Trees and The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver grew up shy and studious, got a degree in biology and currently divides her time between writing, raising two daughters and—with her husband, an ornithologist—working for conservation and humanitarian causes. She grows her own vegetables and for part of the year lives simply in a rural cabin with feeble electrical wiring, hummingbirds outside her kitchen window and a driveway half a mile long. We learn all this in Kingsolver's latest collection of essays, which reveals its author to possess many redeeming facets. Observant, imaginative, both lucid and impassioned, Kingsolver writes effectively about her family and the natural world.

The personal essays make us feel we understand Kingsolver so well that it is a shame the essay "Small Wonder" comes first. This confused and rambling work is a meditation on two things that the author attempts to link: the bombing campaign after September 11, in Afghanistan, and the discovery of a lost child in Iran who, according to news service stories, had been kept alive by a female bear. Marked by sentimentality, the essay never really confronts how America should deal with enemies who would gladly destroy it. Kingsolver's suggested metaphorical alternative, lulling the enemy to sleep with an "elixir of contentment," is so vague and wishful that it's impossible to take seriously.

A few of the entries in this collection make too-easy historical or political assumptions that amount to errors of fact. In "Small Wonder," for example, Kingsolver wrongly argues that the modern age is unique inhaving to envision problems of global dimensions. Even during the Black Death, Kingsolver asserts, "They couldn't imagine a wreckage so appalling as the end of humankind on a planet made squalid by man's own hand." There is plenty of historical evidence, however, that that is precisely what people did imagine, although the squalor was moral rather than ecological.

Perhaps more alarming than the mistakes and lapses in logic are the arrogant ways Kingsolver occasionally asserts her intellectual rigor. "I've tossed aside stories because of botched Spanish or French phrases.... stopped reading books in which birds sang on the wrong continents or full moons appeared two weeks apart," she admits in "What Good Is a Story?", which provides criteria for what she thinks constitutes good writing. One can't help but wonder if the author ever stopped to consider how this sort of finger-pointing might impact her own credibility.

In spite of the book's annoying flaws, there is still plenty here to admire and enjoy. The essays that focus on Kingsolver's family and the natural world, effortlessly linking daily matters to global issues, are altogether marvelous. In "Lily's Chickens," she describes the small flock of hens, bought to please her five-year-old daughter, Lily, and kept in line by Mr. Doodle, a rooster whose absurd machismo becomes endearing. Lily tends the hens, feeds them and proudly carries the first egg into the kitchen, shouting, "Attention everybody, I have an announcement: FREE BREAKFAST." Meanwhile, Kingsolver describes the benefits of raising food locally, pointing out that the average supermarket food item travels 1,300 miles—an avoidable waste of natural resources.

In every case, she is on the side of nature and the preservation of its diversity, whether explaining, in "A Fist in the Eye of God," exactly why genetic engineering poses a terrible long-term risk, or exploring, in "The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don't Let Him In," the disastrous limitations of television. "The world, a much wider place than seventeen inches, includes songbird migration, emphysema, pollinating insects, the Krebs cycle ... and a trillion other things outside the notice of CNN," Kingsolver reminds us. In some essays, the tone is more scientific than personal; in others, such as the wonderful "Letter to My Mother," the tone is intimate without being oppressively close.

While far from perfect, this book expresses the misgivings and despair experienced by many of us, and counters our shared sense of loss with the treasures of a quiet life. It is fascinating that in her essay on what makes a story valuable, Kingsolver never mentions the companionship of a narrative voice—fallible but intimate—when such a voice is her greatest strength.
—Penelope Mesic

Publishers Weekly
This book of essays by Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, etc.) is like a visit from a cherished old friend. Conversation ranges from what Kingsolver ate on a trip to Japan to wonder over a news story about a she-bear who suckled a lost child to how it feels to be an American idealist living in a post-September 11 world. She tackles some sticky issues, among them the question of who is entitled to wave the American flag and why, and some possible reasons why our nation has been targeted for terror by angry fundamentalists and what we can do to ease our anxiety over the new reality while respecting the rest of planet Earth's inhabitants. Kingsolver has strong opinions, but has a gift for explaining what she thinks and how she arrived at her conclusions in a way that gives readers plenty of room to disagree comfortably. But Kingsolver's essays also reward her readers in other ways. As she puts it herself in "What Good Is a Story": "We are nothing if we can't respect our readers." Respect for the intelligence of her audience is apparent everywhere in this outstanding collection. Illus. (Apr. 20) Forecast: Kingsolver's name means bestseller potential, possibly aided by the possibility of revisiting the controversy she has aroused with her response to September 11. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This collection of 23 essays covers topics both global and personal, ranging from September 11 to Kingsolver's vegetable garden. A few have been previously published in natural history magazines and newspapers, but most debut here. A biology and ecology major and former scientific writer and journalist, Kingsolver is a one-woman soiree, presenting well-wrought scientific views about Darwinian theory and genetic engineering alongside personal narratives that deliver universal homilies-watching television, a date rape, and her daughter and her mother. There could be no better reader for these vignettes than the author herself; her Kentucky lilt adds intimacy to the discourse, as if she were a friend chatting over a cup of tea. This gentle, intelligent gadfly will provide intellectual stimulation, whether or not the listener agrees with her positions. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.-Judith Robinson, Univ. at Buffalo, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Wearing her essayist hat, novelist Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, 1998, etc.) responds to the September 11th terror attacks with a collection addressing the wonders of life. In an effort to "burn and rave against the dying of all hope," Kingsolver offers a contemplation of how we are blessed in our lives and urges us to consider the planet we live on and those with whom we share it. Her first two essays disjointedly consider how the September 11th attacks may have come about and voice her distress over our wastefulness as a nation: "Americans and Europeans spend $17 billion a year on pet food." She then moves on to document her love affair with nature in an account of her two residences, one in Arizona and the other in Appalachia, where she works while looking at beautiful views. While she stresses repeatedly how blessed she is to have these twin retreats, it's somewhat jarring in conjunction with a preceding essay in which she writes, "For most of my life I've felt embarrassed by a facet of our national character that I would have to call prideful wastefulness." Kingsolver continues to rend our nation's collective garment as she moves on to discuss the scarlet macaw and habitat loss in general; freeing a hermit crab in the context of letting go of a "hunger to possess"; her daughter's chickens and "the energy crime of food transportation"; and why she doesn't have a television. All of Kingsolver's issues are worthy, certainly, but the work is made less palatable by what seems to be a naivete that surfaces when the author (mother of three) makes such statements as, "I can barely grasp the motives of a person who hits a child." Her best pieces-a discussion of adolescence addressed toher daughter; an essay on the difficulties of writing about sex-have a narrow focus. Good intentions and craft marred by sanctimony.
San Francisco Chronicle
“A delightful, challenging, and wonderfully informative book.”
Book Magazine
“Observant, imaginative, and both lucid and impassioned.”
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“Kingsolver possesses a rare depth of understanding of nature’s complex mechanisms.”
“Essays … [of] great skill and wisdom.”

Product Details

Gale Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Large Print
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.07(d)

Read an Excerpt

Letter to My Mother

Imagine you putting on your glasses to read this letter. Oh, Lord, what now? You tilt your head back and hold the page away from you, your left hand flat on your chest, protecting your heart. "Dear Mom" at the top of a long, typed letter from me has so often meant trouble. Happy, uncomplicated things -- these I could always toss you easily over the phone: I love you, where in the world is my birth certificate, what's in your zucchini casserole, happy birthday, this is our new phone number, we're having a baby in March, my plane comes in at seven, see you then, I love you.

The hard things went into letters. I started sending them from college, the kind of self-absorbed epistles that usually began as diary entries and should have stayed there. During those years I wore black boots from an army surplus store and a five-dollar haircut from a barbershop and went to some trouble to fill you in on the great freedom women could experience if only they would throw off the bondage of housewifely servitude. I made sideways remarks about how I couldn't imagine being anybody's wife. In my heart I believed that these letters -- in which I tried to tell you how I'd become someone entirely different from the child you'd known -- would somehow make us friends. But instead they only bought me a few quick gulps of air while I paced out the distance between us.

I lived past college, and so did my hair, and slowly I learned the womanly art of turning down the volume. But I still missed you, and from my torment those awful letters bloomed now and then. I kept trying; I'm trying still. But thistime I want to say before anything else: Don't worry. Let your breath out. I won't hurt you anymore. We measure the distance in miles now, and I don't have to show you I'm far from where I started. Increasingly, that distance seems irrelevant. I want to tell you what I remember.

I'm three years old. You've left me for the first time with your mother while you and Daddy took a trip. Grandmama fed me cherries and showed me the secret of her hair: Five metal hairpins come out, and the everyday white coil drops in a silvery waterfall to the back of her knees. Her house smells like polished wooden stairs and soap and Granddad's onions and ice cream, and I would love to stay there always but I miss you bitterly without end. On the day of your return I'm standing in the driveway waiting when the station wagon pulls up. You jump out your side, my mother in happy red lipstick and red earrings, pushing back your dark hair from the shoulder of your white sleeveless blouse, turning so your red skirt swirls like a rose with the perfect promise of you emerging from the center. So beautiful. You raise one hand in a tranquil wave and move so slowly up the driveway that your body seems to be underwater. I understand with a shock that you are extremely happy. I have been miserable and alone waiting in the driveway, and you were at the beach with Daddy and happy. Happy without me.

I am sitting on your lap, and you are crying. Thank you, honey, thank you, you keep saying, rocking back and forth as you hold me in the kitchen chair. I've brought you flowers: the sweet peas you must have spent all spring trying to grow, training them up the trellis in the yard. You had nothing to work with but abundant gray rains and the patience of a young wife at home with pots and pans and small children, trying to create just one beautiful thing, something to take you outside our tiny white clapboard house on East Main. I never noticed until all at once they burst through the trellis in a pink red purple dazzle. A finger-painting of colors humming against the blue air: I could think of nothing but to bring it to you. I climbed up the wooden trellis and picked the flowers. Every one. They are gone already, wilting in my hand as you hold me close in the potato-smelling kitchen, and your tears are damp in my hair but you never say a single thing but Thank you.

Your mother is dead. She was alive, so thin that Granddad bought her a tiny dark-blue dress and called her his fashion model and then they all went to the hospital and came home without her. Where is the dark-blue dress now? I find myself wondering, until it comes to me that they probably buried her in it. It's under the ground with her. There are so many things I don't want to think about that I can't bear going to bed at night.

It's too hot to sleep. My long hair wraps around me, grasping like tentacles. My brother and sister and I have made up our beds on cots on the porch, where it's supposed to be cooler. They are breathing in careless sleep on either side of me, and I am under the dark cemetery ground with Grandmama. I am in the stars, desolate, searching out the end of the universe and time. I am trying to imagine how long forever is, because that is how long I will be dead for someday. I won't be able to stand so much time being nothing, thinking of nothing. I've spent many nights like this, fearing sleep. Hating being awake.

I get up, barefoot and almost nothing in my nightgown, and creep to your room. The door is open, and I see that you're awake, too, sitting up on the edge of your...

Small Wonder. Copyright © by Barbara Kingsolver. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Barbara Kingsolver's work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has earned a devoted readership at home and abroad. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal, our country's highest honor for service through the arts. She received the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for the body of her work, and in 2010 won Britain's Orange Prize for The Lacuna. Before she made her living as a writer, Kingsolver earned degrees in biology and worked as a scientist. She now lives with her family on a farm in southern Appalachia.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
April 8, 1955
Place of Birth:
Annapolis, Maryland
B.A., DePauw University, 1977; M.S., University of Arizona, 1981

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Small Wonder 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Barbara Kingsolver prefaces her new collection of essays by revealing her personal need to undertake the work on Sept. 12, 2001 at that 'awful time that dawned on us' and that it 'became for me a way of surviving that time.' As a woman, mother, academic naturalist, acclaimed writer, activist of humanitarian and environmental causes, moralist and patriot, she brings all of these factors into ever consistent harmony with the need to express herself as a form of relief for her own grief and that of others, one and inseparable, and thus cleanse ourselves of the bad humors of lingering suffering. In the complex process of writing Barbara Kingsolver becomes aware that what she was doing was in effect describing the universality of existential suffering imbedded in us since time immemorial , 'the process of grief', that eternal return; and she adds, 'It began in a moment but ended with all time.' Any efficacious solution of that suffering can never occur unless we analyze the good and evil within us, try to understand God's Creation as well as the ethical values manifest within us the citizens and in the institutions of our land, especially in government and commerce. In agreement with her cyclical generative vision of nature, Kingsolver believes we can rise from the ashes and proceed to reconstruct our lives. There is no single essay wherein Ms. Kingsolver doesn't stand in awe of both Mother Nature and our own human nature. The first essay which sets the tone and theme for all that is to come deals with the parable or myth-like media account of a she-bear that suckles a lost toddler. 'I have stories of things I believe: a persistent river, a forest in the edge of night, the religion inside a seed, the startle of wingbeats when a spark of red life flies against all reason out of darkness. One child, one bear. I'd like to speak of small wonders, and the possibility of taking heart.' All the essays that ensue open our vision to the world and ourselves. Some have accused Ms. Kingsolver of sentimentality and misinformation, both fallacious assertions. As the facets of her persona above indicate, Barbara Kingsolver is one of the best 'put-together' persons one can meet. And we meet her at her best in this new collection of essays. Her analysis of the ubiquitous phenomenon of violence in the United States and its recurrence in our wars is a true fact of American life. If we could only listen to the beat of man's heart of darkness, the flow of the persistent river, the small wonders that surround us and the voice of the poet,we jointly would reconstruct a better world.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sentimental, reactive, dramatic, emotional and on and on. So many reviewers will weeze their weak breath. I just wish to thank Ms. Kingsolver. Along with the seemingly extrodinary events that surround September eleventh, this book of essays will forever speak clearly to those in the unimaginable future. With heartbreak and mourning all around us, this collection of thoughts gives us a place to drop an anchor from the soul. I tire quickly of those who write elegant reviews and miss the point. The written word, like my flag is not the property nor the currency of any one caste or class. It is the weapon that cruel self centered bullies cannot shield against. We are turning a corner as a species. Thank you Barbara for pointing out that the signal light pulsed green.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What a book! An invaluable collection of knowledge, attitudes, new points-of-view, and love for all life. If more authors had even half of Ms. Kingsolver's talent, what a wonderful world this could be.
marivera007 More than 1 year ago
This book carried a lot of personal, educational, and wise thoughts from Mrs. Kingsolver. She balanced out every paragraph in every essay with a complete thought and had details to explain what was going on in her sentences. I honestly have to say this book from Barbara Kingsolver stole my heart and I learned a lot of information on how to critique my own work. This book is about a decade old and some years but her literature will forever live in the modern-eye since her work shows a difference from previous authors before her. Her book wasn't a story but a book filled with her best essays. This book caught my attention from the small creative title she gave her book. As I continued to read her book I automatically fell in love with her way of sentence stucture and topic sentences. Also the subjects of her essays weren't boring. They were all different and very interesting due to the way she approached it. I especially enjoyed the essay about 9/11 and what was going on in her life at that time. She has such great artistic vision in her wording. I believe she wrote this book to release what she had been working on prior to the incident in New York but when that happened it put the icing on the cake for her to release this book sharing her inner-most personal experiences and also what she feels on some subjects of the matter. From the essay about her eldest daughter to the essay about her mother to the essay about her visit to mexico, this book showed a side of her I believe no one has seen up close. But honestly, I feel she was only venting on things that have been on her mind during that time. She surely showed professional literature in talking about simple things such as baby chickens. I would recommend anyone who wants to read about life and read great essays to learn from.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Barbara Kingsolver, a biology graduate and author, ends her first story in ¿Small Wonder¿ by writing, ¿I¿d like to speak of small wonders and the possibility of taking heart.¿ Instead of having a dangerous nationalistic attitude by saying, ¿Hey, America¿s the best!¿ she shows her patriotism for her country by celebrating the good and shining light on the bad so that we as a country might heal. With great insight and compassion Kingsolver gently helps us become more knowledgeable about our country¿s challenges and eloquently puts into words what many of us think and feel. About conservation she says the U.S. citizen¿s compromise 5% of the world¿s people and uses a quarter of its fuel. The U.S. belongs to the 20% of the world¿s population that generates 75% of its pollution. Although we are the world¿s biggest contributors to global warming we walked away from ratifying the Kyoto agreement with the 178 other nations in 2001. Instead of eating local produce the average American¿s food travels 5 million miles by land, sea and air. Yet our country possesses the resources to bring solar technology, energy independence and sustainable living to our planet. About the Government she says we live in the only rich country in the world that still tolerates poverty. In Japan, some European countries and Canada the state assumes the duty of providing all its citizens with good education, good health and shelter. These nations believe that homelessness simply isn¿t an option. The citizens pay higher taxes than the U.S. and so they have smaller homes, smaller cars, and appetites for consumer goods. They realize true peace is not the absence of tension but the presence of justice. About wars she says, ¿The losers of all wars are largely the innocent.¿ Seventy thousand people died in one minute when we bombed Japan in World War II. Then twice that many died slowly from the inside. ¿Vengeance does not subtract any numbers from the equation of murder, it only adds them." In the last 30 years our government has helped finance air assaults in Afghanistan, Chile, El Salvador, Grenada, Iran, Libya, Lebanon, Nicaragua, Panama, the Sudan, Vietnam and Yugoslavia. Most wars and campaigns are to maintain our fossil-fuel dependency and our wasteful consumption of unnecessary things. We need to stop being a nation who solves problems by killing people and to ¿aspire to waste not and want less.¿ About global commerce she says we have a history of overtaking the autonomy and economy of small countries with our large corporations. For example, U.S. corporations and the World Trade Organization are placing pressure on farmers of other countries to buy genetically altered seeds that kill their own embryos. This means the farmers will always have to buy new seeds and pesticides from these companies. The pesticides and insecticides not only kill the unwanted bugs but also the beneficial insects and microbes that sustain, pollinate or cull different species. Kingsolver does not advocate the transfer of DNA genes between species to form genetically altered seeds. We need the checks and balances of genetic variability¿it¿s nature¿s sole insurance policy. Without genetic variability entire crops are wiped out when environments change or crop strains succumb to disease. Our canceling the insurance policy of genetic variability is ¿a fist in the eye of God!¿ A few large American agricultural corporations control these genetically altered seeds and crops. Kingsover¿s essays are parables for a gentler, kinder country and world.
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Here fur stiks up like a cactus. Like a lovely spring day. Here name is spikykit
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Gingerstar gently pivks her up and brings her to third res.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*Pads in and tries out her wings. Her right one twinges in pain and she falls down with a yowl. She needas a clan and a mom. Her wing is broken and shes only about the size of a bunny. Plz help her.*
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