TOP 500 REVIEWERon 30 May 2010
This is the sequel of the author's first novel, The Bean Trees. It is a technically more ambitious book - a bit too ambitious, in my opinion, and in places a bit too contrived. It is more intricate in structure than its predecessor; Kingsolver is slow to let us know who is who, and to reveal how different parts of the story fit together, and so it is harder work for the reader. The rich descriptions of plants and birds are still more heavily laden with symbolic meaning than in the earlier novel, and her similes, so rich and rewarding in the first novel, are almost over-rich and some even over the top in the sequel. (Two examples: her eyes felt `like worried wet marbles under the lids.' - `She feels the door of her back teeth closing'.) It is half as long again as its predecessor, and I thought it dragged quite a bit, with extended sub-plots and other matter that, though in themselves well-described, slow the main story up too much. So I did not find it quite as satisfying as I did The Bean Trees; but Kingsolver tells a great story, and there are again some lovely pieces of folksy dialogue: in particular, the sayings of Taylor's wonderful mother Alice and of her laid-back lover Jax are a real treat.
It is three years after the previous novel ended, when Taylor Greer had, under false pretences, secured adoption papers for Turtle, the little Cherokee girl who had been dumped on her by an unknown Indian woman and with whom she had bonded. This novel more or less opens with Turtle, now aged six, being instrumental in saving a life. The story is picked up by the Oprah Winfrey television show, and this is seen by Annawake Fourkiller, a young Cherokee lawyer in Oklahoma.
Annawake has been haunted since her childhood by the history of what had been done to the Cherokee Nation (deported to Oklahoma from their original homelands in the Southern Appalachians in 1838), and is still traumatized by the loss of a twin brother who as a child had been removed from his family and the Nation. She suspects that there was something wrong about the adoption, is angry that Turtle will in due course have problems with her identity, and is determined to have her returned to the warm embrace of her tribe (about whose history and customs we learn a lot in this novel.)
Geographically this novel covers much more than the last book did of the United States, each area's features vividly described: Kentucky, where Taylor had grown up; Oklahoma where she had picked up Turtle; and Arizona where she had settled. Now that she fears that Turtle may be taken from her, she flees Arizona, driving northwards with her without aiming at a clear destination. It's like a road-movie, as they move from state to state and having all sorts of encounters on the way until they end up, penniless, almost as far north in the US as possible, in Seattle.
Taylor's mother Alice is the white grand-daughter of a full-blooded Cherokee (and in The Bean Trees she had mentioned that if you are one-eighth or more Cherokee, the Nation accepts you as one of theirs.) She has a second cousin, Sugar Hornbuckle, in Oklahoma, who is married to a Cherokee. Alice seeks her out: perhaps Sugar can mediate between Taylor and the Cherokee Nation. Perhaps she even knows Annawake - and in this very close community she actually does.
A long way back in the novel there was a chapter, set in Jackson, Wyoming, in which we met Cash Stillwater, a sad Cherokee widower who had left Oklahoma after tragic events in his family. He was lonely there, and decided to return home. We then lose sight of him for many chapters; but we can guess that the tragic events involved Turtle.
I must not say more - except to say that Barbara Kingsolver knew what she was doing when, having given real names to all the other places in the book, she invented the name of the small Oklahoma town which is central to the story: Heaven, where, in the end, and against all the odds, the angels rejoice and perhaps, like this reader, may shed a tear or two of joy.