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Manipulating Coincidence: An Author's Trade

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Manipulating Coincidence: An Author's Trade

According to LisaBelkin, coincidence “is a surprising concurrence of events, perceived asmeaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection…By merely noticing acoincidence, we elevate it to something that transcends its definition as purechance…As a species we appear to be biologically programmed to see patterns andconspiracies.”  Much of ourinterest in and the importance that we place on coincidental events is unfounded—arationalization to explain what may be several unsettlingly comparable eventsby making connections where they may not exist. In Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver weaves together three storylinesthat have surprisingly similar elements that ultimately connect together at theend of the book.  What are the oddsof that?

                Prodigal Summer displays startling similarities between charactersand remarkable connections between the three storylines.  Lusa and Nanny both disagree with theuse of pesticides.  Lusa and Deannaboth love the coyotes.  Lusa adoptsCrystal and Lowell.  Crystal andLowell are Garnett’s grandchildren. Lusa goes to Garnett for help with raising goats.  Garnett is Nanny’s neighbor.  Nanny acted as Deanna’s mother.  Eddie Bondo appears in Deanna’s life atthe same time that Lusa and Garnett are going through their own similarawakenings.  As Kingsolverconstructs the story, this particularly fertile and extravagant summer has analmost healing quality, which improved the protagonist’s lives and brought themtogether, easing their loneliness.

            Howeveras Belkin explains, “we are amazed by the overlap—and we conveniently ignorethe countless things we do not [see] in common.”  Each apparent coincidence has an independent explanation.  Let us begin with the fact that Lusawould most likely never been in a situation to adopt Crystal and Lowell andmeet their grandfather if Cole had not died, a death which has no connectionsto any of the other characters.  Infact, Lusa blames herself for not pressuring him harder to “find the moneyelsewhere” (Kingsolver 47).  In reality “tobacco’s failure was partly to blame, though—the drop inprice supports that had pressed him to take part-time work driving graindeliveries for Southern States” (Kingsolver 47). 

The unexpectedlyclose relations between people in the book is also explained explicitly byKingsolver: “Life in Zebulon: the minute you’re born you’re trapped like a bug,somebody’s son or wife, a place too small to fit into” (Kingsolver 104).  In such a small setting it seems quitereasonable that Jewel married Garnett’s son, that Deanna found a mother-figurein Nanny, that Nanny and Garnett were neighbors—they were all native to ZebulonCounty. 

Other, moreintellectual connections, which we see, for example between Nanny, Deanna, andLusa in their concern for nature (not using pesticides and caring about thecoyote) can be explained by the fact that they are all educated.  There is a dichotomy in Zebulon Countybetween the farmers who look to use any product that will improve their cropsand the more educated cultivators that look at the entire ecosystem, not justone field of crops.  Garnett, thetraditional farmer, justifies his use of pesticides saying, “The caterpillarsare on my seedlings like the plague. If I didn’t spray I’d lose all this year’s new crosses” (Kingsolver273).  Nanny, a more liberal farmerthan Zebulon County is used to, counters saying “There’s even a thing calledthe Volterra principle…which is all about how insecticide spraying actuallydrives up the numbers of the bugs you’re trying to kill” (Kingsolver 216).  Deanna, the conservationist, wrote anentire thesis on the importance of coyotes and fought with a curator atTinker’s Mountain Zoo “explaining that coyotes were so crucial” (Kingsolver59).  Lusa, the city-dweller, haslittle background in growing crops. “Her education, which far outstripped her husband’s,” focused onmanipulating moths into no longer killing apple trees, not on killing the mothsaltogether (Kingsolver 36).  Theshared scientific education of these women explains the connection we seebetween them. 

Eddie Bondo’sunexpected appearance is explained through the fact that he was a sheep rancherfrom Wyoming, “the hatred of western ranchers toward coyotes,” and the“Mountain Empire Bounty Hunt, organized for the first time this year”(Kingsolver 28, 29).  The contextof each coincidence provides reasonable explanations and a meaningful patternseems more difficult to identify. 

            FromLisa Belkin’s point of view, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer is less a celebration of the renewing qualities of asummer in rural Virginia, than a series of coincidences that we, as readers,assign meaning to.  However, Kingsolverwould counter that the summer has a greater influence than Belkin gives itcredit.  Humans and nature areintrinsically linked—humans are, after all, a part of nature.  Kingsolver even opens her novel saying,“every quiet step is thunder to the beetle life underfoot” (Kingsolver 1).  It is nature that connects thecharacters together, not a random series of coincidental events.

            Character’sconnections to the environment initially motivate many of the characters andsituations in the novel.  Garnetthas placed all of his efforts on repopulating the American chestnut tree.  Deanna works to protect her mountain’secosystem, especially the new coyote population.  Lusa holds a great love for the Luna moth.  Eddie Bondo is in search ofcoyotes.  Nannie strives to farmwithout harming as many organisms as possible.  Cole takes the trucking job because tobacco is no longer aprofitable crop.  A storm causesone of Nannie’s trees to fall on Garnett’s property.  The resulting actions from these connections with naturebring the storylines together and explain many of the similarities we see.

            Thecharacters in the novel are well acquainted with their environment and are ableto pull information from clues in the landscape around them.  Deanna “knew the animal’s size from thepath it had left through the glossy undergrowth of the mayapples,”  “knew exactly when the morningended…when the air grew still enough that she could hear the caterpillarsoverhead,” and knew when it was about to storm in “about six different ways:first, a wind just strong enough to make the leaves show their whiteundersides…” (Kingsolver 2, 58, 94). She also “inhaled. [and instantly knew] ‘Cat.’” (Kingsolver 3).   This type of knowledge aboutnature goes beyond the cursory reading of signs, but suggests a deep connectionbetween humans and the nature that surrounds them. 

            Kingsolveralso calls attention to some of the more biological links between humans andnature, further developing the connection between the two.  The presence of pheromonal attractionsbetween humans is mentioned several times.  Lusa “told [Cole] about the scent cues animals use to findtheir mates. Pheromones…[and that] even humans seem to rely on certainpheromonal cues” (Kingsolver 37). She even referred to it as “moth love,” which emphasizes its basis innature.   Deanna also hadexperienced the effect of pheromones: “she’d walked down city streets inKnoxville and turned men’s heads, one after another, on the middle day of hercycle.  They didn’t know why, knewonly that they wanted her.  Thatwas how pheromones seemed to work…” (Kingsolver 92).  Nature, and more specifically the moon also influence thewomen’s menstrual cycles. Deanna and Lusa are both affected by thisrelationship throughout the novel. “Any woman will ovulate with the full moonif she’s exposed to enough moonlight. It’s the pituitary gland does it,” Deanna informed Eddie Bondo(Kingsolver 93).  Lusa’s experiencecomes as a bit of a surprise: “And then it came to her, just as she spied thebald pate of an enormous whole moon rising above the roof of the barn.  Of course.  What she felt was her cycle coming back.” (Kingsolver230).  By incorporating biologicalrelationships between the environment and humans into the novel Kingsolverprovides a more concrete connection for us.

            Kingsolvercreates a strong connection between humans and nature to explain many of thesituations in the novel, which challenges Belkin’s point of view that manyhuman experiences are nothing but pure coincidence to which we assign meaning.  Yet Kingsolver uses literary devices toimply that there is a meaningful pattern in these circumstances.  Most significantly, the title callsattention to the extravagant and repentant nature of the events occurring throughoutthis summer, foregrounding this idea in our heads.  Additionally, the fact that this is a novel, the reading ofwhich is often a very personal experience, asserts one of Belkin’s points that“personal attachment adds significance to an event.”  Because we become so invested in the characters and theirsituations we place importance on the connections we see.  Belkin would argue that Kingsolver isexploiting our tendency to invent patterns; however, Kingsolver would hold thatthese devices are critical when writing a novel and striving to send a messageto the readers.           

We cannot help butsee and value both Belkin’s and Kingsolver’s points of view when reading thisnovel, which leads to an interesting question of what exactly a novel is.  Can we just imagine a random series ofevents, assign meaning to them, and call it a novel?  Or must a novel be a carefully crafted series of eventsalready assigned meaning? Interestingly, Belkin reminds us of the other side of her argument,abating her opinion: “without coincidence, there would be few movies worthwatching…and literary plots would come grinding to a disappointing halt.”  We will find no pleasure in fiction ifwe do not allow for and accept an author’s pre-meditated “coincidence.”  On the other hand, Kingsolver states“there was no plan to speak of…all these scattered accounts were really partsof one long story, the history of a family that had stayed on its land”(Kingsolver 437).  She reminds usthat the novel is truly a world that we, as readers, enter for a short periodof its existence—not from its conception to its end.  Time has passed and will continue to pass for the charactersbeyond the confines of the pages of a novel.  If we combine these two interpretations we see that we mustrelease ourselves into an author’s crafty hands and become engrossed in thestory, to which he or she has given pattern and meaning, while recognizing thepower that this structure will have over us.



Belkin, Lisa. "The Odds ofThat." The New York Times 11 Apr. 2002.

Kingsolver, Barbara. Prodigal Summer.New York: HarperCollins, 2001.