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Frugal Winter- Analysis of Prodigal Summer

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Anna Melker

Food For Thought CSem Fall 2008

Frugal Winter

Every great mythology has its trickster gods. In Greek mythology it is Hermes, in Norse tales it is Loki, and in Native American folklore it is the Coyote and the Raven. In Trickster Makes This World, Hyde reminds us of the origin of appetite of both the spiritual and physical variety. He recounts the Amerindiantale of the two slaves called “Mouth at Each End” who have insatiable hunger because they have “eaten scabs from [their] shinbones” (Hyde 24). Like many folk tales, this is a creation story. It conveys the creation of the trickster through the idea that eating one’s “woundedness” increases one’s hunger. The slaves called “Mouth at Each End” show the Chief’s son how to eat his own scabs. At first this seems unfortunate, because once he has tasted his own “wounds,” he is unable to stop eating and gets banished from the village. But this is not a sad story. Eating his own wounds liberates him from the small village, and he changes shape into the trickster the Raven. The tricksters“self-eating” is their raison d’être, because their lives become goal-oriented—to get as much food as possible with the least amount of work.

One might say that “self-eating” removesoneself from the food chain, but in actuality the idea of self-eating echoes the law of ecological interdependence—“all who eat in this world musteventually themselves be eaten…everything that feeds will someday be food for other mouths” (Hyde 27). This idea is demonstrated in Prodigal Summer.  Each of the characters have their own “woundedness,” a loneliness, that they must internalize in order to develop into more fulfilled individuals. But Kingsolver’s ultimate message is not about accepting one’s problems. The novel’s characters don’t understand the laws of nature; they do not know how to position themselves in harmony with their unfarmed environment. Instead, they ignore the natural balance of predator-prey relationships and use pesticides to kill indiscriminately. They fall so short of understanding the environment that they harbor unsubstantiated fear of the natural top predators that keep the ecosystem of the Appalachia in balance. They also fail to realize how like the insects and birds their own lives are. Kingsolver uses an extended metaphor of the transient, overabundant summer where propagation of the species is theobjective of sex, to emphasis how the characters themselves are obsessed withsex. Human relationships in which the men are expendable resemble the dynamics in many species of insects and birds. By describing such unequal relationships that mirror earlier times in evolution, Kingsolver suggests that we must restore balance to Southern Appalachia.

Both Lusa and Deanna are older than their male counterparts, Eddie and Little Rickie, which seems strange in a society used to seeing men with younger women. But this type of relationship is often present in the insect and animal world where only the male has to be truly young and potent. The story of Deanna becoming pregnant by Eddie without his knowledge mirrors the male moth unaware if the female he has had sex with is pregnant or not. Lusa benefits more from Cole’s death than she might have from his living, and Rickie does not equal her in intelligence or age. The focal point of Garnett’s story is Nannie, who manages to live mateless and husbandless, while Garnett complains he needs a woman as an “anchor” to live his life. The men are the not providers, but the expendable sex. Kingsolver is making a point: for humans, as in almost all insect species and in some bird species, the males seem to be no longer needed after the eggs are fertilized.

But humans, who are so removed from the natural order of things, should not be having sexual relationships like moths’sexual relationships. So why would Kingsolver be describing such strange, imbalanced, and incorrect relationships? Perhaps after the overly fertile and extremely feminine summer of ephemeral relationships will come the frugal winter of unity and equality between the men and women of the novel. Perhaps,if Kingsolver’s novel is looked at as a mini evolution, the balance between men and women will be restored at a time not documented in the novel. Eventually human relationships will look more like the coyotes’, and less like the moths’. 

I want to explore the possibility that Kingsolver’s juxtaposition of coyotes and moths in the novel represent two ways human sexual relationships can work. Evolutionarily, humans are set apart with other mammals from reptiles and anthropods because sexual maturity takes such along time in humans, and humans raise families and usually have partners for life. If we compare the women to predators or hunters and the men to prey, because Lusa and Deanna get something from their men that they do not reciprocate, then we agree that “the tension between predator and prey is one of the great engines that has driven the creation of intelligence itself, [with] each side successively and ceaselessly responding to the other,” (Hyde 20).

By representing the human relationships in an evolutionarily ‘backward’ way, to resemble insects’ relationships, Kingsolver might be suggesting that a balance can be restored once the women in the book grow up. The fact that the younger women are experiencing insect-like copulation-then-goodbye sexual encounters places the mini evolution on a timescale. By the time Lusa and Deanna get to Nannie’s age, they may be able to have normal human relationships like Garnett and Nannie’s, which resembles “two old chestnuts up there, anomalous survivors of their century, gnarled with age and disease but still standing” (Kingsolver 343).

What are the implications of restoring the balance in the novel? Kingsolver associates Deanna with the Coyotes, Lusa with the Moths, and Garnett with the American Chestnut species. The imbalance of the sexes in the novel focuses our attention on the species each character feels attached to and looks to propagate. Deanna hides the location of the coyotes from hunters, Lusa educates the next generation in an effort for conservation, and Garnett tries to breed an American Chestnut that is immune to the blight that wiped so many out. In a functional ecosystem, the species itself, not the individuals of the species, are in balance with the other species. In creating unequal man/woman relationships, Kingsolver may be suggesting individuals do not matter in the scheme of things. What matters is the species population as a whole.

The Southern Appalachia, where Prodigal Summer takes place, has the greatest terrestrial biodiversity in the world. Calculated by using a mathematical formula called the Shannon Index, diversity takes into account the number of individuals of a certain species, the number of species in the test area, the total number of all the individuals in the species, and the relative abundance of each species. Diversity is important for ecosystems because it allows more interactions betweenspecies, like more complex food webs and better soil and water quality, since each species is doing its part. For instance, the Carolina Parakeet, now extinct, used to specialize in eating cockleburs. But since there is no longer the ‘eater’ on that food web, the cockleburs have taken over Southern Appalachia, “uneaten and would continue so for the rest of time” (Kingsolver247). Just increasing the number of one species would not add to diversity. The addition of only a few members of several species is better than lots of justone species. Kingsolver tries to show us the importance of biodiversity through Deanna’s love of the coyote. Though sheep farms are at risk economically if there are coyotes in the area, the biodiversity of the Appalachia may be restored through the addition of a top predator. This point is hammered into the reader over and over through Deanna’s stream of consciousness. Yet the idea that species balance is essential to a healthy ecosystem is ultimately Kingsolver’sidea, because her characters Lusa, Deanna, and Garnett work so hard to preserve species in danger.

The focus of Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer becomes apparent in the last chapter in the novel. If one has any doubt that Kingsolver’s concentration is on the ecological world with the humans acting mostly as observers and as foils to the natural environment, then the last chapter removes it. The first and last chapters share many of the same sentences and are both narrated by the same omniscient observer, “Solitude is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot…every choice is a world made new for the chosen”(1, 444). The one difference between the two chapters is the referent for “she”. In the first chapter Deanna is revealed as “she” on the bottom of the third page. In the last chapter, Kingsolver plays up the ambiguity of the pronoun. We assume the final scene is a flashback of Deanna’s descent from the mountain, but upon closer reading, we discover that it is not a flashback. The “she” of the final chapter is a coyote. Through subtly linking Deanna and the coyote female, Kingsolver makes her final attempt to show the reader that the coyotes and Deanna have many of the same observations, noticing the same smells and sounds of the forest, that their narratives are intertwined. Even though humans are from a different species than coyotes and moths and trees, we all deserve a place in the world since we depend on each other for different functions. In the end, Kingsolver says that humans are not independent from their environment.















Works Cited

Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes ThisWorld: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 17-38.

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

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lola's picture

This is an amazing paper. A

This is an amazing paper. A beautiful interpretation of a beautiful book. Thank you for posting this. I did not notice the connection between each character and their chosen species, though it is rather obvious now that I think about it. And that there was a male for each female.