Prodigal Summer

Animal nature, human nature, bugs and insects, forest life, their dependence and interdependence, habits good and bad and how the balance is affected when death, destruction or any kind of change is introduced; how species adapt, how human beings cope – or don’t – all of this we find in the juxtaposition of creatures assembled from the thoughtful poetic pen of Barbara Kingsolver in Prodigal Summer as she weaves three stories variously referred to in three alternating chapter titles, Predators, Moth Love and Old Chestnuts.

It may be due to the sound of the cicadas screeching outside while I read, or the richness of Kingsolver’s prose, but this book exudes the heat of summer and its associated sensations. It places you deep in the forest on the mountainside, heightening all the senses and bringing attention to every sound and movement, witness to the presence of all manner of wildlife pulsing just beyond what the eye can see.

Predators – Essentially the story revolves around three female characters, Deanna, the wildlife biologist living in a forest cabin working as her kind of conservationist, destabilised by the presence of a young hunter in her territory and her preoccupation with guarding a young coyote family that have returned to the forest wilderness.

She shares her environment with a snake, another predator and a metaphor for man, the snake is natural to the habitat and will expose Deanna for what she really is – not just a qualified biologist tending nature, keeping man and his hunting instinct out – but a woman with a suppressed but natural maternal instinct, depicted by her attachment to a family of chickadees. When the fledglings fall prematurely out of the nest, she puts them back, justifying her intervention in nature’s way, trying to alter the otherwise harsh survival odds nature has given the little birds, more in their favour. She succeeds in keeping them all alive, only to discover on her return from a walk, four telling bulges in the coil of the sleeping black serpent.

When the snake finally leaves she feels something shift inside her body – relief, it felt like, enormous and settled, like a pile of stones on a steep slope suddenly shifting and tumbling slightly into the angle of repose.

Moth Love by Nusio21

Moth Love – Lusa is a bug scientist, now local farmer’s wife, though still perceived as an outsider with her mixed cultural background and continued use of her foreign sounding maiden name. She is trying to adapt to her new role and changed circumstances while staying true to her beliefs and recognising her not so traditional, but well-founded knowledge and approach to farming.

In the summer after … Lusa discovered lawn-mower therapy. The engine’s vibrations roaring through her body and its thunderous noise in her ears seemed to bully all human language from her head, chasing away the complexities of regret and recrimination. It was a blessing to ride over the grass for an hour or two as a speechless thing, floating through a universe of vibratory sensation. By accident, she had found her way to the mind-set of an insect.

Chestnuts

Old Chestnuts – The third character(s) are the elderly and persistent Nannie Rawley and her equally aged, cantankerous, fixed in his ideas neighbour, the widower Garnett. They trade insults and unappreciated advice across their boundaries, but can’t seem to keep away from each other despite their polar opposite views.

Halal Goat

Not that it detracted from the reading of the book, but I did ponder the similarity in conviction of the three female characters, it is not clear whether or not they know each other for much of the book, but with such similar attitudes in their various fields, in a real community I would have expected them to have discovered each other and had some kind of interaction or at least knowledge of each other from the beginning. Sometimes this is a deliberate tactic by the writer to keep the connections between people vague until the end, to shape some kind of revelation. It just seemed like a bit of a coincidence that three such characters living in a traditional farming community had such little awareness of each other.

As much a study of nature, as a story of that which passes between these characters during this one summer, Prodigal Summer is indulgence of the satisfying, learned kind; it is compelling reading and a lesson in the wonder, beauty and balance of nature and humanity.

Summer by Edith Wharton

If ‘Ethan Frome’ is winter, so this, its companion novel is ‘Summer’, though ironically there is less a sense of the season and its metaphoric meaning; perhaps ‘The End of the Summer’ might have been a more apt title.

Edith Wharton was worldly and wealthy, speaking four languages and entertaining future American heiresses in her Paris home, her latter years lived in France. Yet as the range of her works testify, from rural Ethan Frome’  small town New England ‘Summer’ to the more social aspiring ‘House of Mirth’ and ‘Age of Innocence’ she understood and had empathy for those whose lives were lived at the opposite end of the spectrum of her own.

Charity Royall, an eighteen year old girl from the Mountain up there beyond, has been raised by a childless couple from town; she lives with her guardian Mr Royall, now a widow. She knows little and remembers nothing of her parents or that frowned upon community no one ever mentions.

Until the bold, young Architect Lucien Harnus appears, unafraid to ask questions. The more she learns while listening to Mr Royall respond to him, the more insecurity creeps into her being, though there is little outward sign of this change.

Initially we witness her wilful attitude, with which she succeeds in claiming the post of librarian against all other eligible girls in town, despite little interest in the actual job itself. She appears intelligent, adept at identifying opportunity, her questionable ancestry all but obliterated. However, she lacks a female role model and is barely on speaking terms with My Royall after his own near lapse with regard to the carnal instinct. In matters of love and the feminine, Charity is at a disadvantage. Her first experience with a young suitor is telling.

Her heart was ravaged by life’s cruellest discovery: the first creature who had come toward her out of the wilderness had brought her anguish instead of joy. She did not cry; tears came hard to her, and the storms of her heart spent themselves inwardly.

Without giving anything away of the story, the young man wins her over and she will have her summer of joy, but naïveté and a reluctance to assert herself in matters of the heart will compromise her position in this society that values and rewards tradition over love. She considers returning to her people:

There was no sense of guilt in her now, but only a desperate desire to defend her secret from irreverent eyes, and begin life again among people to whom the harsh code of the village was unknown.

It is a tragedy, as we have the impression that this is a young woman rescued from a life of little promise who could have made something of it, who should have, if she had been warned; she is as much a victim of the era she lives in as the lack of a female role model. I couldn’t help thinking about a possible sequel, one where she defies the odds and proves everyone wrong, because that is just the kind of girl she was.

In this respect the story differs from ‘Ethan Frome’ in which we are provided a glimpse into the future regarding what happens next, here Wharton has chosen to either leave that to the reader’s imagination, or her final act will be seen as sufficient evidence to predict a conventional outcome. You decide.

‘Summer’ has recently been adapted to the stage by Julia Stubbs Hughes and the play will focus on the three central characters of the novel, exploring the discovery of love and attraction in a society that restricts both.

It will be showing at the Jack Studio Theatre in South East London from 8 – 26 May 2012 if you happen to be in London. Further details can be found at ‘The Summer Project’.