reviews

Book review: Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver

I read this one first shortly after I first read The Bean Trees, back in my early teens, I believe. Both of them made a strong impression on me, so it’s interesting to re-experience them in audiobook form a decade-plus later.

I listened to The Bean Trees back in 2013, and the gap between that and my listening to Pigs in Heaven now is far wider than I prefer to re-discover a series. Unfortunately, the Houston library could not supply me with the audiobook of Pigs in Heaven, and, as discussed, my sit-down reading time is nearly nonexistent. But I now live in a small Oregon town with a blessed library that has a much wider audiobook collection.

My first surprise with this book was the increase of sexual content. I think I was just barely aware of sex when I first read it — not so it was “inappropriate” for me, but I don’t think I really grasped the end of lines like:

She’s wearing leather sandals of the type worn by practitioners of yoga and pacifism, though the rest of her outfit is more aggressive: something in the line of a black brasserie, he can’t get the full picture from behind, and a skirt made up of many long, satisfactorily transparent scarves.

(I’ll add an amused side note that this early ’90s book is dated as such by the suggestion that yoga practitioners have a sandal type in common with pacifists. Yoga really has taken off in a different direction in the 21st century. I don’t think today’s yoga practitioners have a common sandal among them, aside from a sensible flip-flop. They’re more easily identified by their yoga mats and pants.)

Also, later on, I was surprised by OLD PEOPLE SEX. That was a surreal experience for me even now (though maybe because I was driving as I listened to the sensual description).

What I remembered most vividly from this book: Jax. Jax and his dialogue. “I’m radioactive with despair” is something I have quoted often in the last decade-plus, whenever it seemed remotely appropriate. Jax was one of my first literary crushes, I think — not in a physical way, but in a romantic-intellectual way. I loved the way he spoke. I don’t think I’d read before any character who talked the way he did, and very few since.

But to the actual plot:

In my review of the first book, I wrote how the storyline struck a chord with me (not in personal experience, but because I’ve written a great deal about lost children, trauma, making your own family). No less so in this one. The first scene between Taylor and Annawake was overwhelmingly painful and enraging, and I fumed about it for long after I heard it.

I absolutely understand Annawake’s point about the importance of Native American children remaining in their tribe, maintaining connections to their people, receiving education firsthand from them and not through white culture (not to mention the ongoing crisis of native children lost to white families at shocking rates). That’s crucial, I agree! But she made her point in such a hamfisted way — and, most crucially, could not separate her argument for education and connection from the threat of taking your daughter away.

Of course Taylor was justified in taking off with Turtle. Jax said it perfectly, about the whole Mama Bear response.

Not to mention! Taylor wasn’t driven by a selfish impulse, as Annawake later suggested. Of course Taylor was terrified that Turtle might be returned to another abusive family, or one that wouldn’t understand what Turtle has been through. Taylor had been raising Turtle for three years at that point — she went into the adoption with her whole heart, at the end of the first book — but there’s another layer, which is the bonding they went through overcoming Turtle’s profound trauma, helping her reach some level of normalcy for a six-year-old. Taylor has been through a testing by fire with Turtle. She is more crucial to Turtle than the average adopted mother, and there was no indication that Annawake understood that. She’s a lawyer, not a social worker. She shouldn’t have been the one to visit Taylor’s home, or at least not alone.

But as it was made clear, Annawake had her own history guiding her, and I can’t fault her for that. It was just a completely heart-rending scene, on all sides.

Still, I would have dearly loved for Taylor to shout that Annawake should be spending her energies hunting down and locking up the bastard who abused Turtle — and after she did that, then they could talk. In fact, here is a telegram (a lost art, I maintain) I like to imagine Taylor sending Annawake while she’s on the lam:

OVER MY DEAD BODY WILL TURTLE GO BACK TO WHERE HER ABUSER WALKS FREE STOP. DON’T CONTACT ME AGAIN UNTIL HE’S DEAD OR LOCKED UP FOR LIFE STOP.

I’m glad that Alice re-emphasized the trauma aspect, and also brought up how Turtle should have a say too in where she went. Alice was so great in general — I loved getting to know her better in this book, and the role she played. Especially that wonderful scene when she met Taylor in the Las Vegas airport, and we experienced Turtle’s distress over her mother crying through her point of view. How, as Taylor noted in her own POV later, crying or any sign of emotional distress sends Turtle into a tailspin.

Now let’s talk about the Barbie subplot. Oof. I missed when Taylor sustained a head injury sometime before she arrived in Vegas, because I could have sworn she was so much smarter than to be impressed by a stranger on the sole criteria of knowing her to be a thief! And allowing her to babysit Turtle! Of course that ended badly, but I couldn’t believe Taylor was so naive as to trust Barbie the way she did. And I couldn’t believe Taylor wouldn’t run immediately to her money stash, the moment she realized Barbie had split (and with Taylor’s sheets!). This is just the early ’90s…bank accounts existed, so it can’t have been that usual to carry all your cash with you.

Taylor’s suffering in the Pacific Northwest was painful to read, as (almost totally) realistic as it was. The whole effort of trying to survive without a close network, without a support group, struggling to keep minimum-wage jobs and meet all the daily expenses of life. It made sense that the final straw was realizing how wrong she’d been about Turtle liking milk, and how her ignorance might harm Turtle again in future.

The final scenes, when they arrive in Oklahoma and meet Annawake again, then Turtle’s grandfather, were painfully intense. I would have been bawling constantly, if I were Taylor (so it’s a good thing Taylor wasn’t like me, for Turtle’s sake). The ending was almost too perfect in how it worked out, but it made me happy. (Though the whole “one-sixteenth Cherokee” detail is definitely silly and banal by now, though.) I feel that Annawake’s uncle, the chief, walked close to being a stereotype, but avoided it in the end. I like his appropriation of the Solomon story, for instance, and his guidance for Annawake was just right. Best of all, Turtle’s going to get therapy! And, of course, to spend her summers on the reservation with her grandfather.

Though I do quibble with the final anti-TV image, as Cash puts a bullet through the screen as a testament of his love for Alice. I know that’s a reflection of the author’s own feelings on TV, projected through Alice. Alice’s crankiness towards Cash over the issue was an overreaction, though realistic for most people leaving a bad marriage, as Alice had just been through. Still, I like to think she eventually mellowed and allowed a little TV in her life.

Final thoughts, from the perspective of a musing writer: I entered this story more aware than I had been the first time of how Kingsolver must have approached it. She’d been a completely unknown author before The Bean Trees launched her into national prominence, the bestseller lists, all the attention and critiques that come with it. No doubt she heard a lot of protest from Native American communities about how she short-changed their side (especially since she spent so long on what was happening in Guatemala, to their indigenous people), if not outright misrepresented them. I’m sure she felt that charge keenly and planned this sequel with the intention of correcting that.

I wonder how she did her research, if she visited a Cherokee reservation and talked to many people. Probably. With the first introduction of Annawake and her life, I thought she might be overdoing it, but it soon balanced out.

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