Female Protagonists

Let’s Discuss — Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

The outside press, when they look at this case, will be asking only one thing: what is in the best interest of the child? But we’re Cherokee and we look at things differently. We consider that the child is part of something larger, a tribe. Like a hand belongs to the body. Before we cut it off, we have to ask how the body will take care of itself without that hand (338)

Pigs in Heaven is the sequel to Barbara Kingsolver’s great novel The Bean Trees. I didn’t realize this was the sequel until I was about to start reading. I picked up a book I hadn’t heard of, in good faith because I trust the author. I love Kingsolver’s writing style and the characters she creates. They’re familiar. I talk more about this familiarity in my write-up for Prodigal Summer. Anyways, as I was saying, Pigs in Heaven is the follow-up–so what’s it about?
 
Kingsolver presents readers with a story about family and community and what it truly means to have a “home”. She asks: what are you a part of? what’s a part of you? And which is more important?
 
This story of Taylor and her illegal* adoption of Turtle might leave you conflicted. Is her home with the people who love her, or is it with her people**? I personally thought it should be the former. I couldn’t get over the feeling that the Nation, more specifically, Annawake Fourkiller, wanted Turtle just because they were legally entitled to her. They were not morally or emotionally connected to her. Especially, Annawake. She assumed many things about Taylor’s relationship with Turtle. And while her concerns*** over Turtle’s future of fitting in were valid, I didn’t believe they were genuine. Annawake, didn’t care for Turtle. Annawake cared about the Nation’s reputation…or better yet the symbolism behind taking Turtle from her white family and placing her in a house with people who looked like her (but were still by some definition strangers)
 
But I get it. There’s this pressing need or pressing belief to need to be connected to your history and culture…for many reasons related to reality. Surely, Turtle couldn’t grow up believing she was white. A mirror and peers would tell her otherwise. And it would be sad to never know anything about those who came before you and gave you life. Still…that’s accepting the assumption that Taylor would willingly choose to let Turtle lead a life of ignorance. And based on what we know of Taylor, I have a hard time accepting that. Don’t we give foster parents the benefit of the doubt? Maybe not…

 
Annawake Fourkiller represented what I thought to be a staunch preserver of tribal membership. In contrast, I found Sugar Hornbuckle, Taylor’s mother’s cousin (?) to be much more inviting when it came to discussing community. Sugar Hornbuckle may or may not be 1/16 Cherokee, but she’s still part of the Nation and her children are part of the Nation and her home is in Oklahoma among other members of the Nation. Sugar tells Taylor’s mom, Alice, that she doesn’t need to look or live a certain way to be Cherokee, she just is, if she chooses**** to be… I do find it somewhat ironic even the whitest of people can belong to the Nation if they find a name on a list. Their diluted blood and Anglo-Saxon appearances mean nothing. They are still of the community. Yet Taylor is criticized by Annawake on the basis of her whiteness and subsequent inability to raise Turtle properly. The good news is it all works out in the end…

It’s been maybe five years since I read The Bean Trees, and while some of the details of that book are not fresh in my mind, I still feel something along the lines of joy when I think about it. So expectations were raised with each page turn of Pigs in Heaven. And now I ask myself: did Kingsolver disappoint? was Pigs in Heaven worthwhile?

The answers to both questions are no.

Kingsolver offers readers a myriad of entertaining characters and surprisingly, this turns out to be both a good and a bad thing. The characters are hodge-podge–too mismatch and eccentric to be believable (in my opinion) I mean Jax, Barbie, Gundi (?) the list goes on…They’re all funny and interesting, but not realistic. And their humorous dispositions don’t mesh well with the very serious issue at hand; Turtle being taken away from the only mother she knows.

*begins in The Bean Trees 

**Cherokee–Native Americans

*** i.e. potential feelings of isolation and/or alienation related to appearance that may affect social behavior

****choice is a funny word here because to be a part of the Nation and vote, you have to locate the name of someone who you can prove is related to you by blood in records known as the Dawes Rolls . You’re shit out of luck if you can’t prove it, or if your family member didn’t have records, or for someone reason or another their name isn’t on the list (which is the case for some Black Cherokees and Freedmen)

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Let’s Discuss — Icy Sparks by Gwyn Hyman Rubio

No, Miss Emily had not a clue as to what ailed me. She could stop herself from eating. I, on the other hand, couldn’t help what I did. My urges controlled me. Nevertheless, in Miss Emily’s eyes, we were the same. She was the orphan of Ginseng; I was the orphan of Poplar Holler. If she had her way, she’d used our strangeness to unite us (38)

Icy Sparks is a serious yet playful story of a young girl named, Icy Sparks, whose adolescence is marred by tics and outbursts she cannot control. Icy learns the value of the truth from a young age. She knows how her parents died and how their dispositions may have affected her own. She knows she’s different and feels her difference should be kept a secret. But the longer Icy keeps her secrets, the longer the pressure builds and the greater the outburst. These outbursts drastically affect Icy and her relationship with everyone in the small rural Kentucky community.

Icy is a great character. I can’t decide if she’s rudely honest or honestly rude. Either way it’s charming. I think the author is successful at spotlighting a seriously misunderstood topic in a very humorous and relatable way. The narrative is sprinkled with bits like this:

I stared at Wilma’s stomach, which was puffing out more than usual, and at her mustache, which had become thicker and hardier in the past few weeks, and gagged at her being pregnant and even harder at the thought of her being the Virgin Mary. “Poor baby Jesus,” I whispered. (169)

There are similar interactions between Icy and her best friend and teacher, Emily. Icy spares no feelings about her friend’s obesity. They’re an interesting duo. I’m conflicted because I know Miss Emily loves Icy and wants to elevate her, but I don’t know by how much. I wasn’t always convinced she wanted Icy to do better—they’re outcasts together after all. I’m mostly referring to conversation they had over being ‘touched’. And by ‘touched’, I do mean intimately. It’s one of the more awkward sections of the book, yet completely necessary. Emily’s relationship with Icy works because there are good and bad parts to each person. Everyone has their own demons.

Icy’s resolution, her epiphany at the Revival left me perplexed. The atmosphere is so unlike the rest of the book and admittedly, it threw me off. I think Icy’s character is very likeable, interesting and believable, but to toss God in there when she wasn’t particularly religious was somewhat odd. At the same time, it makes sense because Icy could care less if she attended a Catholic, Baptist, or Methodist church. She really needed that feeling of community and acceptance. Icy was able to jump headfirst into something with no fear or threat of rejection. By singing with several church choirs, she can finally be part of the community that had estranged her since childhood.

Let’s Discuss — The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula LeGuin

The Earth is beautiful, and bright and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men’s eyes. And where men worship these things and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds… (118)

The majority of this short book is dedicated to introducing the character, Arha, the High Priestess of The Nameless Ones in the Place of Tombs. She is a living artifact of a somewhat forgotten religion that is less relevant to the kingdom of the Godking that rules. Ged/Sparrowhawk, the protagonist from A Wizard of Earthsea, enters the book much later.

The worship at the Place of Tombs is very dark in nature. It involves frequent human sacrifice and trips into a labyrinth of tombs and treasure, where no light is permitted. Arha learns how religion means different things for different people. For some it is a pathway to power. For others it’s a way of life. And for many it’s something to do because there is nothing else to do. Gradually, Arha forms opinions on the hierarchy she participates in, and one by one divides friend from foe.

Arha inadvertently discovers Ged in the tombs one day. Ged is an outsider, a nonbeliever and heathen wizard. His presence defies everything Arha has been taught–he lights the darkness. Ged shows her there’s more in the world than what’s suppressed in the dark labyrinth.

I didn’t enjoy The Tombs of Atuan as much as A Wizard of Earthsea. I found Ged’s origin story to be more compelling than Arha’s…she comes across very self-righteous, condescending and self-centered. But this is a side-effect of her upbringing. As The Eaten One, she is placed on a pedestal and told the darkness is her domain. Sequestered at the Place, she only knows what the other priestesses have taught her. Yet she is just a girl, young and dumb, with no grasp on how vast and different the world is.

So by the end, Arha still has much to learn about herself, whereas, Ged had matured substantially by the end of his origin story. However, Ged also had the freedom to go on a journey of self-discovery. Thanks to Ged, Arha is just now finding this freedom and perhaps in the third book of the Earthsea Cycle, Arha will experience something more.