I found Barbara Kingsolver when I was in middle school, beginning with The Bean Trees and moving on to Animal Dreams and Pigs in Heaven (the sequel to the first novel), then working my way backwards through her short stories collected in Homeland and Other Stories. The thread that connected all her stories was the idea of home, of finding your place in the world and in your family, whether it was the family you were born with, the family you chose, or the family that chose you. There are other more complicated things, darker things, love and loss and deep political beliefs that burned through the pages, that belief that someone felt that they were doing the right thing, that they had found some purpose in their life that they had to pursue, even if it cost everything they had to lose. And then I found her High Tide in Tuscon, and fell into something else.
Some time ago I lost my copy of High Tide in Tuscon - somebody borrowed it and never returned it, which is the way of books - but there are some things I remember about that collection of essays. About how she had thought, "love it or leave it" about America during the first Gulf war, and her subsequent decision to move to the Canary Islands with her young daughter for a year. About her experience hiking through one of the national parks in Hawaii with the man who would later become her second husband, a park filled with strange and rare flora and fauna. It left me with a sense of guilt about how little I know about the horrors we visit on our planet, a sense of wonder (as Kingsolver's writing often gives me) that there are still places left that we can treasure. She wrote about writing her first novel in a closet - I think at that time she had a tiny baby and her first marriage was coming to an end - and raising a daughter alone, and finally, about that "triumph of hope over experience" that is the second marriage. I read it all and then pushed Kingsolver to one corner of my mind. Years passed. In a bookstore while searching for something else I found Small Wonder, another book of essays begun, without the author realizing it, the day after September 11, 2001.
I learned a surprising thing in writing this book, she begins. It is possible to move away from a vast, unbearable pain by delving into it deeper and deeper - by "diving into the wreck," to borrow the perfect words from Adrienne Rich. You can look at all the parts of a terrible thing until you see that they're assemblies of smaller parts, all of which you can name, and some of which you can heal or alter, and finally the terror that seemed unbearable becomes managable. I suppose what I am describing is the process of grief. Kingsolver had been asked to write about her feelings regarding the terrorist attacks of September 11, (when tragedy strikes we turn to our writers so they may help us understand our own agony, and so that they may give us hope), and what ensued was a series of essays that turned into a book, which as a whole has the sense of unbearable grief turning into hope and what we might make of ourselves in the life to come. It is a way of writing that you see in her novels, but in her essays becomes something rather more forthright, more immediate, a clear voice in your mind that shows you everything you could be if only you had the courage to try.
Kingsolver, Barbara. Small Wonder. Perennial, 2003. p xiii.