I finally gave up all hope of recovering my own copy of High Tide in Tuscon: Essays from Now or Never, and bought another one. (What the heck; the original cost 99¢ in the bargain section of my university bookstore). Now as I read it again for the first time in three or four years I wonder how I could have gone without it for so long. I have been reading Barbara Kingsolver for some fifteen years now, since I picked up The Bean Trees (it probably belonged to my mother) and followed the twenty-three-year-old Taylor Greer out of Kentucky and across America until a busted rocker arm landed her in Tuscon (it is strange to read The Bean Trees now that I am older than Taylor and can feel that prickly awareness that runs up your arms and down your spine when you realize that the characters you have loved all your life will never grow older than they are on the written page, that you run to catch up to and then realize you have surpassed them).
Now I come back to High Tide in Tuscon and see with surprise how much of herself Kingsolver puts into her fiction, how she left her own Kentucky hometown at the age of twenty-two, in the "shell of a tiny yellow Renault" and drove, with all her belongings, from Kentucky to Tuscon, like the heroine of her first novel, written, "conceived recklessly, in a closet late at night, when the restlessness of [her] insomniac pregnancy drove [her] to compulsive verbal intercourse with [her] own soul." Kingsolver is tall and lanky, an outsider like Codi Noline in Animal Dreams, stomping around in her cowboy boots. (Fact and fiction are different truths). I feel a shock of recognition when she tells us about how librarians and her school library saved her, guided her towards the writer she would become; I cannot pretend that I am anywhere close, or ever will be, to being a writer, but I have in my own past a trail of librarians and school libraries whose shelves led me to words that would change my life.
There are some words of Barbara Kingsolver's that have stayed clear in my mind since I first read them; I think she has used them in one of her novels as well, but whether fact or fiction there is no turning away from this simple truth: People will claim that having children is a ticket to immortality, but in fact it merely doubles your stakes in mortality. You labor and you love and there you are, suddenly, with twice as many eyes in your house that could be put out, hearts that could be broken, new lives dearer than your own that could be taken from you. And still we do it, have children, right and left. We love and we lose, get hurled across the universe, put on a new shell, listen to the seasons. I think of her words every time I see a mother with her child, every time I hold someone else's baby in my arms, every time I look at my own parents and think of our own mortality, of what Nabokov referred to as "the brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness" in his opening words of Speak, Memory. Kingsolver writes about everything she and the world around her stands to lose, but lives and writes as though she has nothing to lose, urging us all to do the same.
Kingsolver, Barbara. High Tide in Tuscon: Essays from Now or Never. Perennial, 2003. pp 6, 37, 270.