Friday, March 18, 2011

Small Wonder

I started reading Small Wonder almost nine years ago, during the summer road trip that bridged college and graduate school. It’s a series of essays, and so it was easy to put down and not pick up for a while. I don’t remember how far I got that summer, so I started from the beginning again. The essays were collected in response to the events of September 11, 2001. Many of them are only distantly related, some not at all, but there is a general theme of noting the way the world is changing, and not usually for the better.

I love Barbara Kingsolver’s writing. The Bean Trees was one of very few books I read in high school that I enjoyed. (Also on that list: Jurassic Park, Flatland, Clan of the Cave Bear, Catcher in the Rye, and Yellow Raft on Blue Water. I hated many of the books we read.) Animal Dreams and Prodigal Summer beautifully straddle the line between science and fiction, without any science fiction. The Poisonwood Bible was epic. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was... different.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It was inspiring. But not everyone has a second home in the hills of West Virginia, where we can spend all day farming our own food. I suppose my job is more conducive to that than others, but I still wouldn’t have the first idea of where to start living off the land. My garden failed dramatically, mostly because I didn’t have the know-how nor the interest to make it work.

The essays in Small Wonder draw along those same lines, only they aren’t focused on the household garden. They cover all areas of life, and pretty much make me feel bad about my life choices. I buy books from large chain stores, I watch TV (and not just PBS), I eat genetically modified crops and processed food that was shipped in from South America. I don’t know anything about birds or any other wildlife, and I have yet to give up factory-farmed meat. I know these are bad for the world, but sometimes it feels as though I have no other choice.

Aside from my own self-loathing, the essays make me feel cynical about the state of the country, and of the world. They’re not meant to--they’re written with an air of hope and change. But they were written ten years ago, about the sorry state we were in then, and the arguments apply just the same to today. We’re still waging war where we shouldn’t be, we’re still eating genetically modified and over-processed foods, and our government is still run by corporations instead of people. If anything, there’s more to rail against than there was back then.

This isn’t to say that the book is bad, just sad. Like everything Kingsolver does, it’s well-written and earnest. It’s persuasive, and that exactly is what makes me sad: despite the finely-crafted essays, editorials, exposes, and protests that appear over and over, we’re still making the same mistakes over and over again. If we can’t turn this world around, then who will?

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