Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer


This book by a passionate nature-lover is one of my all-time favorites. For me it is about how people who have unduly prolonged the promise of Spring ripen into fully evolved, wildly extravagant lovers of life. I see this as a spiritual task as well as a psychological one. Why? Consider Episcopal Bishop John Spong’s definition of God:
God is the Source of Life who is worshiped when we live fully.
God is the Source of Love who is worshiped when we love wastefully.
God is the Ground of Being who is worshiped when we have the courage to be.
By the end of the summer, this becomes a life-path for the main characters. For example, the middle-aged forest caretaker, Deanna, (aka Diana/Artemis, goddess of the moon and wilderness), eases up on her lone-wolf, tough-girl persona and takes a young lover. In return, she receives the gift of hopeful new life: not only in a physical baby but psychologically too. Before meeting Eddie she is a one-dimensional warrior-like Artemis; but he brings out her Aphrodite big time and soon she will develop her maternal Demeter as well. Even if the baby has Downs’ Syndrome because of her age, for her this will be a full-circle return to the love of her youth, Nannie’s wounded child, Rachel, (a nod to Rachel Carson?) who is forever lost to her.
When Lusa moves to Appalachia with her new husband Cole, then loses him shortly afterwards, (Lusa/Loser? Cole/Coal? — symbolizing his descent into the blackness of death and the treasure she will mine from this devastating loss?), this sophisticated city girl relaxes her grip on her old, patronizing attitudes. Befriending Little Rickie and Jewel brings undreamt riches: Jewel’s children, a goat farm, Garnett, and Nannie. Look at the symbolism in these names: a garnet is a semi-precious Jewel. Rickie/Richie/rich. Nannie/nanny goat. All part of the richness-to-come in the summer of Lusa’s life because she risks making original choices. Jung said, “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” Lucky Lusa to learn this at such a young age.
Garnett, a spiritually rigid and psychologically repressed widower farmer, blossoms too. By embracing Nannie’s disturbing differences, he will be blessed with a whole new family. Even the mysterious Eddie Bondo (Eddie/eddy? — the whirlpool of passion into which he sucks Deanna? Bondo/bond? — their sexual bond releases them both from bondage to repression?) matures. With Deanna’s help, he questions his predatory instincts enough to see the significance of a creature he has heretofore viewed as prey. Might this include woman as well as coyote?
Improbable as it may seem, I see this beautiful youth as a Pan-like Jesus figure, just as Nannie represents the Divine Feminine. The nanny goat is associated with ancient fertility cults and in India is an embodiment of the primal mother. The male goat, besides symbolizing male sexual powers, is a sacrificial animal that takes on the sins of the people: When a scapegoat is banished into the wilderness, all are absolved of guilt. While Eddie is not directly associated with goats, he most certainly is associated with the wilderness and Pan’s goatish, guilt-free sex. More important, like Jesus, he transforms Deanna’s stark life into one filled with joy, authenticity, and love.
What could be more spiritual than that?

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0 Responses

  1. I love your analysis of this, Jeanie, as a spiritual journey. You see things that I didn’t see.

  2. Hi Susan,
    Sorry it took me a while to respond. I was in DC for a couple of days.
    I’m so glad you liked it. I naturally gravitate to the symbolic way of interpreting books and other art forms because I’m always looking for underlying psycho-spiritual themes and truths. And they’re always there, even in casual human interactions and trivial summer beach reads!! And Prodigal Summer was definitely not one of those! Thanks so much for recommending this very special book to me. I will always treasure it.

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