How Barbara Kingsolver makes literature topical — from climate change to opioids to a “New Normal” of parenting to the rise of digital culture.
The New Normal
For many years, Barbara Kingsolver’s The New Normal got lost in the shuffle of contemporary literature—a kind of gentle rebellion against its own time. It’s easy to laugh now, imagining Kingsolver’s books as her response, in hindsight, to the bleak, bleak 1990s. But when I read The New Normal when it was published in 1990, Kingsolver was still the country’s leading environmental writer, a writer who had begun when my own young daughter was born in 1985. She was writing in the wake of, among other things, the Bhopal chemical explosion, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act.
She was also writing about new ways of living outside of the past. And so, when she wrote about the New Normal in the third-person, the voice of a character whose name I never found out, the voice of a narrator who is as unemotional as a baby in The New Normal is one in which she sounds like me—an earth mother, who’s learning how to live with an “open-heartedness” that will allow her to love without fear, “if that means taking a risk in life.”
It’s not surprising that Kingsolver was ahead of her time. The Earth Is the Same (1989) was a first-person account of how she moved from a rural, blue-collar community in rural New England to Boston, taking classes at Cambridge College, where she was teaching English. In the book I met her friend and colleague, the photographer Richard Avedon, who was so inspired by “a love story…a simple love story about the human spirit, the love of human beings for one another,” Avedon wrote in his memoir. Avedon, like Kingsolver, was fascinated by the changes unfolding in America—especially the changes in the environment.