Barbara Kingsolver on Receiving Grace

barbara kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver has written numerous books and won many awards. She is the founder of the PEN/Bellwether Award for socially conscious fiction. Her most recent work is Flight Behavior, in which she combines her background in biology, her concern for social justice, and her experience living in rural Appalachia and raising sheep.  In a NPR interview Kingsolver says “I wanted to talk a little bit about environmentalism and class, which is just really not talked about in this country. Well, in the United States we just don’t talk much about class anyway, but it’s really an issue. To have sympathy for the people who don’t really have the options to think so much about the future and what our obligation is to them and what our obligation is to the people who aren’t born yet.”

In the novel the Monarch butterfly habitat in Mexico has been destroyed by storms, and the butterflies have congregated instead on a farm in Tennessee. Members of the community and outsiders see this phenomenon in different ways – as a gift from God, as a tourist site, and as a biological  maker of climate change. In the following excerpt the main character, Dellarobia, a young unhappily married mother brings her husband Cub and his parents Hester and Bear to the butterfly trees.

They had waded into a river of butterflies and the flood gave no heed, the flood rushed on to the valley, answerable to naught but its own pull. Butterflies crossed her field of vision continuously at close range, black-orange flakes that made her blink, and they merged in a chaotic blur in the distance, and she found it frankly impossible to believe what her eyes revealed to her. Or her ears: the unending rustle, like a taffeta dress.

Hester’s eyes dropped from her son’s face to Dellarobia’s and what could happen next, she had no idea. For years she’d crouched on a corner of this farm without really treading into Turbow family territory, and now here she stood dead on its center. She felt vaguely like a hostage in her husband’s grip, as if police megaphones might come out and the bullets would fly. Looking down at her feet made her dizzy, because of butterfly shadows rolling like pebbles along the floor of a fast stream. The illusion of current knocked her off balance, she raised her eyes to the sky instead, and that made the others look up too, irresistibly led, even Bear. Together they saw light streaming through the glowing wings. Like embers, she thought, a flood of fire, the warmth they had craved for so long. She felt her breathing rupture again into laughter or sobbing in her chest, sharp, vocal exhalations she couldn’t contain. The sounds coming out of her veered toward craziness. The two older men holding her stepped as if she’d slapped them.

“Lord Almighty, the girl is receiving grace,” said Hester, and Dellarobia could not contradict her. [pp. 56-57]

The Bellwether Award describes socially conscious fiction as works that “address social injustice, and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.”  Do you think that this describes all great works of literature?

To learn more visit Barbara Kingsolver’s website at

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