Kingsolver's 'Heaven' is a stellar sequel


June 29, 1993|By Nancy Pate | Nancy Pate,Orlando Sentinel

Most people who know the stars of the summer sky call them the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. But to the Cherokees, this same constellation is the Six Pigs in Heaven -- six selfish, greedy little boys who complained that their mothers were treating them like pigs.

The spirits overheard the boys and, figuring that mothers know best, they changed the boys into pigs, who raced so fast on their little hoofs that they rose into the sky. The boys' mothers were aghast and tried to grab on to their sons' tails. But it was too late; the spirits had put the pigs in heaven forever.

There are lessons for both children and parents in this myth, which is also the guiding star of Barbara Kingsolver's heavenly new novel, a sequel to her 1988 first novel, "The Bean Trees." In that glowing story, young Taylor Greer left her Kentucky home and found a new meaning of family and sense of belonging in the Arizona desert, thanks largely to the 3-year-old she acquired on her way west. Taylor named the little girl Turtle because of the way she held on to her and wouldn't let go.

In "Pigs in Heaven," Taylor and 6-year-old Turtle are on spring vacation at Hoover Dam, where Turtle helps save a man's life. The ensuing publicity catches the attention of Annawake Fourkiller, an idealistic young Cherokee lawyer who tracks Taylor down in Tucson to tell her that Turtle's adoption appears to be illegal because it was done without the consent of the Cherokee Nation. According to the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, Turtle should be returned to her tribe in Oklahoma.

But Taylor's not about to let go of Turtle, a "bruised apple" who still carries the scars of early childhood abuse. She and Taylor hit the road, leaving Taylor's boyfriend, Jax, to explain to Annawake that there's no intersection between what the two women adamantly believe is in Turtle's best interests.

Meanwhile, Taylor's mother, Alice, who has left her silent second husband in Kentucky, joins up with her daughter and granddaughter in Las Vegas. Eventually she decides to visit her cousin Sugar in Heaven, Okla., a Cherokee community, so as to scope out Annawake. Taylor and Turtle head for the Northwest in the company of a waitress who is modeling her life after Barbie the doll's.

Ms. Kingsolver takes some real risks here. Taylor narrated "The Bean Trees" and so has reader sympathy on her side. But by using a third-voice narrative in "Pigs in Heaven" and smoothly shifting between several story lines, Ms. Kingsolver soon engages us in complex dramas (and romances) in which terms like "winner" and "victim" become irrelevant. Her characters are so real and complete we could recognize them coming down the street.

Part of this is due to the writing -- lyrical yet natural and accessible. Alice, for example, is initially hesitant with Sugar until they begin talking about their respective husbands. "Sympathizing over the behavior of men is the baking soda of women's friendships, it seems, the things that make them bubble and rise."

But Ms. Kingsolver also has built in a conscience like a spine, supporting but never intruding on the story. And in the end, like Turtle with Taylor, like the rowdy boys' mothers grabbing at the tails of pigs, we want to hold on tight and not let go.


Title: "Pigs in Heaven"

Author: Barbara Kingsolver

Publisher: HarperCollins

Length, price: 343 pages, $22

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