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Barbara Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland. Soon after her birth the family moved to rural Kentucky, the culture and landscape that informs much of her writing. As a child Kingsolver wrote stories and essays, but it never occurred to her that she could write for a living. In rural Kentucky work focused mainly on survival, and a career in fiction seemed frivolous. In addition, as Kingsolver has explained in interviews, all the writers she read were old, dead men, and she could not conceive of herself within their ranks.
In the early 1970s, Kingsolver left Kentucky to attend DePauw University in Indiana. There she formally studied biology, but received an education of much wider breadth. Joining anti-Vietnam protests and studying Karl Marx and Simone de Beauvoir, she developed a taste for social activism that has never left her. She also discovered writers who mix literature with social and political advocacy. Doris Lessing's Children of Violence novels, in particular, opened her eyes to what was to be her true calling: trying to change the world through fiction.
Still, after graduating in 1977, Kingsolver did not jump into a writing career. Instead she pursued a graduate degree in biology and ecology at the University of Arizona at Tuscon, and also spent two years living in Greece and France, during which time she supported herself through a number of odd jobs ranging from archaeologist to X-ray technician, housecleaner, and biological researcher.
After completing her graduate work, Kingsolver took on a job as a science writer for the University of Arizona, a position that soon led to a career in scientific journalism. While publishing features in such magazines and newspapers as The Nation,
The New York Times, and Smithsonian by day, Kingsolver was also writing fiction at night. Her first novel, The Bean Trees was published in 1988 to critical acclaim, and was followed soon after by Homeland and Other Stories (1989), Animal Dreams (1990), Pigs in Heaven (1993), High Tide in Tuscon: Essays from Now and Never (1995), and Another America: Outra America, a collection of poetry published in 1992. Each of these works has a deep social message, though in the novels the political messages are indirect and secondary to the more intimate, family-centered stories. For example, Kingsolver describes the plight of Central American refugees in The Bean Trees, the travails of young American idealists who go to work with the Sandinista government in Animal Dreams, and laws concerning the adoption of Indian children in Pigs in Heaven. It was not until The Poisonwood Bible, published in 1998, that Kingsolver, who works tirelessly as a human- rights and environmental-rights activist, finally moved her political message to the foreground of her fiction.
The Poisonwood Bible is a departure from Kingsolver's previous fiction not only in moving politics to the foreground, but also in its setting. Whereas her first three novels are set in the American Southwest, The Poisonwood Bible takes place deep in the African country of Congo. Kingsolver spent two years in the Republic of Congo at the age of seven and eight, when her parents worked there as health care officials. She religiously kept a diary of her experiences in Africa, recording with wonder how completely different this culture was from all she had previously known. She was struck in particular by the fact that the people around her could live perfectly happy lives in the absence of the amenities that she considered necessary—electricity, running water, and plumbing—concluding that what was right in one location was not even necessarily good in another. This is a theme that finds prominent place in The Poisonwood Bible. It was not until years later, though, that Kingsolver learned what had been going on in the Congo at the time of her stay there during the early 1960's. The United States had secretly sabotaged the Congo's hard-won shot at independence by masterminding a coup that would end in the assassination of the elected President Patrice Lumumba and the installation of the dictatorial and thieving military leader Joseph Mobutu in Lumumba's place. Outraged by what she considered devastating acts motivated purely by greed, Kingsolver formed the idea to write a novel exposing and dealing with this crime. It was not until thirty years later that she finally felt prepared, emotionally and professionally, to undertake the project of exploring the question of how we can all, as citizens of the United States, deal with our complicity in these egregious events.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Poisonwood Bible!