Prodigal Summer Summary and Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

Prodigal Summer

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Prodigal Summer Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 67-page guide for “Prodigal Summer” by Barbara Kingsolver includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 31 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Relationship Between Humans and the Natural World and Fertility and Reproduction.

Plot Summary

Published in 2000, Prodigal Summer is Barbara Kingsolver’s fifth novel. Heavily influenced by Kingsolver’s childhood experiences and current home in Appalachia, as well as her studies of ecology and evolutionary biology, Prodigal Summer tells three intersecting stories that take place over one “prodigal summer” in rural Appalachia. Set in the fictional Zebulon County, Prodigal Summer is as much a story of the natural world, and its progression over one fertile and flowering summer, as it is the tale of its human characters.

The first of Prodigal Summer’s three storylines centers on Deanna Wolfe, a ranger in the Zebulon National Forest who spent her childhood in Zebulon County before marrying and teaching in the city, then returning to Zebulon to live alone in a cabin on the mountainside. As the novel begins in late spring, Deanna is tracking a coyote—an animal she has a particular passion for, and chose as the subject of her graduate school thesis—when she’s surprised by a hunter, Eddie Bondo. Eddie is the son of a sheep farmer from Wyoming, and has come to Zebulon with the express purpose of hunting coyotes—the same animals that threaten his family’s farm. Eddie is also twenty years younger than Deanna, and “half a head shorter” (27). Despite her misgivings, Deanna gives in to the animal passion between them, and they embark on a passionate affair.

Eddie comes and goes throughout the summer as Deanna wars between a body that “want one thing wholly” and a mind that wants “the opposite” (363)—she can’t resist her physical attraction to Eddie, yet her mind rebels against both his disruption of her comfortable life on the mountain, where she’s cut off from human contact, and the fact that he considers coyotes his “enemy” (176). As time goes on, Deanna shares more of her past with Eddie, and readers learn that her father’s longtime lover was Nannie Rawley, a key figure in another of the novel’s three storylines, and that Deanna considered Nannie a maternal figure. Deanna spies the entire coyote pack and convinces Eddie to read her thesis, but she can’t change his mind. By the end of the summer, Deanna still sees the coyotes as a valuable predator that will revive the Zebulon Forest ecosystem, while Eddie still considers hating coyotes to be his “religion” (323).

As summer turns toward fall, Deanna notices that she’s unusually tired and emotional, and she finally realizes she’s pregnant. She doesn’t tell Eddie, and he leaves in August with only a note that he’s “met his match” (432). Deanna isn’t sure whether he’s referring to her or the coyotes. Deanna writes a letter to Nannie, telling her she’ll be coming down from the mountain in September, and asking if she and her unborn child can stay with Nannie.

The second of the three storylines centers on Lusa Maluf Landowski, the 28-year-old daughter of a college researcher and an entomology student herself, who has moved to Zebulon County after marrying Cole Widener. Finding farm life more challenging than she’d expected, and feeling herself judged by Cole’s four sisters, Lusa picks fight after fight with Cole. She met Cole when he attended a workshop she taught on managing insects without pesticides, and beneath the bitterness the couple still care for each other. Cole dies in an accident and Lusa finds herself inheriting a farm she’s not sure she can handle.

The Widener sisters expect Lusa to return to her city life,  but Lusa stays in Zebulon, wrestling with her grief over her husband’s death and the ghosts of generations of Wideners she encounters in the farmhouse. As the summer progresses, Lusa becomes more determined to keep the farm afloat. Inspired by her Palestinian and Jewish heritage, she concocts a scheme to raise goats and sell them during the week of several major religious holidays that require goat meat. With the help of her teenage nephew, Little Rickie, with whom she shares some brief flirtations, and her neighbor, Garnett Walker, Lusa sets her plan into motion.

At the same time, Lusa grows closer to Cole’s youngest sister, Jewel, who was abandoned by her husband and has more compassion than the other Wideners for Lusa’s situation. Jewel has cancer and Lusa watches her children, Lowell and Crys, the latter a tomboyish, prickly 10-year-old girl. Lusa shows Crys an understanding she hasn’t received from her other aunts, and the two form a deep bond—both are, in their own way, outsiders in the Widener clan. When Jewel’s cancer becomes terminal, Lusa offers to adopt the children and deed the Widener farm to them. Jewel agrees, and Lusa learns that Garnett, the man who helped her with her goat project, is the children’s paternal grandfather. Lusa calls Garnett up and encourages him to rekindle a relationship with his grandchildren. As the novel ends, Lusa learns her goats will fetch an excellent price, and she feels she’s found her place on the farm; the “story” of the Widener family is “hers now as well” (437).

The third of Prodigal Summer’s three plot threads concerns elderly Garnett Walker III, heir of a logging family that made their fortune and founded Zebulon on the strength of the American chestnut tree. After a blight destroyed the American chestnut, the family lost their wealth, and Garnett has devoted his retirement to trying to resurrect the American chestnut by crossbreeding with the Chinese chestnut. Garnett deeply misses his wife, Ellen, who died of lung cancer eight years ago, but even more than his wife and his chestnut trees, Garnett’s thoughts are occupied by his neighbor Nannie Rawley.

Nannie, in her seventies and nearly as old as Garnett, has inherited her family’s apple orchard and raises an organic crop; her refusal to use pesticides and herbicides irks Garnett to no end, as weeds and insects encroach into Garnett’s land as well. Even more, Garnett is bothered by Nannie’s progressive nature—he thinks of her as a “bra-burning Unitarian” (219-20)—and the fact that she had an illegitimate daughter. The child, Rachel, was born with Down’s syndrome and died at a young age, and Nannie never married the father, Ray Dean Wolfe, who is Deanna Wolfe’s father as well.

As the novel continues, Nannie and Garnett butt heads over pesticide use and trees on the border between their land, and exchange a series of letters arguing about man’s role in the natural world. Garnett believes God gave man dominion over all other creatures, while Nannie favors a more evolutionary viewpoint and believes all of nature is intrinsically connected. Despite their disagreements, Garnett finds himself increasingly attracted to and concerned for Nannie, and the two share kindnesses as well: Nannie helps Garnett cure his dizzy spells and offers him chestnut seeds from her property, and Garnett gives Nannie tiles to fix her roof. By the end of the novel, as both Nannie and Garnett prepare to welcome their grandchildren into their homes, the two are close enough to embrace, and Nannie has “capture” what remains of Garnett’s heart” (427).

The novel ends with a chapter from the point of view of a female coyote, prowling her Zebulon Mountain territory and tracking the scent of a male coyote, newly arrived to the area—a hint that the coyote population in Zebulon will continue to grow and thrive. As the novel ends, Kingsolver repeats her words from the opening chapter—“solitude is a human presumption” (444)—and reminds readers that the natural world is teeming with life both seen and unseen, a world of connections made and remade at every moment.

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