I am a major Barbara Kingsolver fan. I first came to her literature in high school when my English class had to read Poisonwood Bible, which is one of my favourite books when it comes to the plot as well as the characterisation and narrative techniques. When I found Pigs In Heaven, which I feel is one of Kingsolver’s lesser-known novels, I was intrigued to read it.
Kingsolver has a way of creating interesting and complex characters, and she is generally unafraid of tackling difficult topics. Her novel, Flight Behaviours is a deep dive into American poverty and climate change; Lacuna is about revolution and love. So it is no wonder that Pigs in Heaven also covered the complicated story of indigenous adoptions in the U.S.
The U.S., much like Australia, has a complicated and painful past with its indigenous populations. In Australia, the Stolen Generation refers to indigenous children who where forcibly removed from their families and adopted out into white families in an attempt to erase indigenous culture and identity and to eventually remove aboriginality from Australia. Similarly, the U.S. allowed non-indigenous families to adopt indigenous children until the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act was instated. This was a measure to protect indigenous children from adopted out and possibly being cut off from their cultural roots and families.
Kingsolver’s choice of topic and issues around cultural identity—specifically who should be allowed to talk about what and when—mean that the reader is in for a tough read. The story follows Turtle and Taylor, Turtle’s adoptive mother. When Taylor and her daughter are thrust into the spotlight after saving a man’s life, the events around Taylor’s adoption of Turtle is put into question by an indigenous lawyer Annawake.
As soon as Annawake visits Taylor to ask her more questions, Taylor decides to leave everything and go into hiding with Turtle. They go on a strange road trip which is a little John Steinbeck-esque. In the hopes to outrun Annawake and the possible legal implications of Turtle’s adoption, Taylor is brought to the brink. Taylor is extremely attached to Turtle. She loves her and would do anything for her. In her fear of losing her adopted daughter she tries to run. On the other side, Annawake sees Turtle’s case as an injustice against indigenous nations across America. It is also clear that Turtle’s case and the strength with which Annawake pursues it, are due to her own families broken adoption stories.
Keeping indigenous children with indigenous families is paramount. Yet, this is complicated by Turtle’s trauma and her extreme attachment to her adoptive mother, Taylor.
Rather than Kingsolver picking a side, she manages to create a narrative resolution that is the best for everyone involved. Although, I would imagine that it hardly reflects the reality of adoptions like this in the U.S.
I sometimes wondered if Kingsolver’s choice of ending was the easy way out of a very complicated narrative. Although, I can appreciate that Kingsolver has not kept away from such complex and difficult topics in the hopes of being safe and easy.
Kingsolver always writes extremely interesting and relatable characters. It is what made me fall in love with her writing, and is what keeps me reading her work. Have you read “Pigs In Heaven”? As always, share the reading love.