Part of the complex pleasure of writing a short story is finding the proper measure of time for it. How much of a character's history can the story hold to illuminate but not overwhelm the present? Though it is now common for writers to portray a character's life only in the present, as if there were no such thing as the past bearing down, many wonderful stories are a kind of wrestling match between the past and the present. Barbara Kingsolver's first collection, "Homeland and Other Stories," has examples of both types: the story in which the past colors and enriches, and the more contemporary story that stays in the present. In both types of story, Kingsolver's humanity sounds the clearest note. Kingsolver's characters worry over their relationships, kids, families and the future; about how to make sure an azalea bush survives and whether that survival is worthwhile.
Two stories stand out. The title story, of the type that struggles between past and present, is in first person and pieces together the life of the narrator's grandmother, a Cherokee Indian. Kingsolver sets the tone of the story beautifully, retelling the diaspora of the Bird Clan, which ". . . moved like wildcat families through the mountains, leaving the ferns unbroken where they passed, eating wild grapes and chestnuts, drinking where they found streams. . . . When the people's hearts could not bear any more, they laid their deerskin packs on the ground and settled again."
The narrator's assimilated, coal-mining family drives the dying grandmother to Cherokee, Tenn., only to find tacky, theme-park representations of Indians. The grandmother, who has never been to Cherokee before, responds like a stone. Her lesson, to the narrator and the story, is pantheism--the holiness of nature and life, which goes beyond the names we call it. American restlessness and acquisitiveness contrast with the sensibility of the noble, taciturn grandmother in an unsentimental, thoroughly enjoyable story.
A more jagged, present-tense story--and one that makes the same connections between generations of women in a hurried society--is "Quality Time," which begins: "Miriam's one and only daughter, Rennie, wants to go to Ice Cream Heaven. This is not some vision of the afterlife but a retail establishment here on earth, right in Barrimore Plaza, where they have to drive past it every day on the way to Rennie's day-care center."
The tone of the story is recognizable and the setting of the mother welded to her car familiar. The story is realistic and believable, showing a single mother's attempts to balance the demands of making a living and raising her child. At the end, the story rises to lyricism, as Kingsolver brings together the strands of Miriam's worries when Miriam sees that "All the different Rennies--the teen-ager, the adult--are already contained in her hands and her voice, her confidence. From moments like these, parents can find the courage to believe in the resilience of their children's lives. They will barrel forward like engines, armored by their own momentum, more indestructible than love."
Kingsolver is most generous to her women and children, giving men more shallow characterizations. The men are annoying or ineffectual, problems for the women to solve. But all the children, male and female, are understandable and are magnets for the warmth of the women. I had the happy feeling halfway through this solid, readable collection that here is a writer who is telling us about characters in the middle of their days, who live as we really do, from one small incident and awareness to the next.