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Heaven in Oklahoma : PIGS IN HEAVEN, By Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Collins: $22; 352 pp.)

July 04, 1993|Antonya Nelson | Nelson is the author of three collections of short stories: "The Expendables," "In the Land of Men," and the forthcoming "Family Terrorists" (Houghton Mifflin). She lives in New Mexico

Barbara Kingsolver's new novel, "Pigs in Heaven," takes up where her first novel, "The Bean Trees," left off, with the abandoned Cherokee girl, Turtle, and her adopted white mother, Taylor Greer, living in Tucson. Turtle is 6 years old now, still vaguely damaged from the abuse she suffered as an infant and toddler, but getting along fine in the world.

Turtle and Taylor wind up on the Oprah Winfrey show, which is where tribal lawyer Annawake Fourkiller sees them; he decides to reclaim the obviously Cherokee Turtle for the Nation.

The premise of this novel is wonderfully timely, drawing on two issues that have recently compelled America: the rights of adoptive parents as opposed to biological ones, and the rights of jurisprudence in tribal matters--especially those concerning children adopted off the reservation. The book painstakingly details these issues by making them personal and familial: These are two mothers battling for the best interest of the child. The two women are complex, their passions persuasive. And the stakes are high. The reader is quietly educated on the benefits of tribal life and, by extension, the loss all America has suffered of its own extended families. The writing is lovely, especially in the first half of the book, where images and observations are breathtaking; the author's intelligence and great care show in nearly every line.

Kingsolver has tossed into this novel several other topical concerns for us to look at: the scourge of eating disorders, as illustrated by the minor character Barbie, a life-size fashion doll, complete with wardrobe and pathologies; the danger of television; the difficulties of single motherhood; and the inevitable breakdown of the American family.

I think many of us would agree with Kingsolver's observations concerning white America: We are driven by image rather than substance, we consume rather than give back. We have lost our sense of community and family. We watch too much television. We underestimate and undervalue women. We do not know how to care properly for our children, how to make them feel connected to the world and, therefore, engaged in it. We are not good parents.

But the book's tone is perhaps too cheery, its characters perhaps too good-natured and forgiving, too plucky and wise. A few coincidences fuel the plot, pushing the focus away from the tremendous moral quandary, finally making the novel a bit frustrating. The persecution Taylor feels, as a mother whose child can be taken from her without her permission, is diluted by two implausible decisions she makes early on. The first is her agreeing to appear on Oprah (and unwisely reporting on how she came by her child). The second is her illogical road trip.

True, the road trip allows Taylor to be physically separated from her own world and thereby receptive to understanding the separation Turtle might feel later concerning her culture, but it is a trip her character takes unconvincingly. Taylor is smarter than both missteps; had the writer pulled her aside and consulted her, Taylor might have explained that she would never make her life public on national television, and, once threatened, would sit tight until there was real menace--then move.

Once on the road, Taylor must meet Barbie, a larcenous bimbo whose aspiration is to purge herself into the proportions of her namesake: 36-18-33. A victim of the sexist marketing campaigns of our body-obsessed culture, Barbie is shallow, self-absorbed, stupid and heartless. What role does she play? She is the nightmare white girl. Why does Taylor need to pick her up and carry her around in this already character-heavy novel? It's difficult to say. She appears to fill space in the story the way a marshmallow does in the food chain: empty calories.

Taylor's mother, Alice, a woman separating from her long-time husband because he won't turn off the TV, also joins Taylor on the road. Alice is a civilized Southern woman, part Cherokee herself, and her husband is pushed aside in order to make room for the romance that later emerges. The convenience of these event suggests that this is not meant to be read as a realistic novel. This would not be disappointing if the reader weren't fascinated by the issues the book hints at but then refuses to debate.

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