Reviews by Jen Chapin-Smith
Pigs in Heaven
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The sequel to "The Bean Trees" (which one really should read first), "Pigs in Heaven" continues the story of Taylor and her adopted daughter Turtle. After Turtle notices a boy who fell into a pit and Taylor notifies the authorities to rescue him, the two become famous. That is when an official with the Cherokee Nation's government notices that Turtle was not legally adopted. This points to the larger issue of Native American children being taken forcibly from their families and adopted by non-Native American families.

The novel explores issues of mother-daughter relationships, race, Native American rights and culture, and child abuse. As I have seen few other novels that truly tackle these issues, I recommend it to all readers.

"Pigs in Heaven" is author Barbara Kingsolver's first book to appear on the "New York Times" best seller list and won the 1993 "Los Angeles Times" Book Prize for Fiction.
The Bean Trees
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In her very first novel, Barbara Kingsolver tackles difficult issues of war, racism and child abuse.

"The Bean Trees" begins as Taylor Greer leaves her Kentucky hometown in search of a better life. As she had a Cherokee ancestor, she drives through the reservation in Oklahoma to see what the place looks like. While there, a woman leaves a Native American baby in Taylor's car and Taylor decides to raise the girl, naming her Turtle.

Taylor and Turtle settle in Arizona and become involved in the 1980s Sanctuary Movement. Like many people in the US, Taylor did not know that her government was supporting genocide in Central America until she meets a couple who have escaped the violence in Guatemala by entering the United States without documentation. The couple have changed their native Guatemalan names for Spanish ones in an attempt to avoid the genocide and then change their names again to suit an English-speaking culture.

I recommend this book in particular because it forces U.S. readers to confront our nation's history of racist violence.
The Poisonwood Bible
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A Southern Baptist family from the United States travels to a remove village in the Belgian Congo shortly before the nation's independence in this novel set in the 1960s through the 1980s. "The Poisonwood Bible" tells the story of the family's four daughters who each experience the move differently and talk about it in their own voices. The book particularly points to the hubris of American missionary and charitable work. For example, the preacher never really leans the local language well and so mistakenly uses the word "poisonwood" when he means to say "holy." He just assumes that the local people will follow his lead and convert not only to his religion but to all aspects of his culture, including how to "correctly" grow food.

The book also examines the US government's condescending attitudes towards Africa as the US tries to build the new nations in its own image, uses them as part of the Cold War fight against the USSR (without the African countries seeing any benefits) and pushes an economic policy that benefits Americans but not Africans. Attitudes about race and gender show up as each daughter narrates the events from her own perspective.

The local people are very kind to the missionary family, accepting them as part of their community, despite the problems they present. The local people even rescue the missionaries from an insect attack, although one man has to put sticks in his ears to block out the pastor's preaching in the midst of the rescue attempt.

I found the book fascinating and highly recommend it. The only part that is problematic is the part about the one daughter being "cured" of her disability, as if it were just a temporary, fixable problem and not a core and perfectly acceptable part of her identity.
Missionaries in Africa
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A Southern Baptist family from the United States travels to a remove village in the Belgian Congo shortly before the nation's independence in this novel set in the 1960s through the 1980s. "The Poisonwood Bible" tells the story of the family's four daughters who each experience the move differently and talk about it in their own voices. The book particularly points to the hubris of American missionary and charitable work. For example, the preacher never really leans the local language well and so mistakenly uses the word "poisonwood" when he means to say "holy." He just assumes that the local people will follow his lead and convert not only to his religion but to all aspects of his culture.

The book also examines the US government's condescending attitudes towards Africa as the US tries to build the new nations in its own image, uses them as part of the Cold War fight against the USSR (without the African countries seeing any benefits) and pushes an economic policy that benefits Americans but not Africans. Attitudes about race and gender show up as each daughter narrates the events from her own perspective.

I found the book fascinating and highly recommend it. The only part that is problematic is the part about the one daughter being "cured" of her disability, as if it were just a temporary, fixable problem and not a core and perfectly acceptable part of her identity.
Thursday Next
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Anyone who majored in English or literature will adore the "Thursday Next" series with its constant literary allusions. I highly recommend this series that makes lit geeks like myself feel smart.

The series is set in an alternate version of Swindon, England. In it, scientists have cloned and brought back to everyday life neanderthals, dodo birds, wooly mammoths and other creatures. People travel in dirigibles, rather than airplanes. Wales is a separate nation from England and cheese has become a black market commodity. The entire universe and series is highly entertaining. However, in "The Well of Lost Plots" the author begins to change the rules about how literary characters live and who they are. They stop being the characters themselves and become actors who play a role when someone is reading the novel.

In this book, Thursday Next is hiding from the Big Brother-like Goliath Corporation in an unpublished novel. Goliath runs everything and is angry at Thursday for foiling their evil plans in the last book, so they eradicate Thursday's husband from the timeline as if he never existed.

Fforde's rule change is necessary for the plot line of "The Well of Lost Plots," but it takes away from the sense of magical realism of the previous two novels.

Nonetheless, I find the "Thursday Next" series enjoyable and read every one.