Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver

Pigs in Heaven (1994)is a sequel to Kingsolver’s debut 1988 novel The Bean Trees—in which Taylor, a young woman whose driving ambition is to graduate high school without getting pregnant, finds herself traveling alone cross-country in a car with serious needs. She falls into sudden, unexpected, and unwitting possession of a Cherokee toddler who has been badly abused. Taylor names the toddler Turtle and sets about forming a chosen family to raise Turtle and help her heal from the abuse she suffered. This involves getting “legal” adoption papers with the collusion of a young central American couple who are in the U.S. illegally. Readers can’t help but love adorable Turtle and spunky Taylor and the whole supporting cast. And the novel ends happily with Turtle having been saved by a bunch of white people (plus Esperanza and Estevan). 

But. And there needs to be a but.

What happens in The Bean Trees is good, but perhaps needs a second, more nuanced look. Is it in Turtle’s best interest to separate her from her Cherokee roots? Could Turtle endure the second trauma of being taken from the white mother with whom she has bonded?  Pigs in Heaven is a moving and beautifully written “second thought” about The Bean Trees. 

Young, smart attorney Annawake Fourkiller decides early on that a tribal injustice has been done, and she resolves to undo it –which naturally strikes terror in Taylor’s heart. So she goes on the run with Turtle, living on the edge, meeting fascinating characters like Barbie and the goose man and Jax. Taylor’s mother, Alice, with largely unacknowledged—up to this point—Cherokee roots, gets drawn into a quest to find her own happiness and broker a peace for Taylor and Turtle. 

Kingsolver shows the differences between the expansive tribal family structure and the constricted nuclear white family structure brilliantly. And through all the characters, but especially through the character of Alice, who has a foot in both worlds, the reader is given a more thoughtful look at what might be best for Turtle. What might be best for everybody.

I quote the novel’s ending because it is such a perfect example of Kingsolver’s inimitable style. Cash, who is conveniently both Alice’s soul mate and Turtle’s grandpa—andnow Turtle’s legal guardian—as a token of his deep and true love of Alice, leans the TV against a stump and shoots it.

“The woods go unnaturally still. All the birds take note of the round black bullet wound in the TV screen, a little right of center but still fatal. Alice’s heart performs its duties strangely inside her chest, and she understands that her life sentence of household silence has been commuted. The family of women is about to open its doors to men. Men, children, cowboys, and Indians. It’s all over now but the shouting.”

A truly righteous ending of sweet Turtle’s story.

— Sharelle Moranville

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