Coyotes, Goats, and Chestnuts

Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver, 2000

An ecological tale from Appalachia. The main characters are two educated women.

Deanna Wolfe is a forty two year old forest service ranger – game warden who guards the mountain overlooking Zebullon Valley and the town of Egg Fork where she was born and raised. Her master’s thesis was on the role and importance of predators in the balance of nature. With the extinction of the red wolf from her area, a replacement is needed and for the first time she has spotted signs that coyotes may have arrived. She desperately hopes that the coyotes will stay and successfully raise families on her mountain. Young Eddie Bondo, a Wyoming rancher out to see the rest of country arrives on reclusive Deanna’s mountain, rifle in hand. From birth Eddie has known that the coyote is the enemy of the rancher and must be hunted down. Eddie and Deanna spend the rest of the book arguing about the proper role of the coyote in the grander scheme of things. Neither can convince the other but Eddie for the first time has met his match in a woman and the two become lovers. Deanna knows Eddie will disappear some day.

Lusa Maluf Landowski, descended from Polish Jews and Palestinians, is an entomologist teaching at the U of Kentucky in Lexington where she meets Cole, a farmer from Egg Fork, sent by local farmers to her workshop on integrated insect management. They fall in love and Lusa moves to Cole’s sixty acre farm where she finds herself immersed in the Widener family and its many daughters. Cole is the youngest and only son and inheritor of the farm that has been in the family for generations. To make ends meet on the struggling farm, Cole drives and truck and soon dies in a road accident. Cole leaves no will but Lusa as his widow inherits the farm.

The Widener family expects Lusa, the city girl, to pack up and leave but she shows little sign of doing so. The farm house is haunted by friendly ghosts, both Cole and his sister Jewell and, strangely, ghosts from her own family. Lusa decides that since both sides of her family lost their farms, the Jews in the holocaust, and the Palestinians in the settlement of Israel, that Cole was sent to her, not to be her husband, but to deliver to her a farm. She just has to figure out a way to keep it. Lusa’s brother-in-laws arrive to inform her that they will be back on the weekend to plant tobacco. The plants don’t arrive and she is on her own. While tobacco remains the safest way to earn a living in the area, Lusa is glad she will not be growing it.

She notices that the calendar for the year has the Christmas-New Year and Easter Ramadan holidays aligned and the valley has many goats no one seems to be minding. She asks her 17 year old nephew who is one of the only relatives she can talk to about the goats. He says there was a school teacher and 4-H adviser, Mr. Walker, now retired at 80, who got everyone into raising goats for their 4_H projects even though no one in the valley eats goat or uses goat milk. Walker seems to have done this simply to irritate his neighbors. As a result almost every farm now has a few goats no one knows what to do with. Lusa does know what to do with goats, places an ad for free goats, contacts a special butcher in New York, and goes into the goat business. Lusa has seen Coyotes on her property but figures the loss of a kid is a small price to pay and much else can go wrong.

For comic relieve, Kingsolver introduces us to two feuding neighbors, Nannie Rawley, a 75 year old spinster and organic gardener who sells produce at the local Amish market and who sells her apples to an organic apple juice plant in Georgia. Her neighbor is retired widower and goat expert Mr. Walker who never met an herbicide or pesticide he doesn’t love. For some years he has been trying to cross an Asian chestnut with the American to get a strain resistant to the blight that killed almost all the region’s chestnut trees in the 1940s. Walker is real curmudgeon constantly fighting with his neighbor over weeds, fallen trees and other problems. Nannie always gets the upper hand. Since this is a small community we learn that Nannie practically raised Deanna after her mother died, and Mr. Walker’s no good son married Cole’s sister Jewell, gave her two children, then vanished. Mr. Walker has nothing to do with his grandchildren.

A good tale of struggling farm life, what life is like in a small community, and man’s ignorance and impacts on ecological balance. Educational and entertaining. For example, this reader learned that the coyote families we see in the preserve in front of our house consist of multiple female adults, not the male and female we assumed were raising their pups. One Alpha female has her litter and her sisters help her raise the pups and ensure their survival even if something should happen to mom. The male remains a loner. No wonder the coyotes are successfully spreading from their natural home in the West throughout the US. The Indians believe the coyote is more cunning than other animals.

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