Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
This is a collection of essays about who we seem to be, what remains
for us to live for, and what I believe we could make of ourselves. It
begins in a moment but ends with all of time. . . . I ask the readers
to understand that these essays are not incidental. I believe our
largest problems have grown from the earth's remotest corners as well
as our own backyards, and that salvation may lie in those places, too.
Barbara Kingsolver looks out her window and sees a bobcat. She slaps
a mosquito and senses that she is doing harm to more than just an
insect. She reads about bombs raining over the Afghan countryside and
thinks of the sons and daughters and the mothers and fathers who will
never recover from their grief. She hears a story about a bear nursing a
lost Iranian child and perceives it as a parable about universal
kindness and grace.
The essays in Small Wonder
tell us a couple of things about
Barbara Kingsolver. First, that she is a very observant person. And
second, that she understands connections: of humans to animals, of
America to its global neighbors, of rich to poor, of parents' actions to
their children's behavior. This understanding has made her one of
today's most insightful writers, and it infuses every one of her
The collection was conceived, she tells us, as a response to the
terrorist attacks on September 11. But it was prompted by a wisdom and
concern that existed well before those attacks; and made more immediate
in their aftermath. Kingsolver takes us to places we may never visit: a
remote clearing in the Mexican rainforest where innovative farmers are
tending an insecticide-free crop without disturbing the ecological
balance. To places that seem familiar: her own backyard, where her young
daughter is raising a chicken, collecting its eggs, and proudly feeding
her family breakfast. She shows us the gifts and promises of her family,
her writing, and her childhood. She reveals her own failings as well as
the ways our nation is failing its citizens and the rest of the globe.
Finally, she asks us to take a look at our lives and see in them the
world: out our windows and toward our neighbors, in our cupboards and
gardens and garbage cans, at our television sets and computers and
bookshelves, in our children's faces. In all these places, across the
world, she demonstrates that there is a chance to make a difference, one
small step at a time.
Some years back when Kingsolver was participating in a demonstration
against the Persian Gulf War, a young man in a pick-up drove by and
yelled, "It's your country bitch, love it or leave it!"
Recalling this incident during a television interview, she reconsiders
the comment. "Love it or leave it is a coward's slogan," she
says. "A more honorable slogan would be 'Love it and stay.' 'Love
it and get it right.' 'Love it and never shut up'."
Loving her country -- along with her family, her world, and the
animal and plant life that inhabit the globe -- and not shutting up
about it is what this collection of hopeful, angry, sad, bemused,
hilarious, quiet, and loud essays is all about.
Questions for Discussion
- Kingsolver opens her collection with a story out of Iran. A young
child wandered away from his home and was found, some distance away,
in a cave where he was sleeping safely in the embrace of a female
bear. She uses this remarkable example of maternal nurturing to
demonstrate that there is good in every living being, and that we
share more than we realize with those whom we presume to be our
enemies. Can you, like Kingsolver, make the connection between the
bear and your own private or public enemies? What does it take to
understand, and act on, the idea that "our greatest dread may
be our salvation"?
- Citing our nation's incredible wealth compared to most countries
around the globe, Kingsolver writes, "For most of my life I've
felt embarrassed by a facet of our national character that I would
have to call prideful wastefulness. What other name can there be for
our noisy, celebratory appetite for unnecessary things, and our vast
carelessness regarding their manufacture and disposal?" Do you
share her embarrassment? Why or why not?
- How would you answer her question, "How much do we need to
feel blessed, sated, and permanently safe? What is safety in this
world, and on what broad stones is that house built?" Do you
live with much more than you need? A little more? Not enough?
- Woven into these essays are a number of subtle challenges
Kingsolver poses to her readers. She talks, for instance, of all the
things her daughter does instead of watching television, and then
comes to the conclusion that there just isn't enough time in
the day to watch it. Likewise, she writes of limiting herself to one
national newspaper a week, usually the Sunday edition. This, she
says, along with the town newspaper, provides her with all the
information she needs to be a responsible citizen. Does this make
sense to you? Are you on a "media diet"? If not, how would
it effect your life if you were?
- In another essay Kingsolver writes of ways to "think globally
and act locally." For instance, contributing $10 a month to
support locally grown and produced food; only eating chicken and
meat that have been grass-fed and buying only organically grown
vegetables; attempting to feed her family on food that originated no
more than an hour's drive from her house. If you are not already, is
it possible for you to take on any or all of these practices? What
would be the cost in time and dollars to do this? What would be the
benefit to you, your family, and the world?
- How do you respond to Kingsolver's criticism of America entering
into a full-scale war against terrorism? Do you agree with her
comment that "Our whole campaign against the Taliban, Afghan
women's oppression, and Osama bin Laden was undertaken without
nearly enough public mention of our government's previous
involvement with this wretched triumvirate, in service of a
profitable would-be pipeline from the gas fields of
Turkmenistan"? Does this response to our actions in Afghanistan
strike you as unpatriotic? How do you define patriotism?
- Of the shootings at Columbine High School, Kingsolver writes
"Some accidents and tragedies and bizarre twists of fate are
truly senseless, as random as lighting bolts out of the blue. But
this one . . . was not, and to say it was is irresponsible.
'Senseless' sounds like 'without cause,' and it requires no action
so that after an appropriate interval of dismayed hand-wringing, we
can go back to business as usual. What takes guts is to own up:
this event made sense." Do you agree that, in the environment
in which our children are raised, these killings made sense? Do you
agree with her calling for a zero-tolerance for murder as a solution
to anything? How would such an approach help address the recent
- In "God's Wife's Measuring Spoons" Kingsolver makes the
point that since the War on Terrorism, "No modern leader called
on us for voluntary material sacrifice." She writes that the
word wartime "speaks of things I've never known: an era of
sacrifice undertaken by rich and poor alike . . . of communities
working together to conquer fear by giving up comforts so everyone
on earth might eventually have better days." Why do you think
we haven't as a nation made a decision to sacrifice our material
wealth, or cut back on our consumption, in this time of war? How
would such sacrifices hurt us? How might they help our country
achieve its goals of global peace and democracy?
- "Household Words" opens with a scene in which Kingsolver
witnesses a man attack a woman and does not stop to intervene. As
she fills in the details of this incident -- she was in her car in a
busy intersection at rush hour; the people appeared to be two of the
many homeless men and women who populate Tucson -- she asks us to
understand her lack of action. Put yourself in your shoes: What
would you have done? If you weigh the consequences of intervening
with the good that might be done, does intervention make sense? What
larger truths can be gleaned from this story?
- Kingsolver writes that she will plant a field of poppies as a
memorial to all who lost their lives on September 11. How would you
construct a memorial to these people? What do you think should be
done with the site where the World Trade Center once stood?
- How have reading these essays made you feel? Sad? Angry? Hopeful?
How have they encouraged you to act on these emotions? How have they
changed the way you look at your world?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper Perennial.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.