In Barbara Kingsolver’s collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson, the title piece refers to Buster the hermit crab, who hitched a ride to Arizona from the Bahamas and takes up residence in the desert. “He is in every way the perfect housemate,” Kingsolver writes, “quiet, entertaining, and willing to eat up the trash.” In “Making Peace,” javelinas invade Kingsolver’s home and garden, which leads to a discussion on private property versus territoriality. “Ownership,” she writes, “is an entirely human construct.” In “Confessions of a Reluctant Rock Goddess” she sings backup for Stephen King and Dave Barry in the Rock Bottom Remainders: “You have to picture the whole thing: in our jitters, the men have turned to alcohol and the women to makeup.”
“Postcards from the Imaginary Mom” is her account of a book tour. “Four days out,” she writes, “and I’m hard pressed to remember where I’ve been.” The tour ends with her locking herself out of her hotel room, dressed only in T-shirt and cowboy boots, and receiving aid from a dignified, silver-haired matron in the hallway, who then, of course, appears in the front row at that evening’s event.
The most haunting essay is “In the Belly of the Beast,” when she takes a tour of a decommissioned atomic missile silo. “For years I have wondered,” Kingsolver writes, “how anyone could willingly compete in a hundred-yard dash toward oblivion… Throughout the tour I kept looking…for what was missing in this picture: some evidence that the people who ran this outfit were aware of the potential effects of their 150-ton cause. A hint of reluctance, a suggestion of death. In the absence of this, it’s easy to get caught up in the internal logic of the fuel capacities, circuitry, and chemical reactions. One could even develop an itch to see if this amazing equipment really works, and to measure success in purely technical terms.”
Later? She goes to Hiroshima. “What they left out of the Titan Missile Museum was in plain sight in Hiroshima,” she writes. “I looked at things a human being can understand: …The pink dress of a girl named Egi-chan, whose blackened pocket held a train ticket out of the city. The charred apron of Mrs. Sato, who was nursing her baby.”
Alarming, amusing, always interesting and very well written, Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tucson sets the standard for the personal essay.