The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Purchased at Beacon Books in Sidney last August.
Read in September 2013.
Previously at The Remainder Table, I read Prodigal Summer. (I’ve also read The Poisonwood Bible, but that was before I started writing book posts.)
Apparently this is quite a well-known book, but I didn’t know anything about it prior to reading it. After checking out the reviews at Goodreads (as I enjoy doing after finishing a book), I’m going to guess it’s assigned reading in high school English classes. The one-star reviews offer such gems as: “I didn’t much enjoy this book, mostly because of its inability to relate to me through the predominantly female cast of characters.” Oh noes! Not, gasp, female characters! By that logic I should stop reading every book(/watching every movie) with a predominantly male cast of characters. Oh, wait. That’s most of them.
Marietta, called Missy, works for a few years after high school. She saves up and leaves her hometown in Kentucky in a VW bug (that has no side windows and that she has to push start) and heads west. She decides a fresh start needs a new name and picks Taylor when the car runs out of gas in Taylorville.
I still felt kind of awful about leaving her, and changing my name just seemed like the final act of betrayal, but Mama didn’t see it that way. She said I was smarter than anything to think of Taylor, that it fit me like a pair of washed jeans. She told me she’d always had second thoughts about Marietta. (85)
(The funny/ironic thing here is that her original name was also a place name—Marietta for Marietta, Georgia.)
Along the way, Taylor stops for something to eat and a woman foists a small child on her. She takes the child, who she discovers has been abused, and continues west. She names the child Turtle on account of her grip. A lot of the reviews I read had issues with these two elements. Why wouldn’t she turn the child into the police? Why would she name her Turtle? Oh, I don’t know. Because it’s fiction? In fiction, characters make strange choices. If they didn’t, stories wouldn’t be very interesting. Sure, if you were in Taylor’s place, you’d probably call the police. But would you really want to read a story where the main character only makes good, safe choices? zzz.
Meanwhile, Lou Ann from Kentucky is living in Tucson. Despite (or perhaps because of) her being pregnant with their first child, her husband, Angel, leaves her. On Halloween. Trick or treat!
Taylor and Turtle stop in Tucson when the VW gets two flat tires Taylor can’t afford to replace. Lou Ann places an ad for a roommate and Taylor answers it. They bond over both being from Kentucky.
Taylor gets a job at the tire shop she went to her first day in Tucson. The owner, Mattie, offers sanctuary to refugees. Taylor becomes close to two of them, husband-and-wife Estevan and Esperanza. Estevan has this exchange with Taylor:
“This is how Americans think.” He was looking at me in a thoughtful way. “You believe that if something terrible happens to someone, they must have deserved it.”
I wanted to tell him this wasn’t so, but I couldn’t. “I guess you’re right,” I said. “I guess it makes us feel safe.” (123)
This sentiment feels so current. And yet, The Bean Trees was published in 1988, when the North American obsession with safety wasn’t nearly as frenzied as it is now. It’s crazypants how people think they can minimize risk to the point that nothing bad will ever happen and that if something does happen to you, it must be because you did something wrong. This just isn’t true.
I loved the horticulture bits, of course. That’s one of my favorite things about Kingsolver’s writing. (Thinking I need to start a biology-in-fiction tag.)
In the end, this was a story about family, how families are not always the conventional kind, but are sometimes created in unexpected and unusual ways.