Tag Archives: Barbara Kingsolver

22: The Bean Trees

The Bean TreesThe Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Purchased at Beacon Books in Sidney last August.

Read in September 2013.

View all my reviews

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.


12: Prodigal Summer

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Prodigal Summer

I read Kingsolver’s epic, The Poisonwood Bible, around the time it first came out (summer of 2000, I think). I recall that it was a good read, but I certainly didn’t have that “best. book. ever!” response that so many people seemed to have at the time. Then there was the time that someone told me a writing prompt response I wrote sounded like Prodigal Summer (having now read PS, I don’t see the connection). That was years ago too. I guess I wasn’t enthralled enough with TPB to immediately seek out PS upon hearing this comment, but I did remember it when I saw the book on the shelf at The Bookshop last summer. And then it sat on my shelf for a year…

But when I finally picked it up, I read it in a couple days; it was a quick read. I think I liked it better than TPB. I say I think because TPB is a bit vague for me, plotwise, but going on gut reaction. PS immediately hooked me in a way that TPB didn’t. I read it in big gulps. And it was funny, reading PS right after writing this:

(The fact that I read the TNITL for fun should in itself have been a strong indication that I should have majored in English, but I was too busy cutting off my nose to spite my face at the time to realize this.)

because PS is the type of book that makes me happy that I majored in biology. You know, because a degree in something other than writing/English gives me something to write about. Also, it makes for quirky cocktail conversation. Like so:

Acquaintance: What’s your undergrad in?

Me: Biology.

Acquaintance: !!!

Or, alternatively: Me too! (Yes, apparently I am not alone in my weirdness.)

But I digress. PS starts out as three separate stories, but as the book progresses, we find out that all three are more or less connected. In Predators, we meet Deanna, who has parlayed her master’s degree into a job for the Forest Service (essentially discouraging hunters from poaching wildlife). In Moth Love, we have Lusa, who gave up her postdoctoral grant to marry tobacco farmer Cole and is struggling to adjust to life as an outsider in a small community. And finally, in Old Chestnuts, we have retired schoolteacher Garnett and his neighbor/nemesis Nannie. Deanna’s thing is coyotes, Lusa loves moths, Garnett’s trying to revive the American chestnut, and Nannie grows organic apples.

The book is all about sex, not in the porn sense, but in the cycle-of-life sense. The story functions as a polemic for Kingsolver. Characters frequently launch into long “as you know, Bob” monologues on the evils of hunting or pesticides or tobacco farming. If you’re a left-coasty granola (*cough*), this is pretty standard stuff, but where the story’s set (Appalachia), her views are probably less de rigueur.

I liked that the secondary characters always remained a bit of mystery (as people do) and that everything wasn’t tied up neatly in a bow at the end (life goes on…). Initially I wasn’t sure about the headhopping between chapters—just when you get hooked on Deanna’s story, it leaps to Lusa, etc. and at first I found myself reading fast so I could get back to the first storyline (and then the second & so on) because at first it’s like three separate stories. But as the three stories became entwined, the headhopping starts to make sense—they’re three different PoVs within the same setting. So in the end, I thought the strategy worked.