I once began reading Barbara Kingsolver’s signature novel, “The Poisonwood Bible,” but I abandoned it after just a few pages. I felt sure that a lengthy book about an exceptionally dysfunctional family would only depress me.
But after reading just a few pages in Kingsolver’s first novel, “The Bean Trees,” I knew I was in for a treat. Here was a funny, down-to-earth, intelligent narrator who wryly comments upon the follies of humankind without losing her compassion for the suffering of humankind.
For me, “The Bean Trees” is a story about learning how to live as a decent and happy person in a society trying to bring you down, especially if you’re young, poor, female, non-white or otherwise denied power. It’s about facing down oppression of all kinds with strength and courage, but without forgetting how to laugh and take joy in life. Young women about to enter adulthood should especially read this book. Taylor is a wonderful, realistic role model for how to embrace the positive values of a feminine identity while resisting restrictive gender norms.
After growing up poor in a small Kentucky town, main character Taylor leaves home as a young woman, hoping to avoid the inevitable pregnancy and marriage that befall young women in her town. She travels west in her beat-up car with no particular destination in mind, accidentally acquiring what she was trying to escape: a baby, though not through traditional means.
A desperate Cherokee woman leaves her baby in the passenger seat of Taylor’s car and asks her to take it with her. A dazed Taylor agrees, taking the baby, whom she names Turtle, along for the ride. Eventually, her car breaks down in Tucson, Arizona, where she begins working at a garage run by a remarkable woman named Mattie who runs a risky side operation: She shelters illegal immigrants.
Taylor rooms with a woman named Lou Ann, who recently separated from an abusive husband and also has a baby. Together, with Mattie’s help, the two women navigate their independence and the responsibility of motherhood. Taylor learns that although her strong will and independent spirit serve her well, there’s also strength in caring for others.
Taylor becomes a friend and ally to a young Guatemalan couple, Estevan and Esperanza, who are staying with Mattie, and with whom Taylor realizes she shares some struggles, even if they have different life experiences. Eventually, their paths converge, and Taylor gets caught up in protecting them and also investigating Turtle’s sad past while seeking legal custody over her.
This is one of the most affecting and authentic novels that I’ve read in a while. Taylor’s voice and the voices of all the characters are the rich and natural voices of regular people, reflecting a distinctive place and time. Unlike many modern authors, Kingsolver depicts lower-class people, and she sets her story in the American southwest, a setting not often used. It’s altogether a breath of fresh air.
Kingsolver addresses serious issues unflinchingly and doesn’t look away from the messiness of life, but in the end, “The Bean Trees” ultimately affirms the beauty of life and the power of love. Just as the fierce, gritty Taylor might not seem very warm and nurturing at first, this slim, understated novel eventually reveals poignant and profound depths. “The Bean Trees” is a true pleasure to read.