Clear-eyed and spirited, Taylor Greer grew up poor in rural Kentucky with the goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting away. But when she heads west with high hopes and a barely functional car, she meets the human condition head-on. By the time Taylor arrives in Tucson, Arizona, she has acquired a completely unexpected child, a three-year-old American Indian girl named Turtle, and must somehow come to terms with both motherhood and the necessity for putting down roots. Hers is a story about love and friendship, abandonment and belonging, and the discovery of surprising resources in apparently empty places.
Barbara Kingsolver has the magical gift of making mere characters more than just text on a page. More than just black and white font. The people in her stories and the struggles of life they encounter have the penchant for leaping out of the book and burrowing inside the heart. The Bean Trees was no exception. This is not one to be rushed through, but rather savoured and enjoyed as a contemplative reflection. A beautiful story with a heart warming message about hope, belonging, friendships, and that which binds us together - the search for a place we can call home and the people we can learn to call family. Highly recommended.
This more or less comes to pass--but not until she has had thrust on her by the aunt an Indian baby girl outside a run-down diner in Oklahoma; the girl, whom Taylor estimates to be around 18 months old, has been sexually abused.
Not exactly sure what to do about the situation but feeling a curious bond with the child Taylor drives on with the child who never makes a sound until the VW gives up with not one but two flats in front of the Jesus is Lord Used Tire mart in Tuscon, Arizona.
Kingsolver has an amazing ability to write about the economic underclass that is composed of women and usually, in her stories,Native Americans as well. Set in the 70s or 80s (the timeframe isn’t clear), The Bean Trees is a remarkable story of survival--of tough women who learn to depend on “the kindness of strangers” but who also learn to depend on one another. It is also the time of the sanctuary movement in the US, started by Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen in Seattle, when churches of all denominations and people of all faiths quietly smuggled Central American refugees, illegal aliens, especially at that time from Guatemala,to safe houses and new lives in the US. The story of one such couple figures prominently in the book.
Kingsolver’s prose is off-beat, her dialogue true to character, and her humor wry, as befits the people and the situations she is describing. She manages to portray the life these people lead realistically--not as some rosy dawn that is about to break in their lives but as a struggle to survive but with hope and dignity. It is a remarkable achievement--to be able to entertain but do so in a way that illuminates lives that are a far cry from those that most of us live and do so empathetically and with humor.
In Oklahoma, she finds a three year old American Indian girl in her backseat; abandoned, with no hope of finding the family. Taylor names her Turtle and keeps on trucking.
She ends up on the outskirts of Tucson, at an auto-repair shop named Jesus is Lord Used Tires. Her life has officially changed.
This is a perfect first novel, filled with wry humor and keen insight. The prose is tight and the characters are fully-realized.
"I'm just a plain hillbilly from East Jesus Nowhere with this adopted child that everybody keeps on telling me is dumb as a box of rocks. I've got nothing on you, girl."
“There must be transients in the bird world too, rumple-feathered outcasts that naturally seek out each other’s company in inferior and dying trees.”
Marietta Greer grew up in one of the poorest areas in Kentucky, in one of the poorest situations. Little by little, she begins to realize that she can change her own life. She buys a car and starts driving, forming her life on accidents as they come. Her new name is chosen by a city she stops in; she adopts a daughter because of where she grabbed dinner. A place to live is determined by things out of her control as well. She becomes paired with Lou Ann, who thought her life was just about perfect until her husband decided that he was worthless and made Lou Ann feel that she was as well.
The Bean Trees is much about families in any form they take, and the acknowledgment that sometimes the best families are the ones we create ourselves. The protagonist surrounds herself with strong friends, and it was surprising how well Lou Ann and Marietta balance each other. The women have little intrinsically in common but form their basis for a relationship through accidents in a way that somehow comes out stronger than a mutual interest. Kingsolver likens these bonds to an invisible web, and points out that they are no less a miracle than all of the many rebirths in the novel's pages.
Kingsolver slips humor into unexpected places, making the laughter seem more realistic. Literature buffs will also enjoy tracing the less obvious themes that pop up in the novels, but it is by no means necessary to think about symbolism to "get" the book. The novel isn't fast-paced but is a page turned because you learn to care for the characters as they learn more about each other. The Bean Trees is told through the lens of women working together, but anyone who has their own "found family" will see themselves in the novel quite easily.
The story gets a bit of a spine with the introduction of a refugee couple from Guatemala who the protag ("Taylor") is trying to help get to a safehouse and get fake papers, etc. We get some of Taylor's struggle to not put the moves on the handsomely haunted husband because of his prettily traumatized wife, and it is whitesplained to us for sure but the interesting colonial valences--who owns the story? Who owns sexy brown-skinned romance?--are quite clear. They even become interestingly complex at the end, where one-eighth Cherokee tries to formally adopt the baby she has been slung with, who is full Cherokee, and the Guatemalans have to pose as baby's parents and give her up and she looks just like their baby who they lost to Sensationalistic Third World Horror--there are still annoying aspects but it really works, the interplay of power relations and identity things becomes downright contrapuntal, and the losses and found(ling)s of parents and children give it even a fairytale air. It salvages the book to an extent.
And I mean, I think Kingsolver is far enough away in time that the cracks are showing but not yet far enough that we can say "well, things were different then." If this book had been written in the seventies, even, I wouldna batted an eye. She's all right.
This is the second Kingsolver book I've read, the first being Prodigal Summer. I was going to get Animal Dreams, but it wasn't on the shelf. The Bean Trees was the next alphabetically, so I picked it up. It was a random, but lucky move.
I enjoyed this book. Barbara Kingsolver's characterization is FANTASTIC. I felt like I knew the characters: Taylor, who successfully navigated adolescence without dropping out of school or getting pregnant; Turtle, the 3-year-old child that is quite literally dropped onto her; Lou Ann, a young single mother whose personality and sense of quirky humor develop throughout the book; Esperanza and Esteban, a couple from Guatemala with a sad past. The book begins with the stories of Taylor and Lou Ann, eventually coming together in Arizona. Each with a child to support, they relate to each other despite their differences (Taylor's hardnosed drive and independent spirit; Lou Ann's silliness and insecurities) and help each other out.
It was a simple book. Not too overwhelming, it kind of took me along like an easygoing river. The outrageous things that happened made me raise my eyebrows, not fall back out of my chair. I finished it in about a week and enjoyed every minute of it.
I really like it when I find an author that I like - I can pick up any book by her and figure that it'll be worth reading. It's been a while since I've been able to do that - I'm excited to read the rest of her books, but I don't think I'll mindfully go towards her books. I think I'll just let them come into my life when they feel like it.
In The Bean Trees, we meet a precocious young girl named Taylor, who decides to leave her hillbilly Kentucky town and head west in a beat-up VW bug. As she travels through Oklahoma, she stops at a local hole in the wall, where a Native American woman approaches her with a small child. The woman insists that Taylor take the girl, despite Taylor's protest, and before realizing it, Taylor is entrusted with a young girl who seems catatonic. Not knowing what to do, Taylor continues her journey west, literally driving until the wheels fall off her car, ending up in Tucson, Arizona.
There, Taylor and the girl, who she nicknames Turtle, begin a life together. Along the way, we meet colorful, real-to-life characters who help Taylor and her quest to lay down some roots. Namely, we meet Esteban and Esperanza, illegal immigrants from Guatamala, who tell their story of horror and heartbreak. Through these characters, Kingsolver shows the human side of immigration - the "why" people take a chance on coming to America and risk deportation.
Kingsolver published The Bean Trees in 1988, and even at the start of her career, she was a magnificent storyteller. Certainly, like all writers, her craft has evolved, but she's never lost sight of her values and desire to make a change. I liked the punchy, humorous style of this book, and I look forward to reading Pigs In Heaven, the next book about Turtle's life, very soon.
Turtle remains one of my favorite literary characters of all time, and the friendships forged by Taylor, Turtle's accidental ma, with Mattie, Lou Ann, Estevan, and Esperanza, are so sweet and timeless. Exploring such themes as belonging and loyalty and sacrifice and the courage to keep going, the novel follows Taylor from her Kentucky hometown to Tucson. Driving west in a ramshackle VW, she doesn't know what she seeks but along the way she acquires Turtle, a silent and adorable toddler. Turtle needs Taylor but, of course, Taylor needs Turtle, too. As their bond grows, so does Taylor's understanding of the brutality of the world and the beauty of connection.
I'm not sure I would have given this five stars if this had been my first time reading the novel, but I remembered it as a five-star read from the late 1980s and I'm sticking with that rating due to the novel's ability to so firmly ensconce itself in my reading memory. I thoroughly enjoyed it and plan to seek out a copy of the sequel, Pigs in Heaven, for a reread very soon.
It begins as a kind of coming of age and road trip story, I don't know what else to call it, but it is about a whole lot more. The lead character's optimism is heart-warming and life affirming. This is a good pick up your spirits sort of book.
Kingsolver tackles serious issues in the novel. This isn't all cuteness by any means. Even when hitting the serious issues such as child abuse, suicide attempts and immigrant refugees in the book, Kingsolver's storytelling ability can still create little bits of magic.
It has been a while since I read an off-beat tale like this full of eccentric characters that actually worked so well. I came to care about these people, almost every one of them. I can see more Barbara Kingsolver in my reading future, certainly the followup novel to this, Pigs in Heaven.
I loved this story of how Taylor and Turtle find a new place in Arizona for themselves and surround themselves with good friends that become like family. The author uses humor and whimsy in generous amounts but also doesn’t shy away from dark truths and real life. As Taylor embraces the responsibility of motherhood and comes to love the state of Arizona, the reader is treated to a wonderful story of affirmation, risk-taking, commitment and love.
Originally published in 1988, this book, with it’s references to political and human rights issues surrounding illegal immigrants is very relevant to the border situation today. The Bean Trees is a touching, funny and humane story that was raised to excellence by the fantastic narration of C. J. Critt.
Gutted that I read this one after Pigs In Heaven, which is the sequel, as I knew what was going to happen at the end, whereas I might otherwise have been on the edge of my seat. Definitely better to read these two in the right order.
It did strike me that this book is slightly dismissive of the Cherokee Nation, which perhaps left the sequel with a balance to be redressed.
When I drove over the Pittman line I made two promises to myself…The first was that I would get myself a new name. I wasn't crazy about anything I had been called up to that point in my life, and this seemed like the time to make a clean break. I didn't have any special name in mind, but just wanted a change…I decided to let the gas tank decide. Wherever it ran out, I'd look for a sign.
Coasting into Taylorville, Illinois, she becomes Taylor Greer.
Driving on in her marginally functional 1955 VW, Taylor stops at an Oklahoma roadside bar, in hopes of cadging a burger, and is given a small, silent child, closely wrapped in a blanket that obscures its sex and its age, a bundle carefully set in the passenger seat. A woman—the child's mother?—murmurs furtively about desperate circumstances and quickly moves away. She climbs into a pickup parked across the lot and it pulls away. Just that fast, Taylor is a mother.
Within a few hours, Taylor learns the child is a girl, that she's pathologically withdrawn, undernourished, a victim of sexual abuse. She continues to drive west, her mind sorting and resorting questions and options. On the outskirts of Tucson, the VW's tires give out. They've stayed inflated long enough to get the car onto the lot of Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. Taylor, of course, has no money by this time, so getting tires, even well-used tires, are out of the question. She's arrived, it seems, at the end of her journey.
But we're only on page 41, and Taylor has a whole lot of journeying still to do. As she progresses, she's befriended by Mattie, the woman who runs the used tire business and who moonlights with an underground railroad marshalling Guatemalan illegals through Arizona and on into the secret American heartlands. Mattie gives her employment. Taylor also hooks up with Lou Ann, a fellow Kentuckian married to a rodeo rider of Mexican heritage. Lou Ann has an infant son, Dwayne Ray, but is losing her husband, who is intent on divorcing her.
Taylor's named her "daughter" Turtle because, like a snapping turtle, she grasps her hand or coat-hem with a vise-like grip. Inevitably, Taylor is confronted by the need to somehow legalize her adoption of Turtle.
[The Bean Trees] was Kingsolver's first novel, and in it she demonstrated her ear for dialog, her sensitivity to the nuances of interpersonal relationships, her appreciation of all the facets and feelings surrounding motherhood, whether biological or adoptional. The story builds, enticing you to follow along Taylor's road. You'll be glad if you do.
August 23, 2009
The Bean Trees
The Bean Trees begins with the main character Taylor Greer, who I thought was a strong character for many reasons. She knew what she wanted in life, which did not include staying in Kentucky any longer, and that she did not want to become pregnant like all the other girls in her small town. Taylor wanted to escape and find adventure in life. Since the story was told from her point of view it made it very enjoyable to read because it was humorous and filled with her thoughts. She was independent and opinionated, yet did not seem very good at expressing affectionate emotions. I also thought Taylor Greer was very responsible because she cared for Turtle. Turtle was an abandoned child who was abused, that Taylor found and cared for. I thought it was funny how Taylor named the child Turtle because of how clingy she was, just like the mud turtles back at her home in Kentucky. It was heartbreaking to me that Turtle had been abused physically and sexually.
The character Lou Ann Ruiz was very different from Taylor. Lou Ann and Taylor became friends because Lou Ann needed a roommate when her husband left and Taylor and Turtle needed a place to stay. Lou Ann was sensitive, unlike Taylor, yet always seemed to be stressed or worried about something. Despite their differences these girls became friends right away. I thought of Lou Ann as a concerned and accountable mother who always put her baby son Dwayne Ray first. The aspect of this character I did not like was that she always seemed to be paranoid and a little uptight. However, both of these characters were from Kentucky, good friends to each other, and cared for a child.
A touching moment from the story was when Taylor selflessly helped a Guatemalan refugee couple, named Estevan and Esperanza escape to an illegal immigrant sanctuary. In return, the couple reciprocated; by pretending that they were Turtle’s parents so that Taylor could keep the baby and not lose her to social services. For me, this was one of the most moving chapters in the entire story. Despite having several great story lines and good character development, there were also two themes that were reoccurring throughout the book.
One theme that I found very important in this book was the role of women in society. Over many years women have had unequal treatment, compared to men, and have gone through many hardships, which I feel this book displays. At such a young age Turtle had been forced to face a terrible hardship and maybe if she wasn’t a woman she would not have had to go through that. The story also talked about how Lou Ann went through some troubles with men. Esperanza, a Guatemalan refugee, had already faced troubles that came with being a woman along with being an illegal immigrant. She had very limited education and little job opportunities compared to men, but she ended up overcoming her difficulties. Even though this book is set in the early 1980s in Arizona, I feel that women still face many of these struggles today. This story displays the many roles of women in general and not just as individuals.
Another significant theme I recognized in this book was the effect that nature and the environment have on everyday life. The character Mattie, who owned the tire shop that Taylor worked at, had a beautiful garden in the back of her shop. The beauty of this land made all who saw it respect the environment and care for other things as well. The garden and the bean trees symbolized the cycle of life. Crops would be planted and they would grow and flourish with the help of many things such as the sunlight, rain, and soil, just like the surroundings in our lives that help us grow. Then the plants would be harvested to eat. Finally, they would die off for the winter and come back in the spring, thus finishing the cycle of life.
I really enjoyed The Bean Trees because of the strong characters that were able to overcome many difficulties. I liked how the book was told through Taylor’s point of view because it showed that she has strengths and weaknesses just like everyone else. Lastly, the underlying themes of the book easily relate to everyday life and the struggles many people face throughout their lives.
I have to give it to Kingsolver in terms of characters and conversation. Her conversations are incredibly natural, and she captures the moments of wonder in every day life. A month will pass by and then she stops for a moment to describe the wisteria (the bean trees of the title), dripping with blossoms. Her writing style is carefree and poetic at the same time. She also captures a world I don't know much about: a world of single moms with no college education working in factories and fast food establishments.
It's also a world with no men. Once again I found this vaguely creepy, as if a gender bomb had silently blown up and eliminated all members of the human race with a Y chromosome. Men in this book are absent. Taylor's father never was there, and she certainly doesn't miss him. Her roommate's husband leaves before he has a chance to utter one word in the book. Her boss's husband is dead. Her coworker's boyfriend moved away as soon as she was pregnant. All the men simply vanish without a trace, and no one gives a damn. I should admit there is one man in the book old enough to talk. He's a refugee from Guatemala and a paragon of perfection. He is handsomer than all other men, better educated, and morally superior to anyone else in the story. He's not really a character at all, he's simply a haloed angel for Taylor to dream about and never attain. [In fact, in the course of the book Taylor goes through her adolescence and through her mid-20s without apparently ever having or wanting a relationship.] Is this Kingsolver's view of men? There are the vast majority who are abusers and neglecters and one out of a hundred is an angel?
This book is also about victimization, about women being abandoned, sexually abused, fondled on the bus, beaten near to death, and it's about their unfailing ability to survive in a world set against them. The women are strong, independent, and support each other. I feel like I'm reading a very well-written tribute to 1980s support groups. The writing is excellent but the world is bizarre. Then again, there are communities like this: women in wartime when the men really are absent, some African American communities (or so I hear), and certainly poor communities around the world where men go to work in the city or in another country and leave their families behind to take care of themselves. But in this case, there was no proximal cause. The state of affairs was just taken as writ.
Perhaps I should feel more connected to this book. After all, I spent ten years of my childhood in an all female household, my mother raising my sister and myself after my brothers had gone off to college. But men (or boys in this instance) always existed. In fact, given my proclivities in science, almost all of my friends were men, so I find it odd when half of humanity is written out of the picture.
All this makes me wonder about Barbara Kingsolver, but I do think she is a good writer. This is just further proof to myself that the absence of female leads in books and movies should not be replaced by an absence of male characters.