Taylor Greer never thought she'd be a mother. But, thanks to a bizarre chain of events in "The Bean Trees," she finds herself raising a Cherokee child named Turtle. Now six years old, the little girl who was initially so traumatized by previous abuse that she didn't speak, has made herself at home with Taylor and her boyfriend Jackson. To Turtle, they are the only parents she has ever known. But an unexpected moment of recognition attracts the attention of an Oklahoma lawyer, Annawake Fourkiller, to Turtle. Knowing it's illegal for a Cherokee child to be adopted outside her tribe, Annawake sets out to find Taylor and Turtle, and begin the process of returning her to what she feels is her rightful place in the world. But both mother and daughter have other ideas, and with Taylor's mother Alice, they embark on a road trip intending to begin a life elsewhere. Taylor finally concedes that she and Turtle can't run away from their problems forever. She only prays that Annawake and the others who have become involved in the case will see that skin color and genetics aren't the only important factors in creating a loving mother and daughter.
Kingsolver does an excellent job in showing the validity of the claims of both sides. But the child cannot be sawed into half. The novel is the story of the conflict and its resolution, which turned out to be too convenient and facile -- creating an "everybody wins" scenario. This is the one aspect of this book I dislike. Other than that, I adore Kingsolver's writing and these characters.
I read this book a couple of years before I moved to Manitoba, with its large Indigenous population and its history of systematically taking Indigenous kids away from their parents. Since I am a social work educator, this is an important issue for me to grasp and I found that Kingsolver's novel helped me to gain some insight into why it is so important for these children to remain in their communities.
Annawake, in spite of being counseled by her superiors to not pursue this case, becomes obsessed with returning Turtle to her Cherokee grandfather. She does this in the belief that Turtle will have an unsatisfactory adult life if she is not brought up in her Cherokee family. I was not impressed with this argument as it basically assumed that the bond between Taylor and Turtle was unimportant in light of Turtle's heritage. Taylor responds by fleeing with her daughter. Taylor’s mother, Alice, leaves her husband, Harland, because she wants more than a dead marriage, and goes to Las Vegas to help Taylor and Turtle. After giving Taylor her savings, Alice travels to the town of Heaven on Cherokee Nation land to stay with her cousin and investigate her rights with the tribe of her grandmother. Her time on the Cherokee land does not lessen her commitment to her daughter and granddaughter, but does help her understand Annawake’s quest.
Taylor loses much of her self-confidence as she works to support herself and Turtle, never having enough money to pay all the bills or to eat very well. Taylor’s eventual decision to take Turtle to the Cherokee Nation to talk to Annawake reminds her of Dorothy’s being taken to the castle of the witch in Oz (I didn't make this up). The choice seems forced as does much of the action in the novel. For example, there is a side character named Barbie who is obsessed with Barbie dolls; apparently this is intended to provide comic relief, but I couldn't determine what she added to the story. Each scene is presented in the author’s folksy third-person voice, and the view of the action is usually limited to the perspective of one of the main characters; however, I did not appreciate the authorial voice and that made the book just that much more difficult.
Disappointing is an understatement. Much of the plot seemed contrived to me and the authorial voice was off-putting. While the central characters Taylor and her adopted daughter, Turtle were sympathetic, that was about the only thing that kept me reading the book.
Taylor's mother, Alice, from Kentucky, has a distant connection with the Cherokees in Oklahoma. Running from a loveless marriage she goes to the reservation to reconnect with her childhood cousin, Sugar Boss from Heaven, Oklahoma. There, she finds out about the lawyer's interest in locating Turtle and trys to come up with a solution. She discovers that by distant bloodline she is eligible for membership in the tribe.
In the meantime, Taylor and the child have located to the northwest where she struggles to make ends meet. She has little contact with her family (a boyfriend and close friends) back in Arizona), not revealing to anyone where she and the child are living. It is clear that Kingsolver means to show that without the network of support that family provides, life is very lonely and difficult.
Alice realizes that family and shared cultural identity are deeply held values among the Cherokees. She experiences how the Cherokees perceive themselves as a more than extended family and how young and old share ties and common rituals that bind them to each other. Interestingly, the poverty and ramshackle nature of the nation's circumstances on the reservation do not in the slightest way mar the strong ties the tribe's members hold for each other. She wants to protect Turtle and Taylor, but she shows some ambivalence about the countermanding imperative for tribal cohesion that underlies Annawake's intent to have the child returned to tribal custody. In contrast to the tribe's unity and mutual support in the midst of great poverty, Taylor's struggles to provide for Turtle are heightened by her isolation from family.
There is a solution to the problem. Although a bit deus ex machina in nature, Kingsolver's climax involves matchmaking of Alice's cousin and acquaintances with a tribal member, Cash Stillman, who has recently returned from a self-imposed exile in Wyoming. Cash Stillman turns out to be the child's grandfather. With him in the picture, the tribal court is able to arrange joint custody so that the child can learn about her heritage while remaining with her mother. It's a tad of a stretch, but it works fine.
What's important about this fine novel is its emphasis on the meanings of the family connections that define who we are. Taylor has a love for Turtle so strong that she flees her family and tries to protect the child, though struggling terribly to make a life for them in a strange city. (Note the contrasts from where she left, near Tucson, to where they end up -- the Pacific northwest. And, see how Taylor has had a very unconventional "family", really a sort of hippieish community, but nonetheless a family.) On the other side, the deep cultural roots of the Indians are plainly to be seen. The
intertwinings of their shared society go way beyond common understood conceptions of an "extended" family.
The book tells the history of the grossly misguided attempts of white society to eradicate Indian culture and how this is the impetus behind the late day efforts (and laws) to preserve their identity. There is the opportunity in the novel to remember the displacement of Cherokees from the southeast to "territory no one else wanted" via the infamous "Trail of Tears". Cash himself is a product of the notorious boarding schools of the 20th century which were aimed at "Americanizing" Indian youth. (To be honest we must call this, along with overt slaughter of the 19th century, genocidal in nature.)
I've not yet been disappointed by Kingsolver -- The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacunae, and now Pigs in Heaven. As you start her novels you wonder "now where's she going with this?", but as you get further along you think, "oh, wow".
Some skilfuly dropped clues ensure that the reader is always one step ahead of the characters and anticipating the next step, and good pacing ensures that it is a while before they catch up, so the suspense is ensured. Like all the other books I have read by this author, the research is thorough without weighing down the plot, and it is compelling, humorous and informative.
I had no idea that this was part of a series, but upon finishing it I discovered 'The Bean Trees' in a second hand shop and found out that it was a prequel to this one, so guess what I read next.
This book is quite a bit longer but it didn't engage me as much as the first. The majority of things revolving around the young Cherokee lawyer just didn't interest me. Her character put me off.
There are a couple of seemingly unrelated people and story lines that come together towards the end. This is still a good read but it was missing that "something special" charm for me.
In this sequel the child called Turtle, who is still only minimally verbal, insists that she has seen a man fall into a dangerous place. Taylor believes her, and persists with unbelieving authorities until she finally gets someone to listen. The man is rescued. The resultant publicity brings Turtle to national acclaim, including tribal social workers.
It becomes a beautiful story of the conflict when an abused and neglected child, coming out of her shell and attached to her adoptive white Mom, is claimed by her tribe and members of her extended family.
The characters are all well realized. We see the backstory and pain of individual tribal family members and the whole of a nation whose children were removed from them.
How can there be any winners in this situation?
Standing in Taylor's kitchen, coffee in hand, Annawake begins their conversation with an admission:
"I'm sorry," she tells Taylor, "I've misled you…I'm not a reporter. I'm an attorney… I work in an office that does a lot of work for the Cherokee Nation. That's what I want to talk with you about. Turtle's adoption might not be valid."
Taylor's cup stops an inch from her lips, and for nearly half a minute she does not appear to breathe.
Annawake tells Taylor of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was enacted in 1978 because so many Indian kids were being separated from their families and put into non-Indian homes.
"I don't mean to scare you," Annawake says quietly. "But I want you to have some background on the problem. We need to make sure our laws are respected."
Taylor turns around and faces Annawake, her hair wheeling. "I didn't take Turtle from any family, she was dumped on me. Dumped. She'd already lost her family, and she'd been hurt in ways I can't even start to tell you without crying. Sexual ways. Your people let her fall through the crack and she was in bad trouble. She couldn't talk, she didn't walk, she had the personality of—I don't know what. A bruised apple. Nobody wanted her." Taylor's hands are shaking. She crosses her arms in front of her chest and slumps forward a little in the manner of a woman heavily pregnant.
"And now that she's a cute little adorable child and gets famous and goes on television, now you want her back."
"This has nothing to do with Turtle being on television. Except that it brought her to our attention." Annawake looks away and thinks about her tone. Lawyer words will not win any cases in this kitchen. She is not so far from Oklahoma. "Please don't panic. I'm only telling you that your adoption papers may not be valid because you didn't get approval from the tribe. You need that. It might be a good idea to get it."
"And what if they won't give it?"
Annawake can't think of the right answer to that question.
Taylor demands, "How can you possibly think this is in Turtle's best interest?"
"How can you think it's good for a tribe to lose its children!" Annawake is startled by her own anger—she has shot without aiming first. Taylor is shaking her head back and forth, back and forth.
"I'm sorry, I can't understand you. Turtle is my daughter. If you walked in here and asked me to cut off my hand for a good cause, I might think about it. But you don't get Turtle."
"There's the child's best interest and the tribe's best interest, and I'm trying to think of both things."
"Horseshit." Taylor turns away, facing the window.
No sooner does the dust settle behind Annawake Fourkiller's departing rental car than Taylor is packing her car and departing Tucson with Turtle, the beginning of an odyssey to Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and on to the Pacific Northwest. At each stop, Taylor's resources and options dwindle.
This confrontation between maternal commitment and tribal rights is the linchpin of the plot. Yes, we read about Lucky Buster and his mother; about Barbie, who's obsessed with the outfits marketed for the doll she's named and modelled herself after; about Steve Kant, the wheelchair-bound air traffic controller. There's Gundi, Taylor's landlady, a quirky artist who's as likely as not to roam about her rental cottages in the buff. These are rich and entertaining characters. Kingsolver's a master of character and dialogue.
In the end, I felt disappointed because while the plot rummaged through the difficult, divisive, often (usually?) sorrowful issues of heritage, family, parenthood, and adoption, the characters were contrived and the plot manipulated to produce a heartwarming, everybody-wins finish. The solution in such circumstances is to have distant, dormant, unlikely-but-damned-convenient family relationships.