A Review of The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

This is my first Barbara Kingsolver novel, and she is now at the top of my favorites list. She is a magnificent story teller, and I really feel like I could just listen to her stories for hours and hours, for days and days on end. She picks away at the essence of the human experience, all without any need to announce it or explicitly tell us that she’s exploring the deeper meaning of it all. She just tells stories that unearth the treasures of our existence.

Taylor grows up in Kentucky in the care of her loving and wise mother, but she’s got an itch to see the world. She avoids men because she doesn’t want to get pregnant and find herself stuck in her small town. Then one day, she buys a beat up car and points it southwest. Before the car completely breaks down in Arizona, she’s picked up a Native baby–whom she names “Turtle”–along the way (who it turns out comes from an abusive home). So much for avoiding children. Still, it doesn’t stop her from having adventures, including illegally smuggling undocumented immigrants.

The Bean Trees was a lot of fun for me. I particularly enjoyed the Lou Ann character development. On the Enneagram, Lou Ann is a classic Type Six personality: nervous and anxious about all the possible dangers in the world, on her guard against perceived threats, and on the lookout for people and things she can rely on to navigate this perilous existence. I found this particular exchange between Taylor and Lou Ann particularly hilarious:

Taylor:  “You were just looking for a disaster, that’s all. You can’t deny you hunt for them, Lou Ann, even in the paper. If you look hard enough you can always come up with what you want.”
Lou Ann: “Am I just completely screwed up, Taylor, or what? I’ve always been this way. My brother and I used to play this game when we were little, with a cigar box. That box was our best toy. It had this slinky lady in a long red dress on the inside of the lid, with her dress slit way up to here. It’s a wonder Granny Logan didn’t confiscate it. She was holding out a cigar I think, I s’pose she was a Keno girl or something, but we said she was a gypsy. We’d make believe that you could say to her, ‘Myself at the age of fourteen.’ Or whatever age, you know, and then we’d look in the box and pretend we could see what we looked like. My brother would go all the way up to ninety. He’d say, ‘I see myself with a long beard. I live in a large white house with seventeen dogs’ and on and on. He loved dogs, see, and Mama and Granny would only let him have just Buster. But me, I was such a chicken liver, I’d just go a couple of weeks into the future at the very most. I’d look at myself the day school was going to start in September, maybe, and say, ‘I am wearing a new pink dress.’ But I’d never, never go up even to twenty or twenty-five. I was scared.”

“Of what?”
“That I’d be dead. That I’d look in the box and see myself dead.”
“But it was just pretend. You could have seen yourself any way you wanted to.”
“I know it. But that’s what I thought I’d see. Isn’t that the most ridiculous thing?”…..

The Bean Trees was funny but was also a serious exploration of the power dynamics at play in immigration laws. Taylor befriends two undocumented immigrants whom she is particularly fond of. She sees their struggle for survival, and she finds herself experiencing their pain and frustration. As she reflects on her own young life and her own experiences, she finds herself at the end of herself: “There’s just so damn much ugliness. Everywhere you look, some big guy kicking some little person when they’re down–look what they do to those people at Mattie’s. ‘To hell with them,’ people say, ‘let them die, it was their fault in the first place for being poor or in trouble, or for not being white, or whatever, how dare they try to come to this country.’…I didn’t know how to explain the empty despair I felt. ‘How can I just be upset about Turtle, about a grown man hurting a baby, when the whole way of the world is to pick on people that can’t fight back?”

The response to Taylor comes from her own life, from the story of her life in the novel. That one person who cares can make a difference, even if it is only in the lives a few people. For those people, that difference means everything.

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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