Marietta Greer has just completed two miracles of her rural Kentucky upbringing: graduating high school and avoiding pregnancy. To celebrate, she jumps in her ’55 Volkswagen bug and rides West, leaving her job at a Kentucky hospital counting platelets to stay true to her plan “to drive out of Pittman County one day and never look back” (11). On the road, she changes her name to Taylor and finds herself in Tucson, Arizona with a broken down car and a Cherokee baby in her arms.
Taylor is an honest, straight-forward protagonist that speaks with youthful tact and an open heart. Through her, Kingsolver voices the morals of an ideal United States brought down with prejudice and misunderstanding. The Bean Trees isn’t a celebration of the Southwest and its adopted mixed-heritage culture as it is a vision into a world stricken by the hypocrisy of that adoption. Comparing her rural Kentucky hometown and Tucson, Arizona together to discover they’re as foreign to each other as to be separate countries, Taylor declares herself an immigrant in her own right and easily warm up to Mattie--the local mechanic--and the plight of the hunted illegal immigrants coming and going from the sanctuary rooms above her garage. She is naive, but warm-hearted, as she struggles to comprehend the idea that a person can not only commit illegal acts, but can be illegal in the eyes of the law, too.
When I began the novel, I was not expecting to read about political and human rights issues. I was really surprised to discover Taylor navigating prejudices that are extremely close to home. Now that I’ve finished, I’m blown away with Taylor’s sweet-below-the-surface personality and firm beliefs in the extension of natural human rights to everyone, not just citizens. She finds more in common with Estevan, Esperanza, and Lou Ann Ruiz--her roommate--than she does with the other local folks she meets in town. Themselves displaced from their own points of origin, Taylor and her group form fast friendships and a loyal support system as binding as any family she could ever imagine. Together they help each other survive in a foreign land, everyone as much part rhizobia as part wisteria vine. They are an incongruous family, the titular bean trees, a confusing connotation of the more widely known and beautifully named wisteria vine.
Kingsolver’s debut novel is charmingly powerful and subtle in its celebration of families, whatever the form. I’m also entirely prejudiced when it comes to immigration issues and agree with Kingsolver’s politics here (there are a lot of people who will not). I think it’d be difficult to get through this novel coming at it with a closed or contrary mind that would disallow for the suspension of one’s own beliefs. The Bean Trees is filled with rich sentiments that call for an open mind and are impossible to ignore if you want to experience (and enjoy) the book to its fullest.
The best part about the book was the dialogue. Taylor and Lou Ann’s colloquial conversations are disarming and honest. It’s very easy to fall in love with their (and everyone else’s) quirks--they bloom from the pages as studies of characteristics we’ve all encountered before; Lou Ann, the worrisome young mother; Virgie, the bigoted senior citizen; Mattie, the bleeding heart. Because of this, The Bean Trees readily comes to life, vividly reminding us of real life issues still very pertinent to our society, even after twenty years. Even little Turtle, who speaks her strange vegetarian language, manages to communicate effectively, if a bit eccentrically, and found in me a sympathetic heart. She speaks a recipe of nourishment, sprinkled here with food, there with a small army of ‘Ma’s determined to raise her right. Like Taylor and Lou Ann finding reprieve in each other’s speech, she finds solace in surrounding her auditory world with comfortable, familiar things.
One of my favorites scenes is a complete spoiler, but I think it’s the most powerful in the entire book: emotional and transcendent, reaching far beyond the actions on the page. I’ve dwelt on the political issues, but what drives the narrative are the characters, their personal journeys, and the relationships they form with each other. While it may be difficult to appreciate those aspects without also understanding the politics of what motivates them, it’s hard not to grip the book firm with both hands when Taylor, Turtle, Estevan, and Esperanza sit nervously in Mr. Jonas Wilford Armistead’s office, certain that any sudden movements will break the spell and destroy not one, but four lives. I held my breath and absolutely could not put The Bean Trees down or risk psychologically damaging someone.
I had nothing to compare Kingsolver’s writing to. This is the only book of hers I’ve read so I can’t say where on a Kingsolver scale this would land, but I really liked it. What am I talking about? I loved this book. This is the type of literature I think everyone should read and try to understand. It opens a dialogue that I hope engages people in a positive way.