Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees The Bean Trees: Lessons in Life Our paths never would have met if it weren’t for a bent rocker arm. Such chance meetings are often the very events that turn a person’s world upside down and set it on an entirely new course. Taylor Greer, plainclothes heroine of Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel The Bean Trees (copyright 1988. 232 pages. Softcover, HarperPerennial.
$11.00), leaves home to look for a better life, and has motherhood dropped in her lap at a roadside service station. Taylor (born Marietta) grew up in Pittman, Kentucky, a small rural town where families had kids just about as fast as they could fall down the well and drown, and a boy with a job as a gas-meter man was considered a high-class catch. She needs to get out to get ahead, and when she goes, she leaves almost everything behind, including her name. (Taylor is the name she adopts when she runs out of gas in Taylorville, Illinois.) When her steering fails somewhere in central Oklahoma, in country owned by the Cherokee nation, she stops for repairs at a roadside service station. A Cherokee woman looks at Taylor and sees a chance for her dead sister’s child to escape a life of abuse and alcoholism. She hands the child over to Taylor and disappears.
Taylor’s journey of self-discovery suddenly becomes a transition into a relationship where she is not the most important person. Taylor and her adopted child, Turtle, travel to Tucson, Arizona, where more car troubles land them at a shop known as Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. The owner of this odd establishment is a woman named Mattie, a serene, big-hearted soul who shelters political refugees from Guatemala, and who gives Taylor a job. Taylor and Turtle find a room with Lou Ann Ruiz, a self-described ordinary Kentuckian a long way from home, and her newborn baby Dwayne Ray. The relationship between these two single mothers, one never married, one divorcing, and their relationships with the people around them are the focus of the story.
Ties of family, friends, blood and love are what sustain the characters through hard times and heartbreaks. The supportive connections between people are likened to a symbiosis, an interdependency in the most positive sense. Kingsolver’s story has a definite point of conflict and resolution; having a child handed to you at a cafe does not a legal adoption make. With no way of determining who Turtle’s relatives may be, Taylor is unable to formalize her relationship with her adopted daughter, and is at risk of losing her to the state. Her journey back to Oklahoma to try to find a solution to the problem brings the story full circle. But this time, she has friends with her, and ultimately it is her willingness to help them in their hour of need, and their willingness to do the same, that proves to be Taylor and Turtle’s salvation.
The moving, cathartic scene in which the crisis peaks paves the way for the satisfying resolution. The Bean Trees is a warm, funny story about personal journeys of self-discovery, as well as larger themes of commitment and risk-taking. Taylor Greer finds something in this abandoned Indian child that she didn’t know she was missing, and which she rapidly becomes unable to live without. The transformation of instant motherhood causes her to reevaluate her relationships with others, especially her own mother. In a way, Taylor is experiencing a moment we all go through, when our parents turn suddenly into human beings. The old women who volunteer as babysitters, the Chinese grocer down the street, and particularly the Guatemalan refugees who have survived tragedies she can not imagine, all reveal a special value to Taylor as she learns to depend on others and have them depend on her. The author’s superbly crafted, brilliantly descriptive writing brings the characters and settings home to the reader.
She thrusts you into each scene by using language that offers both visual and emotional information, a feel for a place, as in her description of downtown Tucson: .. the railroad track, which at one time functioned as a kind of artery, punctured Tucson’s old, creaky chest cavity and prepared to enter the complicated auricles and ventricles of the railroad station. In the old days I suppose it would have been bringing the city a fresh load of life, like a blood vessel carrying platelets to circulate through the lungs. Nowadays, if you could even call the railroad an artery of Tucson, you would have to say it was a hardened one. Kingsolver’s images of people and places are often rooted in the absurd, taking note of the oddities of real-life. In this manner, her style resembles that of the audacious and inventive Tom Robbins, though Kingsolver’s books tend to make more sense. (Anyone who dares venture out to a showing of the currently showing film adaptation of Robbins’s, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, will note his rambling style; the book was no more clear.) Taylor and the other characters are on a life-long journey of discovery.
The unexpected is what gives life flavor for these characters, that and the pleasure of anticipating life’s next plot-twist. The human insights which pepper the story ring clear and true. Taylor Greer leaves home searching for a chance at a better life. The better life, she discovers, is found in a sense of belonging where you are, rather than in any particular place. When she accepts her new role as mother, and learns to like herself in that role, she has already arrived. Barbara Kingsolver has written a sequel to The Bean Trees, Pigs In Heaven (copyright 1993.
343 pages. Hardcover, HarperCollins. $22.00). In it, Taylor fights to keep what she has found, for Turtle and for herself. Next week: Pigs In Heaven.