The Bean Trees (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
Opening mid-anecdote, with the direct voice and assured eye for humorously specific details that have become a hallmark of the new generation of local color writers, The Bean Trees makes an immediate impact. One slows down to savor the rich invention and pointed observations and to appreciate the narrator’s spunky, down-to-earth self-awareness. Better yet, before long one comes to appreciate that this first novel by Barbara Kingsolver has a project more ambitious—and ultimately more compelling—than simply to create bits of life that would fit neatly into semiconnected short stories. The characters grow, change, and are worth caring about. The themes—introduced without preaching—are both important and resonant. By book’s end, one is full of admiration for the careful construction which brings together assorted threads and leads the plot to a breathtaking and touching conclusion.
The first-person narrator, Marietta Greer, was reared fatherless and poor in Kentucky. She plugs away in high school when the other girls are dropping out pregnant. “This is not to say that I was unfamiliar with the back seat of a Chevrolet,” she reports, but those experiences had not “inspired me to get hogtied to a future as a tobacco farmer’s wife.” After five years of doing laboratory work in a county hospital, she buys an old Volkswagen and...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Bean Trees interweaves the stories of several women, all living in Tucson, Arizona, who create successful and fulfilling lives for themselves without male partners. Although these main characters are all white, working-class women, they interact with a larger, more diverse Tucson community of Hispanics, American Indians, Central American refugees, and Chinese immigrants. Political and social issues such as the treatment of illegal aliens and the struggles of single working mothers inform the novel’s plot and its characters’ actions, but the narrative never becomes solely ideological in its focus. Rather, it shows the everyday difficulties and triumphs of women who succeed by working together to overcome the challenges facing them.
The majority of the novel is told from the point of view of Taylor Greer, one of the many outsiders in the novel who comes to Tucson accidentally. Although Taylor arrives in Arizona with little money and no friends, she soon becomes part of a community of mutually supportive people, most of whom are women. Taylor moves in with Lou Ann Ruiz, another single mother struggling to make ends meet, and the two share the rent, child care, and other domestic responsibilities. Their neighbors, Virgie Mae Parsons and Edna Poppy, are two elderly women who live together and take care of each other, as well as helping Taylor and Lou Ann. Mattie, the successful owner of Jesus Is Lord Used Tires and a committed political...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Bean Trees was Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, but the themes on which she focuses—single motherhood, working women, United States policies in Central America and toward its refugees, American Indian communities—recur in her subsequent novels Animal Dreams (1990) and Pigs in Heaven (1993); the latter is a sequel to The Bean Trees and details Taylor’s interaction with the Cherokee Nation, which views her adoption of Turtle as illegal. Kingsolver’s concern for ordinary people—not celebrities, but real people performing acts of everyday heroism—informs all of her writings; her nonfiction work Holding the Line (1989) deals with women’s roles in a copper mining strike in Clifton, Arizona.
Kingsolver fits into the tradition of Southern writers; she has noted that Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor were authors whom she enjoyed reading as a child; later influences include Doris Lessing, Ursula K. Le Guin, and William Faulkner. In her focus on the lives of working-class people and relationships, her novels resemble those of Bobbie Ann Mason, but Kingsolver’s settings are in the Southwest, not the Southeast.
The Bean Trees is one of many recent novels which detail female friendships and the powerful bonds between and among women; Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977), and Alice Adams’...
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Human Rights Struggles in Guatemala
Widespread violence and political upheaval marked a 36-year period in Guatemala that spanned the 1960s through the mid-1990s. During this period, Guatemalans lived in fear and oppression as opposing forces both tore apart the government and terrorized its citizens. Anti-government left-wing guerrilla groups systematically attacked the Guatemalan government on many fronts, assassinating leaders and denouncing the series of governments that rapidly succeeded one another. In reaction to the guerrillas, extreme right-wing groups tortured and killed tens of thousands of citizens—among them teachers, doctors, peasants, students—that they believed were in league with the leftist groups. Many of those tortured and killed in the conflict were Mayans, a people native to the region, and thousands of those persecuted fled the country as refugees, seeking safety in countries like the United States.
Conservatism in the 1980s
Taylor's statement after Turtle is molested in the park that "nobody feels sorry for anybody anymore....Not even the President. It's like it's become unpatriotic," addresses the fallout of the 1980s mood of conservatism in the United States. During the Reagan era—the two consecutive terms of the hugely popular conservative president—some conservative groups used words like "patriotism" and "traditional family values" in ways that excluded people and encouraged intolerance. When...
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Point of View
Up until chapter five of The Bean Trees, the narrative point of view is split between a first-person narrator and a third-person narrator. In the chapters dealing with Taylor Greer, Taylor tells her own story, but the chapters that focus on Lou Ann Ruiz are narrated in the third person. After Lou Ann and Taylor meet in chapter five, Taylor's point of view takes over and the third-person narrative disappears. Taylor's first-person narration fleshes out her character and puts her at the center of the novel. The third-person narrative in Lou Ann's chapters has limited omniscience, which means that the narrator is able to see into the minds of only some of the characters. In these chapters, the narrative reveals Lou Ann's feelings and motivations, although there is some distance between Lou Ann and the reader. When the two narrative points of view merge in chapter five, a sense of harmony is created, as the chapter's title suggests. Taylor and Lou Ann's decision to make a home together becomes reflected in the unified point of view.
Taylor's narrative voice is part of her characterization and the vision of the novel. Her speech is natural, colorful, and often humorous. She describes herself to Lou Ann at their first meeting as "a plain hillbilly from East Jesus Nowhere with this adopted child that everyone keeps on telling me is as dumb as a box of rocks." But Taylor is more than "a plain hillbilly." She...
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Taylor provides first-person narration in all but two chapters of The Bean Trees. The two exceptions are chapters two and four, which are third-person limited, and follow Lou Ann up to the point of her meeting Taylor. Once the two women agree to share a house, Taylor takes over the narration for the rest of the novel. The two chapters narrated by Lou Ann stick out in what is essentially Taylor's story, and seem to be there only to provide the reader with a secondary character's story. In later novels, such as Animal Dreams and especially The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver handles changing points of view more deftly.
Plotting is another strong point of Kingsolver's. She puts her characters in unique situations that seem believable, in part because her characters are so down-to-earth. Readers willingly follow them because they want to see how an ordinary person would behave in extraordinary circumstances. Rather than experiencing contrived coincidences, Kingsolver's characters seem to be intertwined with destiny. In The Bean Trees, Taylor ends up where she belongs, though it is through a series of random events. Kingsolver's plotting and rich characterization carry us along so that we don't notice the coincidences that shape the framework of the narrative.
Kingsolver also uses metaphorical language to enrich her narrative and depict her themes. Much of this metaphor takes the form of descriptions of nature and natural...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
In The Bean Trees Kingsolver focuses on a young woman, Taylor Greer, who develops a strong social conscience through her experiences with an abandoned child and a pair of Guatemalan refugees.
1. How are mothers portrayed in The Bean Trees: always positive, or sometimes negative? Compare and contrast the various mother-daughter relationships in the novel: Taylor and her mother, Taylor and Turtle, Lou Ann and her mother, Esperanza and Ismene. In what ways does Mattie appear as a mother figure? What kind of a mother is Lou Ann?
2. Compare and contrast the paired relationship of Estevan and Esperanza with that of Virgie Mae Parsons and Edna Poppy. How do these individuals provide support for one another? What does the "caretaker" in each pair gain from the relationship?
3. Discuss Turtle's affinity for plants and gardening. What significance does this have in the novel? How does this help show her development as a character as the novel progresses?
4. Taylor's two major actions at the climax of the novel (adopting Turtle and transporting Estevan and Esperanza to Oklahoma) are illegal. Discuss Taylor's moral decision-making process, and the ethical implications of her actions.
5. Are the various social issues brought up in the novel handled fairly? Does Kingsolver provide both sides of the story?
6. What does the character of Cynthia, the social worker on Turtle's case, represent? Is she...
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Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees is a story of a young woman who leaves home to seek her place in the world and ends up with something she doesn't expect. Thrust into motherhood when an abused Cherokee child is left in her care, Taylor Greer learns not only to accept and embrace her new role, but about the importance of family and community. As a result of her experiences, she develops a strong social conscience that allows her to take action to support what she feels is right.
The daughter of a poor single mother in Pittman, Kentucky, Marietta Greer feels that her options are limited. She does not want to end up a teenage mother like many other girls in her high school. A favorite teacher recognizes her potential and recommends Marietta for a job as a medical assistant. When she reaches her early twenties, she decides to leave Kentucky. She buys a broken-down Volkswagen and vows to drive west as far as her car will carry her. As a sign of a clean break with her past, Marietta changes her first name to Taylor, the name of the first town where she runs out of gas. As she travels on, Taylor is shocked by the flatness and seeming desolation of the Great Plains. It is during her journey that we first learn that Taylor and her mother have Cherokee blood. In the parking lot outside a bar in Oklahoma, a distraught Cherokee woman hands Taylor a bundle, which turns out to be a three-year-old girl, whom the woman urges Taylor to take, apparently for the...
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Topics for Further Study
Research 1980s U.S. immigration policies for Central American refugees. In what kinds of situations were refugees granted asylum in the United States? What was the nature of United States-Guatemala relations?
Investigate the political situation in 1980s Guatemala. Who was in power, and what did the government expect of its citizens? Why would Estevan and Esperanza's teachers' union be considered a threat?
Research weather patterns in Arizona: when and where does the rain fall, and what are the average temperatures throughout the year? Compare actual Tucson weather to its weather in the novel. Compare Tucson weather to Kentucky weather in terms of rainfall and temperatures.
The teenage Cherokee girl in the bar tells Taylor that "The Cherokee Nation isn't any one place exactly. It's people." Research the Cherokee Nation in terms of its places and people: map its location(s) in Oklahoma, and investigate its values, government, and customs. Why might Taylor, as a white American, be confused about the definition of Cherokee Nation?
Taylor's narrative often focuses on the vegetation she and her little community find and foster in Arizona. Investigate farming and gardening practices in the Tucson area and compare what you learn with Mattie's garden and other organic vegetation in the novel.
Research the incidence of child abuse on Indian reservations in the 1970s and 1980s. How did the passage of the Indian Child...
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Kingsolver has stated that, as a college student, she was greatly influenced by the work of Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer, among others. Like several works by these writers, The Bean Trees also depicts the close relationship between the political and the personal. In telling the story of a young woman who becomes a social activist as she gains maturity, The Bean Trees evokes Lessing's "Children of Violence" series and Gordimer's A Sport of Nature. Kingsolver's humor and affinity for quirky characters and intricate plots also bear comparison to the work of John Irving, who in turn was influenced by Charles Dickens.
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In 1993, Kingsolver published Pigs in Heaven, a sequel to The Bean Trees. The book was written in response to reactions by Kingsolver's critics who were troubled by Turtle's shady adoption at the end of the first book. When she wrote The Bean Trees, Kingsolver was unaware of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which states that Native American children should be adopted by members of their own tribe. Though many reviewers found the novel's compromise solution to the dilemma unrealistic, they praised Kingsolver's fair handling of both sides of the issue.
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What Do I Read Next?
Pigs in Heaven (1994) is Kingsolver's sequel to The Bean Trees and follows Taylor and Turtle as they struggle against an Indian-rights attorney who insists that Turtle be removed from her adopted mother and returned to her people.
In Homeland and Other Stories (1989), a collection of twelve short stories by Kingsolver, characters like an elderly Native American woman and an estranged mother and daughter strive to make places for themselves—to find homes—in the world.
Another America/Otra America (1992), Kingsolver's first book of poetry, treats the subjects of social and political oppression in the lives of ordinary Latin Americans and the prejudices of North Americans towards their neighbors. The book presents each poem in English and Spanish.
Vince Heptig's color photographs and an introduction by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum make up A Mayan Struggle; Portrait of a Guatemalan People in Danger (1997). Heptig's more than 100 photographs depict the Mayans as a strong people struggling to improve their world as they go about their daily lives in the midst of political strife.
Searching for Everardo: A Story of Love, War, and the CIA in Guatemala (1997) by Jennifer K. Harbury is the author's own story of her three-year search for her Guatemalan husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, who was taken prisoner and eventually killed by the Guatemalan army. Harbury's...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Jack Butler, "She Hung the Moon and Plugged in All the Stars," in The New York Times Book Review, April 10,1988, p. 15.
Karen FitzGerald, "A Major New Talent," in Ms., Vol. XVI, No. 10, April, 1988, p. 28.
Diane Manual, "A Roundup of First Novels about Coming of Age," in The Christian Science Monitor, April 22,1988, p. 20.
Michael Neill, "La Pasionana," in People Weekly, Vol 40, October 11, 1993, pp. 109-10.
Publishers Weekly, Vol 233, No 2, January 15, 1988, p. 78.
Margaret Randall, "Human Comedy," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. V, No 8, May, 1988, pp. 1, 3.
Maureen Ryan, "Barbara Kingsolver's Lowfat Fiction," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 18, Winter, 1995, pp. 77-82
For Further Study
Jack Butler, "She Hung the Moon and Plugged in All the Stars," in The New York Times Book Review, April 10,1988, p 15.
Butler admires Kingsolver's poetic style, but derides the novel for only permitting "upbeat" resolutions.
Brenda Daly, Authoring a Life, a Woman's Survival in and Through Literary Studies, State University of New York Press, 1998.
A collection of essays that utilize both personal narrative and feminist theory in order to explore the connection between feminine identity development and language arts studies.
David King Dunaway and Sara L....
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Butler, Jack. “She Hung the Moon and Plugged in All the Stars.” The New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988, 15. A good essay that praises Kingsolver’s style, pointing out her success in both dialogue and description. Butler also notes that language is one of the subthemes of the novel, linking Lou Ann and Taylor through their Kentucky dialect, Estevan through his work as an English teacher, and Turtle as a child learning to speak. Butler points out, however, that the novel seems to lose “immediacy” near its end, with the characters becoming almost too good and the plot perhaps overly contrived.
FitzGerald, Karen. “A Major New Talent.” Ms. 17 (April, 1988): 28. In this appreciative review, FitzGerald puts Kingsolver in the context of contemporary feminists writing about friendship. In Kingsolver’s fiction, however, as opposed to the nonfiction of other feminists, a reader comes to feel the power of women’s relationships and their ability to provide a haven in which the women can blossom.
Freitag, Michael. “Writing to Pay the Rent.” The New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988, 15.
Lyall, Sarah. “Termites Are Interesting but Books Sell Better.” The New York Times, September 1, 1993, C1. A lengthy, informal profile of Kingsolver.
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