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 heads west with two plans: She will take a new name wherever the gas tank runs dry, and when the car itself gives out she will stop to settle while she still has a grubstake. She is not, however, the passive fatalist that these decisions might seem to imply. After a close call in Homer, Illinois, she coasts into Taylorville on momentum and gasoline fumes and becomes Taylor Greer, but the rocker arm goes in the middle of a treeless piece of Oklahoma owned by the Cherokees. Despite her possible claim to “head rights” in the Cherokee nation (Taylor’s mother had a grandfather who was full-blooded), she uses half of her remaining money to get the car fixed so she can go on.
In the dark outside a roadside café, an Indian woman thrusts a child into the car and insists that Taylor take it. “If I wanted a baby, I would have stayed in Kentucky,” Taylor says, but the woman climbs into a truck and disappears. The child is a girl, abused, undersized, silent, and slow. Taylor calls her Turtle. She presses on into Arizona, where her money and her tires are finally exhausted, and comes to a halt at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires in a run-down neighborhood of Tucson.
Alternating chapters in the early part of the book introduce another Kentucky woman, Lou Ann Ruiz, who had married a rodeo rider, gone west with him, and been abandoned just before the birth of their son. Taylor connects with her while answering ads for housing to share and takes a job at the used-tire shop. It is run by Mattie, a forthright, competent, gray-haired mechanic who needs a helper so that she can take unannounced trips from time to time. Upstairs are silent, brown-skinned visitors who come and go in the night.
With these materials in place, the story passes permanently to Taylor’s first-person narration and to working out a plot of discovery, strength, and tenderness. Taylor and Lou Ann are two ordinary working women with small children, scraping by through the practical sharing of space and responsibilities and working out ways to get along with each other. When Taylor first hears Mattie mention the word “sanctuary,” she thinks only of the places for birds that are pictured on the road maps published by various...
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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’ Superior Women (1984) are a few early examples of this kind of fiction. Kingsolver’s work can be seen as different from these other novels, however, in its focus on working-class, non-college-educated women and in its inclusion of a racially diverse cast of characters.
The Bean Trees has been considered an autobiographical work; like Taylor, Kingsolver was born and reared in Kentucky and moved to Arizona as a young adult. Likewise, Taylor’s political involvement with the sanctuary movement parallels Kingsolver’s own commitment to aiding Central American refugees. Kingsolver wrote the novel while pregnant with her first child and suffering from acute insomnia; before The Bean Trees, she had written mostly technical, scientific pieces and political pamphlets.
In its lyrical style and the unique voice of its narrator, in its complex interweaving of several plot lines and many different kinds of characters, The Bean Trees succeeds as a novel that incorporates political activism with social realism into a work of fiction populated with ordinary, likable characters performing extraordinary acts.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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...
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