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 state tourist bureaus.
The most refreshing quality of Kingsolver’s characters is their genius for taking the right actions instead of examining their feelings or conducting intellectual arguments. The novel is grounded in an awareness of the range of issues that are women’s issues and demonstrates the profoundly woman-centered nature of much working-class life. When Lou Ann’s Kentucky relatives visit, women fill the house in a way that men cannot. Marginal and relatively uneducated women take significant actions because they are in touch with practical reality.
This is not to say that Kingsolver herself is unaware of feminist theory. The author’s intellectual understanding fuels concrete examples of issues such as the importance of naming. Taylor Greer’s original name of Marietta is distinctively female and (secondarily) regional. In Kentucky, her friends called her Missy, a name inspired by her first childish attempt to break out of the class into which she was born. At three she had demanded that her mother call her “Miss Marietta,” as she “had to call all the people including children in the houses where she worked Miss this or Mister that.” This early passage lays the groundwork for understanding Taylor’s adult decision to rename herself and makes clear the significance of replacing the infantilizing “Missy” and the localizing, female “Marietta” with the neutral “Taylor.” The transmutation of names, indeed, becomes a thread—now humorous, now touching—that weaves throughout the story.
The book’s artful construction supplies many such threads: Kingsolver’s apparently effortless style sets up a background that is virtually unnoticed until suddenly convergences and revelations occur. Turtle’s fascination with planting seeds in the garden extends also to toy trucks and dollies—and each time the action reappears it accumulates resonance and extends meaning. Kingsolver is also splendid with the scene, the look of vegetation, the feel of earth, the smell of rain in the desert. The snappy tone of Taylor Greer’s narrative voice supplies instantly recognizable characterizations; Newt Hardbine, for example, was “one of the big boys who had failed every grade at least once and so was practically going on twenty in the sixth grade, sitting in the back and flicking little wads of chewed paper into my hair.”
The only really dislikable people in The Bean Trees are self-involved, like the potential housemates who are “into” sensitivity, nutrition, and self-expression. With women whose common ground is reality and survival, however, Taylor makes instant connection. Sandi at the Burger Derby tips her off about thrift shops and the mall where a child can be left all day in the supervised playroom as long as the mother pretends to be shopping. At an Oklahoma motel, Mrs. Hoge urges Taylor to stay and earn money during the Christmas season. The two elderly women who live next door to Lou Ann baby-sit Turtle (and, in their own relationship, provide a fascinating and poignant surprise). Even the social worker with high-heeled pumps and a big desk finds a way to provide out-of-channels help when the state of Arizona threatens to put Turtle into foster care or a children’s home.
The threat to Turtle also brings out unexpected determination in Lou Ann. Although the two Kentucky women become instant friends—as well as housemates—in the relief of hearing each other’s “down home” voices in Tucson, their natures are sharply different. Taylor’s spunk and self-assertion are the gift of a mother who gave her unconditional love and praise, taught her to ask for what she wants, and had a ready supply of observations, drawn from her work as a cleaning woman, to prick inflated images of the rich or self-important. Lou Ann, on the other hand, was reared in the shadow of fundamentalist religion and by a mother unable to rule in her own house. She is afraid of almost everything, collects stories of unexpected disasters, is obsessed with the idea that she is ugly and that if she speaks her mind she will drive her friends away, and has an overly developed sense of responsibility that makes her feel guilty for even thinking about anything that would make someone else unhappy. When events that seem truly out of control nudge Taylor toward depression, however, Lou Ann responds with strength and determination that prove infectious.
The plot, like the characters, engages specific individual actions that speak to larger issues. Despite the poverty of her childhood, Taylor’s strength and self-confidence have protected her from recognizing the extent to which people can be helpless and victimized. As Estevan says to her, Americans “believe that if something terrible happens to someone, they must have deserved it.” She is jolted by finding evidence of the abuse that Turtle suffered and numbed when she learns about the political realities of Central America—and the complicity of the United States government that supports repressive regimes and refuses asylum to endangered refugees.
Kingsolver does not preach; there are no embedded lectures or passages of political rhetoric. Yet she has created a novel full of old-fashioned meaning. Taylor Greer encounters political realities by seeing what has happened to real people, and she does what is required for both practical and moral survival. The threads of the plot are resolved convincingly with a breathtaking climax that is—all at the same time—comical, surprising, moving, and ultimately gratifying.