A Lyrical and Critical Account of Family in America

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2305

Readers and critics of a Barbara Kingsolver novel agree that politics and aesthetics wed in an often inspiring fashion. Reviewers have praised the freshness of the prose and the realism of her characters, who typically battle prejudice and a feeling of dislocation with great determination. Unfortunately, aesthetics and politics usually have a troubled marriage since—in the critic's eye—the one tends to undermine the other: books can be either works of beauty and genius or vehicles for political change. And since Kingsolver's politics are popular or "correct," her work has achieved more popular than critical success. Kingsolver, most likely, would not want it any other way. Leaving this debate to her readers, this essay instead focuses on the politics of names in her first novel, The Bean Trees, and how seeing connections between the human and the natural worlds expands our definition of what a name—such as "family"—might mean.

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A contemporary poem by the Canadian P.K. Page, "Cook's Mountains," will help introduce the idea that the act of naming says as much about the giver as the receiver. The poem juxtaposes two moments of seeing the Glass House Mountains in Queensland, Australia. First is the scene of Captain James Cook, an eighteenth-century British explorer, naming these mountains "Glass House" because from a distance they appear as "hive-shaped hothouses." Two hundred years later, the poet sees them and is told their name by her driver. Page suggests that although the name is appropriate, "It was his gaze / that glazed each one." The mountains reflect "Cook upon the deck / his tongue / silvered with paradox and metaphor." Learning Cook's name for the mountains compromises Page's appreciation of their natural beauty not only because they become more "man-made" and artificial, but because she is reminded of Australia's past as a British colony. Cook and other explorers actually renamed these lands by effacing the aboriginal names. Metaphorically, Cook was in a glass house—was at a remove—when he renamed them. It frustrates Page that by using Cook's name for the mountains she is complicit in the colonial project of wiping out the original inhabitants and their history. Set largely in southern Arizona, ancient Native American country, The Bean Trees also explores the politics of naming in the context of Old and New World conflicts. It moves beyond Page's poem because it looks closely at naming in family relationships. The novel asks that we recognize the contiguity between the national and the personal.

Just as the mountains appear more like glass houses once Cook names them, the name we receive at birth instantly becomes central to our identity. We identify with our family name and are identified with it. Within the name are a record of the past and predictions about the future. As well, the act of naming separates one child from another. Some people can afford to ignore the fact that a name says as much about you as your clothing or hair color, but many cannot. For instance, Esperenza and Estevan—Mayan refugees from Guatemala—have to change their names to Hope and Steven so that new American acquaintances, employers and immigration officers will accept them into the American Family. And this name change was not their first: earlier, in Guatemala, their Mayan names were forced into hibernation because of political and racial persecution. This fact emerges in stories only when the cleansing rains of spring occur—only when they are surrounded by friends who offer acceptance and love. And when Lou Ann's family back in Kentucky hears that she has decided to live in Tucson and marry Angel Ruiz, they assume immediately that Angel is "one of those" illegal Mexicans. Angel, Estevan and Esperenza all know that naming is a political act; they know that assumptions are made about a person based on a name, and that sometimes those assumptions can cost you your life. Esperenza and Estevan run from Guatemala for their lives because they refuse to give up the names of 17 friends to a government that feels threatened by a small teacher's union.

This feeling of being threatened by groups of people who have different names and political affiliations circulates freely in America. In the novel, Virgie Mae Parsons—the seeing-eye friend to blind Edna Poppy—feels this threat and mutters: " 'Before you know it the whole world will be here jibbering and jabbering till we won't know it's America.' / 'Virgie, mind your manners,' Edna said. / 'Well, it's the truth. They ought to stay put in their own dirt, not come here taking up jobs.' / 'Virgie,' Edna said." Although Edna's eyes may not allow her to distinguish unaided between a small lemon and a lime, she figuratively sees or reads people much better. Virgie is responding to Estevan, who—though he taught English in Guatemala—is working as a dishwasher for a Chinese family in their restaurant. Estevan has said that only the young daughter speaks English. The irony is, of course, that Virgie is not just talking ignorantly to Estevan, but about Estevan: unlike Angel, Estevan is "one of those" illegal immigrants. Yet the characters confess that in their group he is the most fluent English speaker. Taking our cue from Mrs. Parsons, we can ask: How does a person recognize America? And how does America recognize a person? Virgie believes that language has a transparent logic, that a word means what it says or cannot mean more than one thing. Perhaps surprisingly, this logic is manifest in Edna herself. Edna tells us that when she realized as a young woman that she was named "Poppy," she decided to be one: from that moment on, Edna Poppy has dressed almost entirely in red.

Edna's decision to fashion herself in red was one that embraced chance. Chance also plays its part when the novel's first-person narrator, Taylor Greer, heads west out of Kentucky in an old, weathered Volkswagen Bug, and changes her name. Named "Marietta" but known as "Missy," Taylor exchanges her old name for a new one as part of the process of leaving the old for the new. Before she leaves Pittman County, she decides that where the first tank of gas runs dry, she would find her new name—Taylorville. "Greer" is the last name of a father who left even before she was born. So what can we say about "Taylor Greer" without slowly coming to know her? Very little; or, at least nothing that would not be arbitrary. Taylor's decision teaches us that identity can be multiple. She learns later that these identities do not necessarily conflict with one another. We also learn about the instability of appearances, which can be both frustrating—to the disillusioned immigrant expecting in America the freedom to belong—and rewarding—such as when a withered vine suddenly bursts forth in bloom. Patience, the right conditions, a respect for things you do not yet or may never understand—these are the requirements: "There seemed to be no end to the things that could be hiding, waiting it out, right where you thought you could see it all." Months pass before Taylor discovers that Edna makes her way through the world with plenty of help and indirection.

Out on the road, when a rocker arm on the car demands repair at a rest stop in Oklahoma, near the lands of the Cherokee Nation, Taylor becomes "Mom" when a small Cherokee baby is put on her passenger seat. The unexpected responsibility of Turtle (named for an unrelenting grip that reminds her of a mud turtle), plus two flat tires and no money to repair them, convince Taylor that if A is Pittman County, Kentucky, then B is Tucson, Arizona. As with Estevan and Esperenza, Taylor and Turtle arrive in Tucson with nothing except each other. Unlike the Mayan immigrants, Turtle and Taylor are not even family. And each of them sees little in this new place that reminds them of family or feels like home. But these people soon discover that underneath the unfamiliar is the familiar. The names may have changed, but given half a chance new places and people soon metamorphose into everything thought gone and dead, and potentially more. "What I really hate," Estevan says, "is not belonging in any place. To be unwanted everywhere." The obstacles for these new Americans are many, but even they, the novel implies, will find a place to call home.

While Esperenza and Estevan wait for the chance to belong—hoping to get past all the roadblocks—Taylor's struggle is more internal and typically American. Once in Tucson, Taylor moves in with Lou Ann, who—because Angel leaves her— is also a single Mom. They quickly discover that while their personalities spark off one another, they have much in common. This growing bond initially contradicts Taylor's sense of independence: "It's not like we're a family, for Christ's sake. You've got your own life to live, and I've got mine. You don't have to do all this stuff for me." Taylor left Pittman County to escape motherhood and domestic servitude. Her escape meant that she was no longer responsible to anyone but herself, and the act of choosing a new name was a function of her desire for independence. "My culture, as I understand it," writes Kingsolver in her collection of primarily autobiographical essays, High Tide in Tucson, "values independence above all things—in part to ensure a mobile labor force, grease for the machine of a capitalist economy"; "It took a move to another country to make me realize how thoroughly I had accepted my nation's creed of every family for itself." In The Bean Trees, Taylor gradually learns that her independence is not necessarily compromised by motherhood or family. "Everybody behaved as if Turtle was my own flesh and blood daughter," says Taylor. "It was a conspiracy." By the end of the story, once she legally adopts Turtle, Taylor is fully part of it. "Families change, and remain the same. Why are our names for home," Kingsolver asks in High Tide in Tucson, "so slow to catch up to the truth of where we live?" Taylor catches this truth when unrelated roommates, employers, children and friends all become part of her new family.

Taylor is employed and adopted by Mattie, who owns a tire sales and repair business. Taylor soon discovers that Mattie's business is more than fixing flat tires, though helping people such as Esperenza and Estevan find new homes corresponds with getting motorists back on the road. Mattie's garden also plays a symbolic role because these people who arrive at her door have been ripped from their home soil; their roots dangle vulnerably and need a gentle transplanting. Mattie is a gardener of people. Kingsolver studied biology and ecology at university, and into her work she weaves this knowledge in bold colors. This metaphor of person as plant is part of a larger system of resemblance between nature and humanity. When an author uses metaphor consistently, as Kingsolver does, the apparently disparate and unrelated elements of the world begin to coalesce. An early instance occurs when Taylor limps into Tucson, and focuses on a discarded cigarette: "Some truck had carried that tobacco all the way from Kentucky maybe, from some Hardbine's or Richey's or Biddie's farm, and now a bunch of ants were going to break it into little pieces to take back to their queen. You just never knew where something was going to end up." There are no metaphors in Virgie's world; Virgie lives in just one world. Taylor understands more about the world when she discovers connections between all the different worlds. What was singular becomes plural.

Taylor's focus, however, usually centers on Turtle. This little girl's first couple of years were full of deprivation, and put her in a condition similar to a desert plant waiting for summer rains. During this drought, Turtle stopped growing, trusting and talking. But under Taylor's care and commitment to her as a daughter, Turtle blooms. Turtle then dramatizes best the overlap between the related worlds by exchanging fluently human names for vegetables ones. As a gardener, Taylor frees herself from a national obsession with family and gender lines, and insularity. She frees herself by becoming more dependent on the people around her. The novel represents women as strong and fulfilled, but also employs identities (gardener instead of mother) that are gender neutral to troubled binary thinking. In this way, a person's family members can speak different languages, have different last names and live in different houses. Taylor learns that a family is not just something that you are born into—that is given to you—but is a collection of people that you make into a home (or a garden). Turtle grounds this argument, and is compared to the wisteria vines that grow out of bare dirt in a park near the house. These vines bloom one anonymous day in March. When the flowers turn to seed, they remind Turtle of beans. To her a wisteria vine is a bean tree. Taylor and Turtle learn later that wisteria vines are indeed part of the legume family, and that they depend on microscopic bugs, or "rhizobia," for food: " 'It's like this,' I told Turtle. 'There's a whole invisible system for helping out the plant that you'd never guess was there.' I loved this idea. 'It's just the same as with people. The way Edna has Virgie, and Virgie has Edna...and everybody has Mattie. And on and on.' / The wisteria vines on their own would just barely get by...but put them together with rhizobia and they make miracles."

Source: Logan Esdale, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
Logan is a doctoral student at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Utopian and Feminist Ideals

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2200

As excerpts from the reviews will reveal, critics generally rave about Barbara Kingsolver's prose in her first novel, The Bean Trees. Kingsolver blends "common language with beautifully constructed images," writes one critic. She "delivers enough original dialogue and wry one-liners to put this novel on a shelf of its own," writes another. "Kingsolver doesn'tt waste a single overtone. From the title of her novel to its ending, every little scrap of event or observation is used, reused, revivified with sympathetic vibrations," writes another.

What divides, even troubles critics is the novel's Utopian impulse. Writes Jack Butler, Taylor Greer (the novel's heroine) "confronts prejudice, trauma, self-abnegation, chauvinism, and always, always has the right attitude.... The other characters are purified to types as well"

Drawing upon Butler, Maureen Ryan describes Kingsolver's fiction as "aggressively politically correct." Kingsolver, she says, "wrestles the beasts of contemporary society: child abuse, labor unrest, political repression, feminism, the disintegration of Native American culture, and environmentalism. But she proffers her medicine sprinkled with Nutrasweet." By creating "perfect" mothers, and "intrepid and resilient" women, concludes Ryan, Kingsolver may unwittingly suggest that "if we love our children and our mothers ... the big bad world will simply go away."

In other words, neither Butler nor Ryan find the danger in the novel to be "real"; the characters in The Bean Trees, despite Kingsolver's careful attention to serious problems, are, in the end, too good to be true. This "lightness" in the novel, suggest the critics, may partially account for its astonishing popularity—more than 400,000 paperback copies were sold in one year.

Though the critical critics may be right that the novel's "happy ending" partially accounts for its popularity, there is much room for speculation as to whether their standards for judgment are fair, or even relevant. For what these critics have failed to discuss is the context of Kingsolver's work, and the historically "male-centered" literary canon that Kingsolver is trying to stretch.

In a Kentucky Educational Television video, Kingsolver describes her own coming of age in the following way. "In the time and place of my adolescence there was enormous pressure on girls to play a kind of Russian roulette with our bodies. And if you won, you could be the most popular girl in the class. But if you lost you were a pregnant 15-year-old girl, way out of luck. I saw this happen to my classmates, beginning in the 7th grade "

Taylor Greer's childhood experiences parallel Kingsolver's and, one might argue, the experiences of many young women. Taylor resists pressures to have sex, manages to, in her own words, escape "getting hogtied to a future as a tobacco farmer's wife," and dreams of living in a place that is not so behind the times. Many of Taylor's classmates, in contrast, are not so lucky. They are "dropping by the wayside like seeds off a poppyseed bun."

Says Kingsolver in the same television interview, "Along about junior high this thing happens to teenage girls. It occurs to you that you're going to be a woman when you grow up. And you start to look around to see what that means. And in the mid-to-late sixties the news was not all that good...You were not gonna drive the car, you were gonna be in the passenger's seat. The voice of reason, the voice of authority and the voice of God were male."

Thus, for Kingsolver, the problems she had to overcome in order to even imagine herself writing about Taylor Greer included: How could she write a literary work that was based not on the literature of "old, dead men," but on the experiences of working poor and single mothers? How could she dramatize something so rarely dramatized? How could the threat of unwanted pregnancy, for example, function as a meaningful danger in a literary novel? The questions are not easily answered, particularly when one considers the lack of literary models that Kingsolver had to emulate.
Although Kingsolver does not mention her female influences, one could place her in the context of other popular, literary women writers, all of whom created characters who were "too good to be true," like Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, Pollyanna, Anne of Avonlea, Heidi, and numerous other 19th century paragons of virtue.

One could even speculate that Taylor Greer, evolving consciously or unconsciously out of this "progressive Utopian" literature, becomes the first such "too good to be true" female to adopt an abused child. She could be considered the first "too good to be true" female to fear unwanted pregnancy—and the first such "too good to be true" female who, by seeking conversation and communion with other women, begins to reform herself, rather than her community.

The problem is not that Kingsolver's "real" social concerns are trivialized by her insistent hopefulness in The Bean Trees. The problem is that Kingsolver's readers, trained by reading a male-centered canon, are unable to recognize that Taylor Greer is a wonderfully new and revolutionary character. She is new and revolutionary because she is a mother with a voice, because she is a mother who can tell the tale of her daughter's physical and sexual abuse, because she is a young woman with a "lottery of limited prospects" who feels authorized to author her own life.

Rather than discussing whether or not Kingsolver's fiction meets the not too relevant criteria of realism, critics would be better served by discussing the ways in which it is difficult to dramatize the taboo (such as sexual abuse), and the ways in which it is difficult to dramatize an adventurous female. To reframe this discussion would be to locate Kingsolver's work where it belongs: in the center of a problematic cultural and literary tradition.

At the heart of The Bean Trees is a feminist question. How can a young girl, who is good and kind, and yet who resists the idea that her purpose in life is to give birth and raise children, create her own identity? How can this same girl overcome her culture's indifference to her talents, hopes, and aspirations? Kingsolver's answer is that Taylor must ultimately learn to author her life in connection with others. This is a new and different answer to a most vexing—and all too familiar—question.

Thus the critics may be correct in viewing Taylor to be a bit too good to be true, insofar as she seems more skilled at authoring her life than the average teenager. However, Taylor's approach to authoring her life is psychologically convincing, and follows patterns familiar to young women in search of self.

In fact, Kingsolver has set up her growth in convincing ways. Taylor may be unusual, but her unusual goodness does not, in the end, undermine her authority, as it might in a less complex story. Specifically, the novel sets up an ongoing dialogue between Turtle's growth, Lou Ann's growth, and Taylor's growth.

Turtle symbolizes the young girl who has not yet left home and begun to develop her own voice. Lou Ann symbolizes the young woman who has left home, but carries with her derogatory internal voices that limit her growth. Taylor symbolizes the young woman who is strong in voice, but seeking to keep her strength and voice while also connecting with—and listening to, hence being changed by—others. All females are at different stages in their development. All face similar (and believable) obstacles.

At the start of the novel, girlhood is seen as a liability, a source of diminishment. Upon discovering that Turtle has been sexually abused, Taylor says, "The Indian child was a girl. A girl, poor thing. That fact had already burdened her short life with a kind of misery I could not imagine." Similarly, Taylor observes that, like many girls, "Turtle's main goal in life, other than hanging on to things, seemed to be to pass unnoticed." And when Turtle and Mrs. Parsons are attacked, Turtle's response is to stop talking. This, according to the logic of the novel, is the danger for all young women—loss of speech, loss of voice, loss of personal authority.

Lou Ann represents a young woman who has not yet developed her voice and, therefore, does not author her own life. She, like Turtle, tries not to attract attention, often by diminishing herself. For example, as she takes the bus home from the doctor's, she notes that it was "pure pleasure not to have men pushing into her and touching her on the bus." Then she rushes home, concentrating on "not being afraid." Meanwhile, though she resents and fears the attention she gets from men, she hates the way she looks. On an "ordinary" day she says, "I look like I've been drug through hell backwards.... Like death warmed over. Like something the cat puked up." Lou Ann is not likely to "create" an alternative self-image to the one she has internalized, for Lou Ann is not the kind of person to correct "anybody on anything." She does not even speak up when the nurse mispronounces her last name.

Both Turtle and Lou Ann begin to flourish and grow in striking ways in the story. Both develop in noticeable ways into speaking, self-creating—rather than self-diminishing—females. Taylor's growth, on the other hand, is more subtle.

At the start of the novel, Taylor has something of a negative identity. She does not want to be like the girls she grew up with, and she has the confidence to try other ways of being—but not the experience.

One obstacle she must overcome is her lack of positive relationships with men, whom she tends to view as dangerous. Early in the novel, Taylor encounters a wounded classmate, Jolene, whose father-in-law has just shot her, killed her husband, and beaten her baby. Jolene tells Taylor that her own father has been "calling me a slut practically since I was thirteen." The implication is that Jolene (like Lou Ann) did not have any alternative to living out a life already scripted for her. Taylor responds "... I didn't have a daddy.... I was lucky that way." The moment is important, because Taylor has recognized that fathers have the power of naming their daughters. Since Taylor is fatherless, she need not fear being named—created—by her father's descriptions of her. However, she needs to overcome the absence in her own identity, and she can only develop this more complete identity in relation to others, including men.

Given the novel's logic, it is appropriate that, at the start of the novel, Taylor carries with her a sense that men are dangerous. For example, she bypasses a motel because "the guy in the office didn't look too promising," and selects instead the Broken Arrow Motor Lodge, where "there was a gray-haired woman. Bingo."

Taylor's journey, then, is concerned with redefining herself so that she has an identity, not a negative identity. She must also recreate her perception of the world as part of her self-authorship, so that she is fully present in the moment. This she begins to do when she renames herself in Taylorsville, when she becomes a mother whose child looks to her for guidance, and, when, in a psychologically convincing journey, she retraces her route back to Oklahoma, this time with a sense of mastery—and with company.

The point is that Taylor finds believable strength from her connections with others. Without her relationships with Mattie, Lou Ann, Estevan, and Esperanza, Taylor would never have been able to legally adopt Turtle. And without Turtle, she could never have been the "main ingredient" in Turtle's song. Without these connections, Taylor would not have been able to find what she was seeking, a place where she belonged, a place where she could be herself, rather than a young woman whose identity was based largely upon resistance.

This feminist/feminine psychological journey grounds the Utopia. Rather than unwittingly suggesting that "if we love our children and our mothers ... the big bad world will simply go away," as Ryan worried, Kingsolver is suggesting that a young woman who finds her voice is a powerful force in the world. This power does not make the world any less of a frightening place, but it does make the notion of home and sanctuary possible.

Though critics may take issue with the way that Taylor blithely adopts an abused Cherokee child, as well as the unrealistic way that Estevan and Esperanza take time out from their search for a homeland to help Taylor to adopt Turtle, and the farfetched way that Lou Ann becomes a manager in three weeks of work at a salsa factory, it is clear that Kingsolver's characters are engaged in very recognizable and real growth. It is also clear that, given the literary and social context of her work, Kingsolver is breaking new, and very important ground—and that she paves the way for others to investigate more thoroughly (and perhaps more realistically) the questions and issues that she raises.

Source: Elyse Lord, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
Elyse Lord is a writing instructor at the University of Utah and the author of a Utopian novel entitled Everything is Lovely and the Goose Honks High.

Barbara Kingsolver's Lowfat Fiction

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2032

Kingsolver's work...consistently floats among the verbiage that vies for our dwindling reading time. Her novels and stories are seductively appealing, offering, as they do, sympathetic, interesting characters; well-paced plots with clear resolutions; and a breezy, colloquial, eminently readable style. That is to say, they give us all the comforting conventions of old-time realistic fiction, flavored with the cool contemporary lingo favored by so many of the truly hip young guns. In short, Barbara Kingsolver's novels and stories are a good read. But I would argue that more importantly—and distressingly—Kingsolver's fiction is so very popular because it is the exemplary fiction for our age: aggressively politically correct, yet fundamentally conservative.

Kingsolver knows what she's about. In the battle that rages in literary magazines for the elusive soul of contemporary American fiction, she unabashedly proclaims herself to be "old-fashioned." It's a popular position: on the attack against so-called minimalist writing and in defense of his very popular behemoth, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe in 1989 bemoaned what he perceived to be the sterility and social irresponsibility of contemporary American fiction and called for a return to the "big, rich" social novel of Dickens and Steinbeck.

Reviewers of Barbara Kingsolver's work perhaps inadvertently betray their sympathies with the call for a return to traditional realistic fiction, generally welcoming her mobilization of political themes and her dissimilarity to the ostensibly clever, narrow, MFA-burdened writers—the Absurdists and Neo-Fabulists and Minimalists—that Wolfe and so many others decry. Karen FitzGerald, for instance, finds The Bean Trees to be "refreshingly free of cant and the self-absorption of...overrated urbane young novelists." Diane Manuel applauds The Bean Trees for giving readers "something that's increasingly hard to find today—a character to believe in and laugh with and admire." Margaret Randall likes the novel because "it is one of those old-fashioned stories, thankfully coming back onto our literary scene, in which there are heroines and anti-heroines...ordinary humans [who] go places and do things and where they go and what they do makes sense for them...and for us."...

Kingsolver herself makes clear that her commitment to tackle the social issues of our day is conscious—and central to her undertaking. "I only feel it's worth writing a book if I have something important to say," she asserted in a 1989 interview. And she, like Wolfe, dismisses the fashions of contemporary fiction, claiming that she sees "a lot of beautifully written work that's about—it seems to me—nothing." One of the generation that came of age in the 1960s, and consequently believes that "we can make a difference in the world," Kingsolver too laments the "divorce" between "politics and art" in our culture. "I am horribly out of fashion," she boasts. "I want to change the world.... I believe fiction is an extraordinary tool for creating empathy and compassion." Kingsolver wrestles the beasts of contemporary society: child abuse, labor unrest, political repression, feminism, the disintegration of Native American culture, and environmentalism. But she proffers her medicine sprinkled with Nutrasweet. This is fiction for everyone. "I have a commitment to accessibility," she asserts [in an August 30, 1990, Publishers Weekly interview], "I believe in plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want one of my relatives—who's never read anything but the Sears catalogue—to read my books." In fact, Barbara Kingsolver's books do appeal to both the literary scholar and the Sears shopper. And why not? The problem is that for all their apparent attention to the pressing social problems of our time, Kingsolver's light and lively books—which purport to give us food that's both nourishing and appetizing—leave all of us feeling just a bit too fine.

Kingsolver's critically acclaimed first novel, The Bean Trees, introduced the elements of her fictional world, which she develops in the recent sequel, Pigs in Heaven. When plucky, ingenuous Taylor Greer leaves Kentucky and "lights out for the territory" at the beginning of The Bean Trees, she sets out on a physical and spiritual journey that thrusts her into a world fraught with danger, evil, and the unexpected. In Oklahoma, enroute to Tucson, Taylor has found herself entrusted with the care of a silent, abused three-year-old Native American child who clings to Taylor with such ferocity that she christens the girl "Turtle." Like it or not, Taylor becomes an instant mother, a "bewildered Madonna," with a new understanding of the hazards of contemporary life. An afternoon at the zoo promises "stories of elephants going berserk and trampling their keepers; of children's little hands snapped off and swallowed whole by who knows what seemingly innocent animal." Taylor wonders "how many...things were lurking around waiting to take a child's life when you weren't paying attention."

Of course, the trip to the zoo is a pleasant afternoon in the park, but there are real dangers in the world that Taylor encounters in her new life. When she first bathes Turtle and discovers the child's "bruises and worse," Taylor acknowledges that "I thought I knew about every ugly thing that one person does to another, but I had never even thought about such things being done to a baby girl."

The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven are Taylor's story, and they present Taylor's education into the perplexities of contemporary society, as she ventures out of her small, rural Kentucky hometown into a heterogeneous, confusing world. But Taylor's lessons are finally less of the hazards and atrocities of the world than they are about its consolations and strategies for survival. For despite the peril and attendant vulnerability that pervade these characters' lives, real danger is displaced and diffused by the characters' resilience and the inherent goodness of the world. The indifferent aunt who abused, then abandoned Turtle is, for example, only a fleeting, fading presence in The Bean Trees. And Taylor, whose commitment to and competence at motherhood develops throughout both novels, puts her worried friend Lou Ann's anxieties into proper perspective: "The flip side of worrying too much is just not caring.... If anything, Lou Ann, you're just too good of a mother."...

Perhaps Taylor has always known that a father and mother and 2.3 children don't necessarily make a family, but she has an important lesson to learn about families nonetheless. When the much-loved Turtle innocently tells a social worker that she has no family, Taylor is astonished and hurt, until she figures out that feeling like a family isn't enough; she tells Alice,

She's confused, because I'm confused. I think of Jax and Lou Ann and, of course you, all those people as my family. But when you never put a name on things, you're accepting that it's okay for people to leave when they feel like it.

They leave anyway, Alice says. My husbands went like houses on fire.

But you don't have to accept it, Taylor insists. That's what your family is, the people you won't let go of for anything. [from Pigs in Heaven]

Taylor learns what Codi must discover, too; that family—blood or found—must be claimed.

Taylor is right, but so is Alice. Men do leave in Kingsolver's world; and in fact, her protagonists are nearly always women, women confronting the vicissitudes of being women in late twentieth-century America Kingsolver's feminism is unassailable. Writing [in Utne Reader, Jan.Feb., 1993] about her failure to appreciate the current men's movement, she notes that "women are fighting for their lives, and men are looking for some peace of mind....The men's movement and the women's movement aren't salt and pepper; they are hangnail and hand grenade." Kingsolver's novels are set in an unpredictable, baffling, imperfect world that is always a women's world.

It's not that men are cruel or boorish in The Bean Trees; they're simply irrelevant. Taylor's father is "long gone," and Taylor suspects that she's all the better for his absence. Lou Ann's husband slides quietly out of her life, and the novel, as Taylor pulls into Tucson. His absence doesn't matter much either; Lou Ann listens to him packing up his belongings and notices that "his presence was different from the feeling of women filling up the house. He could be there, or not, and it hardly made any difference."

Taylor has spent her life avoiding the likely prospect for a girl like her in Kentucky, getting "hogtied to a future as a tobacco farmer's wife." She knows that "barefoot and pregnant" is not her style. And her (and the novel's) attitude toward men is best articulated by the Valentine's card she sends her mother: "On the cover there were hearts and it said, 'Here's hoping you'll soon have something big and strong around the house to open those tight jar lids.' Inside was a picture of a pipe wrench."...

Kingsolver's is a world, not simply of women, but, significantly, of women and children, mothers and children. When Taylor steers her '55 Volkswagen west at the beginning of The Bean Trees, she leaves behind her beloved Mama (the Alice who discovers her independence, acquires her own name, and becomes an important character in Pigs in Heaven). Mama has struggled to raise Taylor alone, and has always let her daughter know that "trading Foster [Taylor's father] for [her] was the best deal this side of the Jackson Purchase." All of the women in The Bean Trees raise children alone; in fact, childrearing and marriage seem mutually exclusive....

Motherhood—and its concomitant values: family, community, sacrifice, caring—are sacrosanct in Kingsolver's world. In the "different world" that she envisions throughout her fiction, we'd all care for everyone's child; in our world, exhausted, selfless mothers get the nod—and the approbation. Indeed, Kingsolver's apparent appreciation for non-traditional families is compromised by her unrelenting admiration for mothers. And though undoubtedly she means to suggest a vision for improving society; in fact, her privileging of family values works to compromise her message about the injustices of our society, which finally just don't seem all that ominous.

Barbara Kingsolver wants to say something important in her fiction about contemporary society and our responsibility to try to make the world a better place. She wants to challenge us to confront and do something about child abuse, the Native American Trail of Tears, and the American-backed crimes in Central America.... Hers is a considerable and admirable undertaking. As Jack Butler writes in his review of The Bean Trees [in New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988], "who can be against the things this book is against? Who can help admiring the things this book is for?" "But," Butler continues, "reality suffers.... At one point late in the book, Turtle experiences a frightening reminder of her early horrors, and much is made of the damage this sort of recurrence can do—but then the subject is dismissed." The problem with Barbara Kingsolver's fiction is that the big subjects, the looming dangers, are always dismissed. Everyone in her books turns out to be inherently good and well-meaning; the men sensitive and sexy, the women intrepid and resilient (and always perfect mothers).... The dangers in Kingsolver's novels are not the challenges and perils that her characters all too easily overcome; they are the soothing strains of that old-time religion, lulling us into oblivion with her deceptive insistence that if we love our children and our mothers, and hang in there with hearth and home, the big bad world will simply go away....

The conventions of traditional realistic fiction that Wolfe and Kingsolver's reviewers miss in so much contemporary writing are the meat of Barbara Kingsolver's writing, which she serves with a soupcon of sentimentality for seasoning; and for dessert, the funny, slick patois of so much of that very hip recent fiction. She even gives us a healthy helping of vegetables: we may not like learning of Nicaraguan Contras and child abuse, but we know it's good for us. Finally, however, Kingsolver's work is contemporary American fiction lite. It's what we're supposed to eat these days, and it's even fairly tasty, but it's not very nourishing—and we go away hungry.

Source: Maureen Ryan, "Barbara Kingsolver's Lowfat Fiction," Journal of American Culture, Vol. 18, No 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 77-81.

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