A Lyrical and Critical Account of Family in America

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.

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...

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Utopian and Feminist Ideals

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...

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Barbara Kingsolver's Lowfat Fiction

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...

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