Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees has a lot of the same themes as her best known work, The Poisonwood Bible: family (and what makes one), culture shock, morality, and how outsiders are treated. Unlike PB, this is a quick read, less upsetting, but also a bit less impactful, at least to me.
Missy/Taylor Greer is brought up in rural Kentucky, and is determined to make her way out of it someday. She stays in school, avoids getting pregnant (apparently half of her female class ends up dropping out of school because of pregnancy), and even gets a job at a hospital. After buying a car and saying goodbye to her loving, fantastic mother (seriously, loved her!), she takes off for the mountains of the west. And along the way, picks up the one thing she told herself she never wanted: a child. Taylor and Turtle, the silent American Indian girl she’s now caring for, make their way to Tucson and make a family for themselves among a cast of eclectic, warm characters.
Almost despite myself, I really liked everyone in the book. Taylor is so naive as to be almost childlike, and like a child, she expresses wonder and acceptance of all the good she’s shown. Mattie, garage owner and an immigrants-rights advocate (well, more than advocate…) was straight-up awesome. Lou Ann had me laughing, and even reminded me a bit of my own mother. Again, Kingsolver proves that she just writes great, strong, funny, well-rounded female characters that you’d be happy to call your friends.
The one thing I couldn’t get over–and perhaps this is a limitation on my part, as a reader–was how differently I would have handled everything from Taylor. Her way made for much more interesting reading, I’m sure, but it stretched my suspension of disbelief that a) a woman tells you to take a baby and b) you DO, without demanding answers or checking over the baby to see if it’s injured or anything. It’s what the whole novel is built on, and it was pretty shaky ground for me.
Otherwise, though, I did love the characters themselves, and the themes that families can be made, not born. Taylor’s relationship with Turtle was really moving, as a mother and daughter who sort of fell into one anothers’ lives and ended up being exactly what the other needed. Estevan and Esperanza’s side story was also handled sensitively and interestingly, and gave the book an added dimension that I wasn’t expecting–immigration and morality.
Overall it’s interesting to see how her writing and story-telling has matured, from The Bean Trees all the way to Prodigal Summer. I would recommend it to fans of Kingsolver and women’s lit, definitely.
This is my final fiction read for the Women Unbound Challenge. One nonfiction left to go before I reach the Bluestocking level! 🙂
Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: Taylor and Turtle make two!