October 17, 2008

Book Review: The Bean Trees

Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, The Bean Trees (1988), is a poignant and gripping story about belonging, motherhood and the creation of family in unexpected places. It all begins when Marietta Greer, the feisty protagonist and narrator, leaves her rural Kentucky town in search of a better life. She spends what little money she has on a rickety 1955 VW Beetle and heads west on her own, leaving everything behind, including her name. After the old rattletrap runs out of gas in Taylorville, Illinois, she becomes Taylor.

A chance encounter at a roadside diner in Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation alters Taylor’s life forever. She is about to head back onto the highway when a distressed woman taps on her windshield and places a bundled infant into the passenger seat. Without fully realizing the implications of what is happening, Taylor agrees to take the woman’s dead sister’s child, a Cherokee toddler whose age is described as “somewhere between a baby and a person.” (p. 23) Since there is no paperwork documenting the child, no record of her name, age or parents, the only clues into her past are the extensive bruises that seem to indicate prior sexual and physical abuse. Taylor now finds herself facing the prospect of a complicated single motherhood without a job, housing, family or friends. She names the girl Turtle because of her strong grip, for “if a mud turtle bites you, it won’t let go till it thunders.” (p. 30)

Two flat tires later, Taylor and Turtle can travel no further than Tucson, Arizona, where they meet a kind woman named Mattie, the owner of ‘Jesus Is Lord Tires’ which doubles as a safe house for political refugees. Mattie gives Taylor a job in her the shop and also introduces her to Estevan and Esperanza, a couple fleeing from Guatemalan death squadrons as well as U.S. immigration authorities. It is in Tucson that Taylor begins to develop a network of social support systems while at the same time discovering she has much to offer others.

At the beginning of the story, Taylor wants to be freed from the confines of her small hometown. Among her female peers, she notices a propensity toward unwanted pregnancy and dependence on irresponsible men, two things that she desperately wants to avoid. Her motivation for leaving everything behind has more to do with getting away and becoming independent than searching for anything or anyone in particular. A huge shift occurs when Turtle enters into her life. All of a sudden, Taylor is confronted with the harsh realities of single motherhood, with the additional challenge of adopting an undocumented child of a different race. Over the course of the novel, she becomes more and more aware of her need to rely on others in a variety of areas including housing, employment, childcare, friendship, moral support.

None of the people Taylor meets along her journey are related to her biologically. Yet the support they provide and the extent of their interdependence are not unlike the functions performed in the traditional nuclear family concept. Taylor discovers that individualism and independence turn out to be ideals that must be tempered with collectivism and shared responsibility. In order to make ends meet, she and her rommate Lou Ann share living expenses and childcare duties. Their neighbor, Virgie Mae Parsons, helps to take care of a blind woman named Edna Poppy who in turn provides occasional childcare for Turtle. Taylor works at the tire shop owned by Mattie, who provides a sanctuary for Central American refugees including Estevan and Esperanza, who both end up playing indispensable roles in the story’s outcome.

I simply loved this book. The writing was evocative, the characters were complex and the themes were layered and nuanced. Although the book certainly has strong sociological, political and feminist undertones, you don’t have be a liberal, a social worker or an immigration activist to appreciate the beauty of the story. The Bean Trees is not driven by a narrow ideological agenda or cause. People from a variety of political viewpoints should be able to see their values reflected in its pages: responsibility, family, justice, advocacy, compassion and faith. The central character of Taylor is a heroine of universal appeal. She is free-spirited, self-aware, vulnerable and witty all at the same time. Her courage, determination, adaptability and sense of humor are all qualities I found inspirational and uplifting.

Kingsolver's cast of characters confirms my belief in social interconnectedness where a seemingly insignificant choice made by one person can have a ripple effect that indirectly enhances or threatens the well-being of another person or group of people in another part of the world. No one is an island and no one is truly “self-made.” An honest look at the human condition should reveal that people do not succeed in complete isolation from others. In contrast to the surrounding culture of individualism, competition and personal recognition, the world of Taylor and Turtle is a place where no one can “make it” purely on their own. When one member of the community rejoices, it is a victory for the whole group. When one member is suffering, the others are affected too. Mutuality and interdependence are what make the difference between thriving and just getting by.

At the same time, I think Kingsolver would agree with me that the need for community support does not negate the importance of personal responsibility and self-reliance. Taylor does not blame others for the challenges she faces, although she certainly experiences her share of adversity. She does not see herself as a victim nor does she expect a handout from anyone. Taylor takes responsibility for her choices and expects others, like Lou Ann, to do the same. When Lou Ann is coping with depression and hopelessness, for example, Taylor stands beside her as an empowering example of resilience and confidence.

Kingsolver does not allow her readers to settle for simplistic explanations of complex situations. Many of her character defy labels and stereotypes. Taylor’s young single motherhood was not the result of irresponsible sexual behavior; it was her choice to accept the baby as it was given to her. Lou Ann's abusive husband, Angel, is not a psychotic villain, but an ordinary man struggling to get back on his feet after a debilitating accident. Mattie, a the woman who owns ‘Jesus Is Lord Tires,’ is not a fundamentalist fanatic, but a devoted advocate for human rights in the sanctuary movement. As undocumented immigrants, Estevan and Esperanza are not delinquents or threats to society; they are sophisticated agents of reconciliation and empowerment.

One of my favorite moments in the novel is when Estevan is describing the difference between heaven and hell. He tells a story of people who live in a world of starvation where all the spoons are so long that no one can feed himself or herself. In this world, the spoon handles are the length of mops. Anyone can reach their long spoon into the large pot of stew that God has made, but no one can lift the spoon to their lips. Hell is a place where everyone is constantly arguing and fighting while they die of starvation. In heaven, there is still the same large pot of stew and the same long spoons. The only difference is that the people are content and well fed because they have learned to feed each other. My soul resonates deeply with this type of others-centered inclusiveness.

If there is a single lesson I learned from reading The Bean Trees, it is that human beings, adults and children, are complex creatures. In order to help people, we must first understand the depth of their stories. As a social worker, I have a responsibility to listen and attend to the many ways in which glimpses of those stories are revealed. Labels like “immigrant”, “minority” and “unwed mother” might be necessary at a macro level, but they don’t do justice to the multitude of intricacies that describe a particular individual or the community of support systems to which they belong.


Ruth said...

The story of the long spoons in heaven and hell was invented by Dante Alighieri, around the year AD 1300. From The Divine Comedy. While I admire Barbara Kingsolver's writing ability, I really think you are doing an injustice by not giving credit to a founder of writing as an art in Western culture, along with Shakespeare, Homer, and whoever is the unknown author of Beowulf. Too bad not enough people learned about these foundations of Western civilization and great literature.

The Common Loon said...

I've heard the parable attributed to a number of origins. Where in the Divine Comedy is it?