Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Bean Trees (Review)

Several people have recommended Barbara Kingsolver to me, in particular, Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. I haven’t read that one yet, but I was not disappointed in The Bean Trees as an introduction to Kingsolver. It is much more a character novel than an action one, but that suits the psychology major side of me.

The Bean Trees is the story of Marietta Greer, who grows up in rural Kentucky with a fear of putting air in a tire and a dream of avoiding motherhood, or at least pregnancy. Leaving home in her early 20s, Marietta changes her name to Taylor before finding herself in Tucson, Arizona, working at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires and mother to Turtle, a three-year-old Native American girl put in her car outside a bar in the middle of Oklahoma. Taylor and Turtle live and form something of a family with Lou Ann, another expatriate from Kentucky, and her infant son Dwane Ray.

Despite the fact that Taylor is in her 20s, The Bean Trees seems, more than anything else, a coming-of-age story. She wrestles with many things, not the least of which is Turtle, whom Taylor discovers was abused before being left in the car. She wrestles with injustice in the world as she learns that Jesus Is Lord Used Tires offers sanctuary to Guatemalan refugees unable to win asylum in the U.S. She wrestles with her feelings for one of the refugees, Estevan, who fled Guatemala with his wife, Esperanza, after the government there killed Esperanza’s brother and two other members of their teachers’ union. At the same time, the government kidnapped Ismene, Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter, as a hostage to be exchanged for the names of other union members. Rather than turn in their friends, Estevan and Esperanza left the country, hoping that Ismene would be, as other such children had been, given to a government or military official unable to have children of their own.

Not all the loose ends are tied nicely together at the end of the book. Nor did all the little threads have happy endings. I did not find that offputting, because that’s life. There were several passages that really got to me or got me thinking. I’ll only share here Taylor’s discussion of parenthood with Mattie, her boss at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. I’ll let you discover the other thought-provoking ones on your own reading.

“Taylor, honey, if you don’t mind my saying so, I think you’re asking the wrong question.”
“How do you mean?”
“You’re asking yourself, Can I give this child the best possible upbringing and keep her out of harm’s way her whole life long? The answer is no, you can’t. But nobody else can either. Not a state home, that’s for sure. For heaven’s sake, the best they can do is turn their heads while the kids learn to pick locks and snort hootch, and then try to keep them out of jail. Nobody can protect a child from the world. That’s why it’s the wrong thing to ask, if you’re really trying to make a decision.”
“So what’s the right thing to ask?”
“Do I want to try? Do I think it would be interesting, maybe even enjoyable in the long run, to share my life with this kid and give her my best effort and maybe, when all’s said and done, end up with a good friend.”

Quality Rating: 10 out of 10, if you like books that are more character- than action-driven. Otherwise, you’re likely to be disappointed.

Audience Rating: I think this would be a good book for teens or even a bit earlier who are wrestling with some of the “who am I” questions of those years, though they will obviously read it from a different starting point than this 51-year-old mother of two college or beyond kids did. In other words, while not “E” for “Everyone,” I think middle school and up could appreciate this book without being offended or otherwise put off.


Debi said...

I've never read anything by Kingsolver. I've picked up The Poisonwood Bible on more than one occasion while at the book store, but always ended up putting it back down. Not sure why, but despite all the raves, I'm just afraid I won't like it. But this one sounds wonderful! I definitely think I'll be adding it to my 2009 reading list.

I love that passage you quoted. As hard as it is to accept on some levels, I'm afraid Mattie's right.

Janet said...

I love everything of Kingsolver's that I've read (I haven't read them all; want to look for her latest on food...). Thanks for rating it 10/10! :-)