The Bean Trees
The Bean TreesBarbara Kingsolver
For Further Study
Barbara Kingsolver demonstrates that politics are personal in The Bean Trees, her novel of friendship and survival set in the arid American Southwest. The novel focuses on Taylor Greer's search for a new life as she moves from her dull Kentucky home to exotic Arizona and the lessons that she learns along the way. Taylor's adoption of an abused Cherokee toddler, her friendship with a pair of Guatemalan refugees, and her support system of a small community of women, all contribute to the novel's central conviction that people cannot survive without empathy and generosity. Published in 1988 to an enthusiastic critical reception, The Bean Trees won an American Library Association award and a School Library Association award and has found a devoted reading audience around the world. Critics and readers alike relish Taylor's humor and warmth, with her down-home speech and perceptive observations. Like her narrator, Kingsolver grew up in Kentucky, and she draws from the voices she heard in her youth to create Taylor's voice. This voice helps to guide the novel, with its strong humanitarian views, away from simple political correctness toward a rich believability. Kingsolver has been praised for her skill in The Bean Trees at walking the fine line between preaching and taking a moral stand, and Taylor's straightforwardness and humor provide the cornerstone to Kingsolver's approach.
Born in 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland, Kingsolver grew up in rural Kentucky. She began writing as a young child, but chose to study biology in college at DePauw University. In her twenties she moved to Tucson, Arizona, where she eventually earned a graduate degree in ecology at the University of Arizona. Following graduate school, Kingsolver turned back to her life-long love—writing— and began writing nonfiction as a technical writer in a scientific program at the university. By the mid-1980s she was writing and publishing short fiction. Her contact in Arizona with people from Latin America, particularly refugees, influenced Kingsolver's choice of subject matter when she turned to fiction. Published in 1988, The Bean Trees was her first novel.
Best known as a novelist, Kingsolver also writes poetry, nonfiction, and short fiction. She believes that fiction can be used as an instrument of social change, and her own fiction reflects this belief. Kingsolver describes her political stance as that of a "human rights activist"; to pursue these interests, she belongs to Amnesty International and the Committee for Human Rights in Latin America, two humanitarian organizations that advance the cause of human rights around the world. In 1997 she established a literary prize, the Bellwether Prize, to be awarded every year to a first novel of exceptional literary distinction that also embodies this belief in fiction's power to change the world.
Kingsolver describes herself as a pantheist; pantheism is not an organized religion but is more a doctrine based upon the belief that the natural world is imbued with a divine presence. Rooted in her Kentucky childhood, she credits her interest in nature as having been a major influence on her life, and her work reflects her sense that the environment cannot be ignored. In The Bean Trees, the dry Arizona landscape that manages to produce flowers and vegetables is central to the novel, as it reflects the deprived lives of the characters who are able to flourish in spite of their difficult circumstances.
Kingsolver has won several literary awards for her work, among them an American Library Association award and a School Library Association award for The Bean Trees. Audiences around the world have responded warmly to The Bean Trees, as it has been translated into several languages and published in more than sixty-five countries.
The heroine of The Bean Trees, Marietta (otherwise known as Miss Marietta, Missy, and Taylor Greer) is determined to avoid becoming a pregnant teen. Her early years in Eastern Kentucky have been heavily influenced by her perception that Pittman County is "behind the nation in practically every way you can think of, except the rate of teenage pregnancies." She has also been influenced by her supportive mother, and by her work with "blood and pee" in a hospital lab.
After saving enough money to buy a '55 Volkswagon bug, Taylor drives away from Pittman County. She renames herself Taylor Greer when she runs out of gas in Taylorville. Then she acquires an unwanted and abused Cherokee baby girl outside a bar in Oklahoma. She names the baby Turtle, for her habit of "holding on."
Taylor stops at the Broken Arrow motel, where she works as a maid through the Christmas holidays. The work is uninspiring; she says that "the only thing to remind you you weren't dead was the constant bickering between [motel employees] old Mrs. Hoge and Irene."
Taylor adapts to life as a mother and maid, while the novel shifts its focus to Lou Ann Ruiz, another Eastern Kentucky emigre whose husband, Angel, has left her seven months pregnant. Although Angel generally ridicules and rejects Lou Ann, he also shows unexpected kindness by returning home to help Lou Ann keep up appearances when her mother and grandmother visit.
Meanwhile, Taylor leaves the Broken Arrow motel and heads west, finally ending her journey at the Jesus is Lord Used Tires in Tucson, Arizona, with two flat tires. The shop's owner, Mattie, lets Taylor park her car on shop property until she can afford to repair it.
Taylor takes up residence in the Hotel Republic and gets a short-lived job at The Burger Derby. Her co-worker, Sandi, tells her about Kid Central Station, a babysitting service for mall shoppers. Taylor takes advantage of Kid Central Station until she is fired from her job after six days of work.
She decides to find a roommate, which is how she meets up with Lou Ann. The two young women, each parent to a young child, each with a Kentucky accent, become instant friends. Where Lou Ann is fearful, Taylor is confident and vigorous, or so it seems initially.
Taylor begins working for Mattie at Jesus is Lord Used Tires and gradually learns that, besides operating a tire business, Mattie is operating a safe house for Guatemalan refugees. Taylor becomes friends with two of these refugees, Estevan and his wife Esperanza.
When Taylor takes Turtle to Dr. Pelinowsky for a check-up, she discovers that Turtle is probably a three-year-old, even though she is only as developed as a two-year-old. Dr. Pelinowsky explains that Turtle has "failed to thrive in an environment of physical or emotional deprivation."
When Esperanza, who is grieving the loss of her homeland and of her own child, attempts suicide, Taylor responds, somewhat naively, that it is "worse to never have anyone to lose than to lose someone." Despite her inherent optimism, Taylor begins to despair at the violence in the world, and begins to doubt in her own ability to nurture Turtle in the face of so much violence.
Meanwhile, Lou Ann gets a job and begins to gain confidence. As Taylor puts it, Lou Ann stops "comparing her figure to various farm animals." When Angel sends Lou Ann a calfskin belt and says he misses her, Lou Ann hesitates, considering her "new responsibilities" at work, as well as her responsibilities to her husband.
Turtle, too, begins to flourish. Her first sound is a laugh, her first word is "bean," and she is rapidly becoming versed in the language of horticulture. However, when Taylor's blind neighbor and babysitter, Edna Poppy, is attacked, Turtle's eyes instantly grow black. The child retreats into herself, into silence. Taylor begins a parallel retreat, in which she continues to question her own ability to mother when the "whole way of the world is to pick on people that can't fight back."
Enter Cynthia, a social worker who explains to Taylor that she has no legal right to Turtle. As Taylor enters her own period of despair, Lou Ann becomes her advocate, reminding her that there is no alternative world to turn to, and that Taylor may not feel up to motherhood, but then, neither does any other mother.
Taylor decides to fight for the right to adopt Turtle and, in collaboration with Mattie, develops a plan to drive Estevan and Esperanza to sanctuary in Oklahoma, while also searching for Turtle's biological parents. They begin their journey. Every time they pass a cemetery, Turtle shouts, "Mama!"
Although the search does not turn up Turtle's biological parents, the three young adults devise an alternative plan. Estevan and Esperanza will pretend to be Turtle's biological parents, the fictional Steven and Hope Two Two. Playing the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Two Two, they will sign Turtle over to Taylor.
The plan is not as far-fetched as it might sound, for Estevan and Esperanza already look and act the part of Turtle's parents. Furthermore, no one expects a child born to the Cherokee Nation tribal lands to have a birth certificate. Lawyer Mr. Jonas Wilford Armistead believes their story, and helps Taylor to draw up the necessary adoption papers.
Taylor says her good-byes to Estevan and Esperanza and calls up her mother, who, it turns out, has recently been remarried and has begun to take up gardening. Finally, Taylor heads back to her home in Arizona, daughter in tow.
The social worker who informs Taylor that she has no legal claim to Turtle but encourages her to try to adopt the little girl.
Esperanza, Estevan's wife, speaks little English and is silent throughout much of the novel; she also has a sad, distant quality about her, which makes Taylor wonder what has happened to her in the past. Upon meeting Esperanza for the first time, Taylor feels Esperanza's depression and notes that she "took up almost no space." Eventually Taylor learns that her sadness is due mostly to the fact that the small daughter she and Estevan had in Guatemala was taken from them by the government in a raid on their neighborhood. Esperanza's brother and two of their friends had also been killed in this raid. Taylor's daughter Turtle reminds Esperanza of her own lost daughter, and Turtle's presence often seems to be painful for Esperanza. When Esperanza tries to kill herself while at Mattie's, and Estevan comes to tell Taylor about the suicide attempt, Taylor learns for the first time from him of the violent political events in Guatemala that led to their escape to the United States. Following this conversation, Taylor begins to see Esperanza and Estevan in a new light, saying that "All of Esperanza's hurts flamed up in my mind, a huge pile of burning things that the world just kept throwing more onto."
A gende, handsome young English teacher who fled with his wife to the United States from Guatemala, Estevan becomes friendly with Taylor and teaches her about real pain and loss when he describes to her the brutal world he and Esperanza left behind them. Estevan and Esperanza have found sanctuary at Mattie's house, and it is through Mattie that they eventually meet Taylor and Lou Ann. As she gets to know him better, Taylor feels herself falling in love with Estevan; she has never known anyone else like him. He has impeccable manners, speaks "perfect English," and is sensitive and wise. He loves Esperanza dearly and is utterly devoted to her, and Taylor respects their relationship. Although Estevan was an English teacher in Guatemala, and also speaks Spanish and his native Mayan dialect, his job in Tucson is as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant. Taylor is outraged that such a learned man as Estevan should be reduced to such a lowly position, but he is humble, knowing that he is fortunate to have escaped his dangerous circumstances in Guatemala. Estevan's story of these circumstances teaches Taylor to see her own life in a new way: she realizes that her own life has not really been as hard as she has thought, that her "whole life had been running along on dumb luck and [she] hadn't even noticed."
April Turtle Greer
See Turtle Greer
Taylor Greer's wise, colorful voice narrates the novel, and she serves as its central consciousness. A smart and spirited young woman who drives across the country alone to escape the monotony of her hometown, Taylor knows who she is and what she wants, but she is no rugged individualist—she needs other people to be part of her world. Born Marietta Greer in Pittman County, Kentucky, Taylor possessed a strong sense of identity even at a young age. While she was growing up, her Mama cleaned houses for wealthy people, and she heard her Mama call her employers "Miss this or Mister that." At the age of three Taylor knew she too deserved that kind of respect; she insisted on being called "Miss Marietta," and then "Miss Marietta" evolved into "Missy."
- The Bean Trees was recorded on tape, read by C. J. Critt, in 1994. Available from Recorded Books.
When Taylor leaves Pittman County for good as a young woman, she decides "that I would get myself a new name" for her new life, and she chooses the name Taylor because her broken-down '55 Volkswagen bug runs out of gas in Taylorville, Illinois. By fleeing her home, Taylor intends to escape the seemingly narrow life that her peers in Pittman County lead. But ironically, in her new life in Arizona she ends up with a child and employed at a used tire repair shop. She tells Estevan that "I spent the first half of my life avoiding motherhood and tires, and now I'm counting them as blessings." Taylor is a survivor and makes the best of her circumstances. She values loyalty and community, and in spite of her long-held desire to avoid motherhood, is fully committed to raising Turtle. She learns about nurturing and mothering from Mattie and Lou Ann, and she discovers through Estevan and Esperanza that her life has not been nearly as difficult as she has often thought—in fact, "even bad luck brings good things."
Taylor's low point comes when the safe world she has created for Turtle is violated, and she begins to feel helplessly that "the whole way of the world is to pick on people that can't fight back." However, when she sees that she can help Estevan and Esperanza, and simultaneously figures out a way to adopt Turtle, she begins to feel more powerful in the face of a cruel world. Taylor ultimately is willing to risk danger to help her friends and to adopt Turtle.
Turtle is a silent, needy Cherokee toddler Taylor has foisted upon her by a frightened woman—Turtle's aunt—in the parking lot of a roadside bar in Oklahoma. The woman seems to want to save Turtle from something; she is nervous and appears to be afraid of a man who waits for her in his truck while she gives the baby to Taylor with no explanation: "Just take it," she begs Taylor. Taylor resists at first, telling the woman that "you can't just give somebody a kid," but she finally feels she has no choice, so she takes the baby. Taylor names her Turtle because of "the way that child held on." She tells the baby, "You're like a mud turtle. If a mud turtle bites you, it won't let go till it thunders."
Taylor soon discovers that Turtle has been badly abused and decides that she will keep her and take good care of her. Turtle begins to flourish under Taylor's care. In the dry Arizona weather, she grows and begins to talk, and all of her talk centers on growing things: flowers and vegetables. She loves Mattie's huge garden, learns the names of everything in the seed catalogs, and pretends that she is planting and tending to her own gardens. Taylor eventually must face the fact that she is keeping Turtle illegally, but by then the two feel like a real mother and daughter, so Taylor decides to adopt Turtle. The adoption process Taylor undertakes is unorthodox and not really legal, but it works, and the pair is able to stay together.
Newt is one of the notorious Hardbine clan in Pittman County, Kentucky. Taylor knows Newt as "one of the big boys who had failed every grade at least once and so was practically going on twenty in the sixth grade." Taylor is at work at the hospital when Newt is wheeled in on a gurney, shot to death by his father, who had once been thrown by an exploding tractor tire up over the top of the Standard Oil sign. Throughout the novel, Newt and the Hardbines represent to Taylor the sordid world she left behind in Pittman County.
Ismene is Estevan and Esperanza's young daughter, who was taken from them by the Guatemalan government. Turtle resembles Ismene and reminds Estevan and Esperanza of her.
Lou Ann's paternal grandmother, who accompanies Lou Ann's mother from Kentucky to visit after Dwayne Ray is born. Granny Logan is suspicious of the Arizona weather—it is hot and dry in January—and of her granddaughter's new life in this strange place. Granny is prickly and is not speaking to her daughter-in-law during their visit.
Lou Ann's mother, who travels by bus from Kentucky with her irritable mother-in-law to help Lou Ann after Dwayne Ray is born. Ivy is a hard worker, dispenses maternal advice to Lou Ann about breastfeeding and her weight, and misses her daughter. She and her mother-in-law are not on the best of terms with one another and are not speaking during their visit with Lou Ann; they ask Lou Ann to act as a go-between for them.
See Granny Logan
See Taylor Greer
See Taylor Greer
Taylor's Mama is the biggest influence on her as she grows up, and after Taylor leaves her Kentucky home and changes her name from Marietta to Taylor, she can still feel her Mama's support from a distance. Taylor says that Mama "always expected the best out of me.… [and] whatever I came home with, she acted like it was the moon I had just hung up in the sky and plugged in all the stars. Like I was that good."
Mattie is the strong, nurturing widow who owns Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, helps Taylor and Turtle when they first arrive in Tucson, and shelters Estevan and Esperanza and other Central American refugees in her home. Mattie is a kind of conductor on the underground railroad-like system that locates such refugees—termed "illegal aliens" by the United States government—and gives them sanctuary. Mattie impresses Taylor at first as a "woman with … know-how," and as the two women get to know each other, Mattie becomes a surrogate mother to Taylor and surrogate grandmother to Turtle. Mattie's nurturing personality is also expressed in her garden, "a bright, wild wonderland of flowers and vegetables and auto parts."
See Virgie Mae Parsons
Virgie Mae Parsons
A sour and stodgy woman, Virgie Mae Parsons lives with Edna next door to Lou Ann and Taylor. She eventually warms up to the young women and their children as she gets to know them. Mrs. Parsons always has a "grip" on Edna's elbow, as she guides her blind friend from place to place.
Sweet, kind, and always dressed in red, whitehaired Edna lives with Virgie Mae Parsons next door to Taylor and Lou Ann. The two older ladies frequently help their young neighbors by watching the children. After knowing Edna for several months, Taylor is stunned to discover one day that she is blind, but she says to Lou Ann when sharing this information with her, " [Edna] has her own special ways of keeping an eye on things." In spite of her sensitivity to whatever is going on around her, Edna depends largely on her friend Virgie to guide her through the physical world.
Angel is Lou Ann's estranged husband. He left her on Halloween, three years after losing half of his leg—and "something else that was harder to pin down"—in an accident. Angel left Lou Ann when she was pregnant with Dwayne Ray. Lou Ann often has "the feeling that [Angel] didn't really like her or anyone else for that matter. He blamed people for things beyond their control." Angel is from a large Mexican-American family that loves Lou Ann and does not understand why he left her. He had been a cowboy when Lou Ann met him and dreams of being one again.
Dwayne Ray Ruiz
The infant son of Lou Ann and Angel Ruiz, Dwayne Ray is the object of Lou Ann's extreme, often verging on hysterical, safeguarding.
Lou Ann Ruiz
Before Taylor moves in with her, Lou Ann is abandoned in Tucson by her husband Angel two months before their first baby is born. A country girl at heart, Lou Ann is far away from her own family in Kentucky and has neither friends nor a job. In the wreckage of her marriage, she and her infant son forge a new kind of family life with Taylor, Turtle, and their neighbors and friends. Taylor says that "For Lou Ann, life itself was a life-threatening enterprise. Nothing on earth was truly harmless." Lou Ann reads her horoscope, as well as Dwayne Ray's and Taylor's, every day and worries constantly that terrible things are going to happen, especially to her child. She lacks self-confidence and is always criticizing her appearance, complaining that "I ought to be shot for looking like this" or "I look like I've been drug through hell backwards." But Lou Ann has a kind heart and cares deeply about those who are closest to her, and as much as her self-criticism annoys Taylor, the two women help each other grow into motherhood.
The perky teenage mother whom Taylor briefly works with at Burger Derby, Sandi is a survivor. Taylor says that "life had delivered Sandi a truckload of manure with no return address" but that "nothing really seemed to throw" her.
Alice Jean Stamper Greer
Hope Two Two
Steve Two Two
Hughes Walter is the handsome young science teacher who helps Taylor get her first real job, working at the Pittman County Hospital.
See Hughes Walter
At the center of the novel, friendship is portrayed as having the power to transform even the loneliest and most broken of lives. When they first appear, most of the main characters—Taylor, Turtle, Lou Ann, Estevan and Esperanza—are broke, hurt, lonely, frightened, or just unlucky. However, as their friendships and fierce loyalty to one another grow, these forces begin to sustain the characters' lives. Alone in a city far from their homes, Taylor and Lou Ann make a new home by creating a kind of family with each other and their children. Mattie rescues Taylor and Turtle when they first arrive in Tucson by talking to them sympathetically and by giving Taylor a job. Mattie also rescues Estevan and Esperanza by giving them shelter and keeping them safe. Virgie Mae and Edna Poppy watch out for each other and help Taylor and Lou Ann with the children. Throughout the novel, the characters develop ties with one another by helping each other to survive in a difficult world. The community the characters build grows in the dry Arizona earth, just as the flowers and vegetables in Mattie's garden grow.
Choices and Consequences
Part of learning to survive is learning to make wise choices and realizing that one's choices have consequences. The novel shows how each character has faced important choices and then had to live with the consequences. The choices a character makes can also serve to define that character, showing him or her to be, for example, generous or selfish, strong or weak. The do-or-die moments portrayed in the novel include Taylor's choice to leave Pittman County; her split-second decision to keep Turtle when Turtle's aunt insists she "take this baby"; Estevan and Esperanza's choice not to turn in their friends to the police and also not to pursue Ismene after she was kidnapped; Lou Ann's choice not to return to Angel after he has left her; Taylor's choice to drive Estevan and Esperanza to a new safe house in Oklahoma; and her choice to adopt Turtle for good. Each of these choices is difficult—a viable option exists in each case—but a choice has to be made, and each of these choices has changed the character's life and defined the character.
Topics for Further Study
- Research 1980s U.S. immigration policies for Central American refugees. In what kinds of situations were refugees granted asylum in the United States? What was the nature of United States-Guatemala relations?
- Investigate the political situation in 1980s Guatemala. Who was in power, and what did the government expect of its citizens? Why would Estevan and Esperanza's teachers' union be considered a threat?
- Research weather patterns in Arizona: when and where does the rain fall, and what are the average temperatures throughout the year? Compare actual Tucson weather to its weather in the novel. Compare Tucson weather to Kentucky weather in terms of rainfall and temperatures.
- The teenage Cherokee girl in the bar tells Taylor that "The Cherokee Nation isn't any one place exactly. It's people." Research the Cherokee Nation in terms of its places and people: map its location(s) in Oklahoma, and investigate its values, government, and customs. Why might Taylor, as a white American, be confused about the definition of Cherokee Nation?
- Taylor's narrative often focuses on the vegetation she and her little community find and foster in Arizona. Investigate farming and gardening practices in the Tucson area and compare what you learn with Mattie's garden and other organic vegetation in the novel.
- Research the incidence of child abuse on Indian reservations in the 1970s and 1980s. How did the passage of the Indian Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act change the Native American child abuse rate?
Human rights involve personal safety and freedom, which most United States citizens take for granted. In the novel, Latin American refugees Estevan and Esperanza, whose personal safety and freedom had been denied them in Guatemala, provide the obvious symbol for the theme of human rights. In addition, Turtle, as an abused member of the Cherokee Nation, represents two groups that have been denied human rights: abused children and Native Americans. But Taylor, as a sensitive and empathetic narrator, does not get bogged down in politics when she feels the injustice of human rights violations—she simply worries about people she loves. Her narrative is imbued with concern for human rights regardless of nationality or political views, and her view of the world changes as she becomes more exposed to the reality of human rights violations. Taylor begins to feel overwhelmed by sadness over what Turtle and Estevan and Esperanza have been through, saying to Lou Ann, "There's just so damn much ugliness. Everywhere you look, some big guy kicking some little person when they're down … it just goes on and on, there's no end to it.… the whole way of the world is to pick on people that can't fight back." Her anger over what she sees as the "way of the world" leads her to try to fight against that way, as she chooses finally to adopt Turtle and to risk danger to deliver Estevan and Esperanza to safety. Taylor's rage and despair over human cruelty transforms her by motivating her to work against cruelty and oppression.
Although not all of the characters in the novel endure human rights violations, all of them find life to be hard in some way. No one in the novel has had an easy life: Taylor has always been poor, Turtle has been abused and abandoned, Lou Ann perceives herself as inadequate, Estevan and Esperanza have lost their child and fled their home country in political danger. But the novel's treatment of the theme of the human condition does not stop with the notion that life is difficult. The humor and friendships generated by the characters in spite of their troubles redeem the novel from presenting a bleak view of the human condition. The novel's stance is that friendship and the support it provides relieves the characters from life's oppressiveness. Mattie provides shelter, work, love, and moral support. Taylor takes care of Turtle. Lou Ann and Taylor make each other laugh and help each other with their children. Taylor and Estevan admire the way each other uses the English language. Virgie Mae and Edna watch Turtle and Dwayne Ray for Taylor and Lou Ann. The characters in the novel have to cope with poverty and may fear for their safety, yet the novel shows that even the most dismal of lives can be transformed by a community of friends.
Point of View
Up until chapter five of The Bean Trees, the narrative point of view is split between a first-person narrator and a third-person narrator. In the chapters dealing with Taylor Greer, Taylor tells her own story, but the chapters that focus on Lou Ann Ruiz are narrated in the third person. After Lou Ann and Taylor meet in chapter five, Taylor's point of view takes over and the third-person narrative disappears. Taylor's first-person narration fleshes out her character and puts her at the center of the novel. The third-person narrative in Lou Ann's chapters has limited omniscience, which means that the narrator is able to see into the minds of only some of the characters. In these chapters, the narrative reveals Lou Ann's feelings and motivations, although there is some distance between Lou Ann and the reader. When the two narrative points of view merge in chapter five, a sense of harmony is created, as the chapter's title suggests. Taylor and Lou Ann's decision to make a home together becomes reflected in the unified point of view.
Taylor's narrative voice is part of her characterization and the vision of the novel. Her speech is natural, colorful, and often humorous. She describes herself to Lou Ann at their first meeting as "a plain hillbilly from East Jesus Nowhere with this adopted child that everyone keeps on telling me is as dumb as a box of rocks." But Taylor is more than "a plain hillbilly." She is "the one to get away" from her hometown: she flees her familiar surroundings and settles in a new world because she perceives that her options are limited at home. Taylor is bright, articulate, and honest; thus she is able to come to understand and speak for the refugees and lonely souls she encounters in Tucson. As the narrator, her sensitivity to the other characters and openness to new experiences allow Taylor to learn and mature, and the story she tells is really more about her than about the community she helps to create.
The arid landscape of Arizona, the setting for The Bean Trees, is strange and often exotic to Taylor and Lou Ann, who are far away, both geographically and psychologically, from their Kentucky homes. The women often find Arizona beautiful, but they are transplants, and Taylor tells Estevan that sometimes she "feels like … a foreigner too.… Half the time I have no idea what's going on around me here." Estevan and Esperanza, as refugees, are also strangers here. As he explains his Guatemalan past to Taylor, Estevan admits, "I don't even know anymore which home I miss. Which level of home." In a way Taylor and Lou Ann are also refugees, fighting to survive. When Lou Ann's mother and grandmother from Kentucky visit her, their reactions to the hot January weather and lack of rain—to them, bizarre weather for January—reflect their belief that Lou Ann has changed since she moved to Arizona. Granny Logan complains, "I don't see how a body could like no place where it don't rain. Law, I'm parched," and Lou Ann replies, "You get used to it," reinforcing Granny's sense that her granddaughter is not the same person she was in Kentucky. The dryness of the Southwestem landscape and the Arizona earth's seeming hostility to growing things serve as a backdrop to the personal struggles of the characters to put down roots and prosper in this new place.
The main symbols throughout the novel concern the improbable growth of things in the dry desert of Arizona. Taylor notices and appreciates the world of flourishing flowers and vegetables throughout the novel; she always seems amazed that anything can grow in the dry earth of this strange place. When Taylor's first spring in Tucson arrives, she is astonished: "You just couldn't imagine where all this life was coming from. It reminded me of that Bible story where somebody or other struck a rock and the water poured out. Only this was better, flowers out of bare dirt." The tenacious natural world symbolizes the difficult courage and tenacious nature of the characters, showing them that they, too, can put down roots and flourish in this dry land. Mattie's garden, part junkyard and part Eden, is an important representation of the persistence of living things. Taylor describes the garden as "a bright, wild wonderland of flowers and vegetables and auto parts. Heads of cabbage and lettuce sprouted out of old tires. An entire rusted-out Thunderbird, minus the wheels, had nasturtiums blooming out the windows." Mattie has made something beautiful and productive out of an ugly, dry landscape, and the characters who create a loving, sustaining community against this same landscape are part of that urge for life and caring. Turtle's interest in all growing things stands in stark contrast to her past abuse, which resulted in her having been a failure-to-thrive baby. She has a fascination with planting seeds and nurturing them to make them grow, and when she finally begins to talk all she says is the names of plants. Taylor discovers that wisteria vines—the bean trees that Turtle loves—"often thrive in poor soil" and are supported by "a whole invisible system" of "microscopic bugs that live … on the roots." This system of bugs, called rhizobia, that help the wisteria by turning nitrogen gas from the soil into fertilizer for the plant, makes Taylor think of people. She tells Turtle, "The wisteria vines on their own would just barely get by … but put them together with rhizobia and they make miracles."
Human Rights Struggles in Guatemala
Widespread violence and political upheaval marked a 36-year period in Guatemala that spanned the 1960s through the mid-1990s. During this period, Guatemalans lived in fear and oppression as opposing forces both tore apart the government and terrorized its citizens. Anti-government left-wing guerrilla groups systematically attacked the Guatemalan government on many fronts, assassinating leaders and denouncing the series of governments that rapidly succeeded one another. In reaction to the guerrillas, extreme right-wing groups tortured and killed tens of thousands of citizens— among them teachers, doctors, peasants, students— that they believed were in league with the leftist groups. Many of those tortured and killed in the conflict were Mayans, a people native to the region, and thousands of those persecuted fled the country as refugees, seeking safety in countries like the United States.
Conservatism in the 1980s
Taylor's statement after Turtle is molested in the park that "nobody feels sorry for anybody anymore … Not even the President. It's like it's become unpatriotic," addresses the fallout of the 1980s mood of conservatism in the United States. During the Reagan era—the two consecutive terms of the hugely popular conservative president— some conservative groups used words like "patriotism" and "traditional family values" in ways that excluded people and encouraged intolerance. When conservatives celebrated "family values," some critics asserted that they were referring to values culled from a nostalgic, unrealistic view of family life as it supposedly was in the past. Many rightwing conservatives blamed families that did not fit into this stereotype—such as single-parent or blended families—for a host of social ills. Some Christian fundamentalists, believing that what is written in the Bible should guide daily life, condemned any group—homosexuals, liberals, feminists, divorced individuals—that seemed incompatible with their Biblical interpretation. The 1986 Immigration Control and Reform Act included an amnesty program for illegal U.S. immigrants, yet some people seemed to confuse anti-immigrant sentiment with patriotism. Immigrants were often blamed for taking away jobs from "real" Americans.
Division Between Rich and Poor
In 1980s America, the rich got richer while the poor got poorer, and the middle class struggled to hang on. In essence, economic changes were creating a two-tiered society. By the mid-1980s, Wall Street saw the start of the most successful bull market in American history, creating more wealth for investors. Many of those who benefited spent their money showily on expensive cars, designer clothing, and real estate. Yuppies—young urban professionals—emerged in the early 1980s. At the other end of the spectrum, homelessness in the United States rose by about 25 percent a year in the 1980s, due in part to cuts in government spending for low-income housing and mental health services. The price of health care rocketed out of the reach of low-income and many middle-income Americans, and the infant mortality rate in America's inner cities neared and even surpassed those of Third World countries. Drugs and violence tore apart low-income urban neighborhoods, and residents of these neighborhoods saw their educational and employment opportunities shrink.
Child Abuse and Native Americans
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1974 led to a dramatic increase in reporting of child abuse cases. The number of cases reported in 1988 was four times the number reported in 1980, and in 1989 alone, 2.4 million cases were reported. In 1990, hearings before the 101st Congress led to passage of the Indian Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. Congress passed this act after learning how underreported incidents were of child abuse on Indian reservations. The main purpose of the act was to provide Federal enforcement of reporting of child abuse incidents on Indian lands, as well as mental health support and treatment programs for Native American children who had been victimized.
When The Bean Trees was published in 1988, critics received it enthusiastically. Early reviews praised Kingsolver's character development, her ear for voices and dialogue, her portrayal of friendship and community as necessary for survival, and her ability to comment on serious social issues without allowing those issues to overwhelm the story.
A 1988 review of The Bean Trees in Publishers Weekly called the novel "an overwhelming delight, as random and unexpected as real life." Focusing in part on the character of Taylor, the review referred to her unmistakable voice" as "whimsical, yet deeply insightful," and it described the novel as "a marvelous affirmation of risk-taking, commitment, and everyday miracles."
Karen FitzGerald, in her 1988 review of the novel in Ms., called The Bean Trees "an entertaining and inspiring first novel." She judged the novel's strength as coming from its characters. She perceived Taylor—and the rest of the characters in The Bean Trees—as remaining "firmly at the novel's center," in spite of "the large sweep of [its] canvas." FitzGerald asserted that in spite of the novel's strong political views, Kingsolver's characters are vivid and believable enough that they never become "mouthpieces for the party line," causing politics to overshadow plot. She praised Kingsolver's portrayal of women's friendships and placed her within a tradition of women writers— such as Doris Lessing—who have written about women's friendships and communities as being "havens in a hard world."
In his 1988 review in The New York Times Book Review, Jack Butler stated admiringly that "Barbara Kingsolver can write" and viewed The Bean Trees "an accomplished first novel" that "is as richly connected as a fine poem but reads like realism." But while he praised Kingsolver's clarity and artistry, Butler had reservations about her character development and her skill at creating a plot. Unlike FitzGerald, Butler did not think the characters are wholly believable, seeing them "purified to types" as the novel progresses, and thus lacking depth and color. He was impressed, overall, with Kingsolver's ability to write, but maintained that the novel's problems come from "overmanipulation," or Kingsolver's attempt to make things happen.
Another early reviewer, Diane Manual, wrote in The Christian Science Monitor in 1988 that the novel is based upon "character development at its richest, with Taylor growing from happy-go-lucky hillbilly to caring friend and parent." Manual pointed to Taylor as "something that's increasingly hard to find today—a character to believe in and laugh with and admire" and called the novel a "neatly constructed tale." Like FitzGerald and Publishers Weekly, Manual saw the "wonderfully outrageous characters" as being the strongest element of the novel, but added that The Bean Trees is not "merely laugh-a-minute fluff." The novel's political views, according to Manual, serve to deepen the characters, particularly Taylor, as she "gradually learns about the suffering some of her newfound friends have endured [and] begins to make her own significant commitment to protecting their hardwon freedom."
Margaret Randall, writing in 1988 in The Women's Review of Books, admired the way The Bean Trees balances humor with serious topics. She considered the novel "hilariously funny" in spite of its being "a story about racism, sexism and dignity." Like other critics, Randall pointed to Kingsolver's ability to create realistic, human characters: "It's one of those old-fashioned stories … in which there are heroines and anti-heroines, heroes and anti-heroes, ordinary humans all. They go places and do things and where they go and what they do makes sense for them … and for us." Randall discussed Kingsolver's treatment of the theme of invasion—"the sexual invasion of a child's body and the political invasion of a nation's sovereignty"—and said that although not new in literature, this theme in Kingsolver's novel "occupies a new territory, that of the commonplace, mostly undramatic, story, told and lived by commonplace people, most of them women."
More recently, assessments of The Bean Trees have examined Kingsolver's first novel alongside some of her later works and found trends. In 1993, Michael Neill compared Kingsolver's first three novels and wrote in People Weekly that while women's relationships are central to each of these novels—including The Bean Trees—the role of male characters is typically insignificant. Neill saw Kingsolver as writing about a different kind of American West—more focused on women than on men—than traditionally Western American literature.
In a 1995 article in Journal of American Culture, Maureen Ryan derided Kingsolver's first three novels, including The Bean Trees, for being conservative at heart in spite of their apparent "political correctness." She asserted that in spite of their stand against human rights violations, they also exhibit an unrealistic and thus dangerous belief that devotion to family and friends can make things all better. Ryan perceived this conservatism cloaked in political correctness as being the reason for Kingsolver's popularity: readers can feel good about reading a socially conscious novel while feeling secure about the novel's underlying message of traditional values.
A doctoral student at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Esdale reads The Bean Trees as 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 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.
What Do I Read Next?
- Pigs in Heaven (1994) is Kingsolver's sequel to The Bean Trees and follows Taylor and Turtle as they struggle against an Indian-rights attorney who insists that Turtle be removed from her adopted mother and returned to her people.
- In Homeland and Other Stories (1989), a collection of twelve short stories by Kingsolver, characters like an elderly Native American woman and an estranged mother and daughter strive to make places for themselves—to find homes—in the world.
- Another America/Otra America (1992), Kingsolver's first book of poetry, treats the subjects of social and political oppression in the lives of ordinary Latin Americans and the prejudices of North Americans towards their neighbors. The book presents each poem in English and Spanish.
- Vince Heptig's color photographs and an introduction by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum make up A Mayan Struggle; Portrait of a Guatemalan People in Danger (1997). Heptig's more than 100 photographs depict the Mayans as a strong people struggling to improve their world as they go about their daily lives in the midst of political strife.
- Searching for Everardo: A Story of Love, War, and the CIA in Guatemala (1997) by Jennifer K. Harbury is the author's own story of her three-year search for her Guatemalan husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, who was taken prisoner and eventually killed by the Guatemalan army. Harbury's quest led to her discovery of links between the CIA and the Guatemalan military.
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 Biddle'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.
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. In the following essay, she defends Kingsolver's use of utopian and feminist ideals in The Bean Trees.
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't 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 paper-back 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 malecentered 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 stiking 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.
Ryan dissects Kingsolver's writing style in The Bean Trees and finds it lacking in substance although well-meaning and "lively."
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Source: Maureen Ryan, "Barbara Kingsolver's Lowfat Fiction," Journal of American Culture, Vol. 18, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 77-81.
Jack Butler, "She Hung the Moon and Plugged in All the Stars," in The New York Times Book Review, April 10,1988, p. 15.
Karen FitzGerald, "A Major New Talent," in Ms., Vol. XVI, No. 10, April, 1988, p. 28.
Diane Manual, "A Roundup of First Novels about Coming of Age," in The Christian Science Monitor, April 22, 1988, p. 20.
Michael Neill, "La Pasionaria," in People Weekly, Vol. 40, October 11, 1993, pp. 109-10.
Publishers Weekly, Vol. 233, No. 2, January 15, 1988, p. 78.
Margaret Randall, "Human Comedy," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. V, No. 8, May, 1988, pp. 1, 3.
Maureen Ryan, "Barbara Kingsolver's Lowfat Fiction," in Joumal of American Culture, Vol. 18, Winter, 1995, pp. 77-82.
Jack Butler, "She Hung the Moon and Plugged in All the Stars," in The New York Times Book Review, April 10,1988, p. 15.
Butler admnires Kingsolver's poetic style, but derides the novel for only permnitting "upbeat' resolutions.
Brenda Daly, Authoring a Life, a Woman's Survival in and Through Literary Studies, State University of New York Press, 1998.
A collection of essays that utilize both personal narrative and feminist theory in order to explore the connection between feminine identity development and language arts studies.
David King Dunaway and Sara L. Spurgeon, "Barbara Kingsolver," in Writing the Southwest, edited by David King Dunaway and Sara L. Spurgeon, Plume, 1995, pp. 93-107.
Dunaway and Spurgeon combine biography, interview and excerpts to give a relatively comprehensive introduction to Kingsolver and her work. Characterized as much as a writer as an activist, Kingsolver fits well in the American Southwest tradition.
Robin Epstein, "Barbara Kingsolver," in The Progressive, Vol. 60, No. 2, February, 1996, pp. 33, 35.
Kingsolver contends that she does not write her books "mainly for women," and discusses how her desire to change the world and how her concern for children, community, politics, and social justice motivate her to write fiction.
Karen FitzGerald, "A Major New Talent," in Ms., Vol. 16, April, 1988, p. 28.
FitzGerald describes the novel as "vivid and engaging," and praises its exploration of women's friendship—which she links to a contemporary feminist ethic—concluding that the novel is an "entertaining and inspiring" first effort.
Greta Gaard, "Living Connections with Animals and Nature," in Eco-Feminism: Women, Animals, Nature, edited by Greta Gaard, Temple UP, 1993, pp. 1-12.
Gaard discusses how Kingsolver's fiction and the work of other women writers deconstructs the tradition that links woman and nature, categories too often held below man and culture.
Karen M. and Philip H. Kelly, "Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees: A New Classroom Classic," in English Journal, Vol. 86, No. 8, December, 1997, pp. 61-3.
The authors maintain that The Bean Trees is an "eminently usable text for faculty and an engaging novel for students," and offer strategies for teaching the novel.
Kentucky Educational Television, "Barbara Kingsolver," in Contemporary Southern Writers, Annenberg CPB Multimedia Collection, 1996.
The film features interviews with Kingsolver and her friends, relatives, editors, and critics.
Edward C. Lynskey, "The Bean Trees," in Library Journal, Vol. 113, February 1, 1988, p. 76.
Lynskey finds the novel "refreshingly upbeat," and speculates that subsequent Kingsolver novels will "probably generate more interest than this one."
Diane Manual, "A Roundup of First Novels About Coming of Age," in The Christian Science Monitor, April 22, 1988, p. 20.
Describes The Bean Trees as "refreshingly perceptive," and praises the novel for giving readers "a character to believe in and laugh with and admire."
Roger Matuz, editor, "Barbara Kingsolver," in Contemporary Literary Criticism Yearbook 1988, Vol. 55, Gale Research, 1988, pp. 64-8.
Features excerpts from criticism on The Bean Trees.
"Briefly Noted," in New Yorker, April 4, 1998, pp. 101-02.
The reviewer finds the parallel growth of Turtle and Taylor "predictable," but the novel as a whole enjoyable.
Donna Perry, "Barbara Kingsolver," in Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out, edited by Donna Perry, Rutgers UP, 1993, pp. 143-69.
Perry questions Kingsolver on the circumstances of becoming a writer, and then the challenges of being one. Each of Kingsolver's books is discussed in detail, including her book of poems, Another America/Otra America.
Margaret Randall, "Human Comedy," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. V, No. 8, May, 1988, pp. 1, 3.
Randall interprets the novel as a story about invasion, the resolution of which she finds "as believable as it is gratifying." She admires Kingsolver's "deep female consciousness," which she says feels like "bedrock when put up against some of the preachier, more explicitly feminist works."
Patti Capel Swartz, "'Saving Grace': Political and Environmental Issues and the Role of Connections in Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams," in Isle, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 65-79.
Swartz explores the way that characters' actions lead to personal growth in Kingsolver's "subversive" fiction, and compares Kingsolver to writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Tillie Olsen, and others who call for social change.
Lisa Schwarzbaum, "Bound for (More) Glory," in Entertainment Weekly, No. 429, May 1, 1998, p. 58.
Schwarzbaum reflects on the popularity of The Bean Trees, now out in a 10th-anniversary edition.
Meredith Sue Willis, "Barbara Kingsolver, Moving On," in Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 78-86.
Willis discusses how the Appalachian traditions of restlessness and a hatred of oppression are influences in Kingsolver's work.