I've still been reading one to two books per month since my April literacy challenge but I haven't taken the time to review all of them here. However, "The Bean Trees" by Barbara Kingsolver struck a few chords in me and I wanted to share my thoughts on this novel. Some of you may be familiar with that author's name. I reviewed her work "The Poisonwood Bible" which I absolutely loved. "The Bean Trees" preceded that literary work of art. In fact, it was Kingsolver's first book.
I don't typically read more than one literary work by the same author. That may sound crazy, I know. Even if I love something written by an author, I usually want to give other writers a chance. Yet when I nearly ran into this book on the shelves of my local library, the cover caught my attention. So did the title. Then I remembered the author's name. Therefore, I decided to borrow it - thinking perhaps I was destined to read it.
(Funny side note: Kirk has been making fun of me for over a week now, whenever he saw me with the book "The Bean Trees" in my hands. "Beans on trees? Does the book give you gas?" he would ask in a teasing manner. Or something like that. Kirk isn't much of a reader, not unless you count instruction guides or electronic manuals).
The book did deliver but I could tell that it was Kingsolver's first book since it was not as detailed or as well written as "The Poisonwood Bible". Despite that, she's a great storyteller and covers some heavy subject matter in her novels.
"The Bean Trees" follows the life a girl named Taylor Greer who saves money to leave her small town in rural Kentucky. She has no intention of turning out like the rest of the females in her community - having babies or being stuck at some dead-end job. She drives out west with hardly any money or a plan. While she is making a stop in Oklahoma, a strange Indian woman hands her a baby. The lady deserts the small child in the back of Taylor's nearly broken down Plymouth. Taylor doesn't know what to do after the woman disappears but decides to sort the arrangement out later. She thinks that a long drive will help her figure it out. She and the child make it into Tuscon, Arizona until her tires give out.
In Tuscson, Taylor meets Mattie, the owner of The Jesus is Lord Used Tire Shop. That is Mattie's day job. By night and secretly, Mattie offers refuge and home to illegal immigrants trying to receive citizenship or escape from their horrible lives in other countries. (Note: If you have passionate feelings about immigration one way or the other, this novel may cause you to become riled up. Although it's an underlying part of the story, it's not the main focus in the novel). Mattie offers Taylor a part time job helping her fix automotives until she can pay to have the tires replaced on her car.
Tucson begins to grow on Mattie. So does the little girl she surprisingly inherited. Taylor names her "Turtle" because of her strong grip. Turtle doesn't seem to say much and acts in shock after a rough, abusive life that she's lived through. Everyone (including Taylor) wonders if Turtle is a little slow and if she'll ever recover from her past life. Taylor is astonished to learn that Turtle is three years old after a medical exam, not two like she originally guessed and as Turtle had acted. Under Taylor's care, Turtle begins to make developmental progress, especially in learning the names of plants, vegetables and seeds, with an affection for beans.
Trying to provide for herself and this new child, Taylor meets Lou Ann, a recently divorced fellow Kentuckian who lived in a neighboring county that Taylor knew well. Lou Ann is not much older than Taylor and even has a three month old baby boy named Dwayne Ray. Soon Taylor moves in with Lou Ann and they form a strong, often comical, friendship.
While working for Mattie, Taylor meets Estevan and Esperanza, a couple from Guatemala who are in hiding. When she hears about their personal stories and suffering, Taylor realizes what a sheltered, charmed life she has lived in coming from country life in Kentucky.
Suddenly everything that Taylor has run away from -- motherhood, small-town living and family become her new livelihood. She makes these wonderful new friends who teach her life lessons about belonging, abandonment and putting down roots.
Then comes the threat that Turtle may be taken away from Taylor and placed in foster care. Her dear friends Estevan and Esperanza are also in danger of being sent back to Guatemala if they don't reach a safe haven located further east. Taylor reaches within for faith and strength to help this couple. Then she fights for a child that she originally never wanted or asked for in the first place.
As a mother, I especially loved the conflicts that Taylor had when she was trying to determine if Turtle would be better off in her care or in the hands of someone else. Those thoughts and questions cross the minds of parents like me all the time, like in this conversation between Mattie and Taylor:
Mattie (to Taylor): "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..... Nobody can protect a child from the world..... Instead ask yourself, 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 is said and done, end up with a good friend."
Gosh I really LOVED those lines! I could so identify with those words. Even on my toughest days with Viva the Diva, I think.... I'm giving it my best and I chose to share my life with this kid of mine. Hopefully someday we'll be friends. Such great, great words that all parents can relate to feeling.
Later in the story when Taylor and Turtle are looking up a reference book on vegetables and plants, they stumble upon a particular type of bean tree. Taylor learns about Rhizobia (referenced as bacteria in the story and as soil in the dictionary) which nourishes the roots of legume plants. She discovers how the rhizobia is what help sustains the life of a bean tree, comparing them to an underground railroad system that makes the plant survive and thrive. While reading this, Taylor makes the connection that because of her Tuscon friends like Mattie, Lou Ann, Estevan, Esperanza and others, her own life is now flourishing. Like the rhizobia helps the bean trees, the people in Taylor's life help create miracles.
That was the overall message that I took away from this intriguing book. Even though you sometimes set out to conquer the world on your own, you realize that you can't do it alone. You need the help of good friends and good people. And life isn't worth living without those wonderful folks who inhibit it.
This book has a sequel called "Pigs in Heaven" which I will try to obtain from the library as well. In it, the story of Taylor picks up two years later and covers newer subject matter. I enjoyed "The Bean Trees" so much and I really like Kingsolver's writing style so I'm breaking my rule of not reading the same author once again to see if I can be captured by another one of her novels.
Kingsolver weaves a wonderful story with endearing characters that you cheer for every step of the way. I would recommend "The Bean Trees" to anyone looking for a story about friendship, life lessons, family, freedom and social awareness. I don't think you'll be disappointed by it.
What are you reading right now? Anything worth sharing that I should look into?