Monday, June 22, 2009

The Bean Trees

I wish someone would have told me that Barbara Kingsolver was born in Kentucky.  I would have read one of her novels sooner.  It's not that I've never wanted to read any of her novels, it's just that I always put it off.  I thought they would be well written but dense and erudite and, well, east coast. 

But she was born in Kentucky.  And in The Bean Trees you can tell. 

"How do," one of her characters says in greeting to another character.   Exactly how my great-aunt Mary (who was born in rural Kentucky) would say it.  And other phrases that I could hear rolling off the tongue of my rural Kentucky bred kin.  And the odd combination that her characters have of loving the state and being perfectly ready to leave it behind.  Just like my own grandma.

Kingsolver left Kentucky behind and now lives part time in Appalachia and part time in Tucson.  Most of this novel is set in Tucson.  I wondered why the characters weren't constantly complaining about the heat - until I realized it was set mostly during winter when, apparently, Tucson is a paradise.  It made me want to visit.  In the winter.

Published in 1998 The Bean Trees is Kingsolver's first novel and it seems both very timely and out-of-date.  The main character, Marietta Greer has moved away from rural Kentucky, where girls her age are expected to get pregnant and get married (most of the time in that order).  She doesn't want a baby, she wants a new life.  So she leaves and changes her name to Taylor and decides to drive until her car breaks down. 

She ends up in Tucson with a baby, a child given to her by a stranger as she drives through the lands of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.   The little girl, whom Taylor christens Turtle, has been abused and Taylor doesn't know what to do except to keep her.   Needing a place to live she rents rooms from a woman whose husband has just left her.  The woman is also from Kentucky.  So, in a way, Kingsolver seems to say that no matter how far you travel you really can't leave your past behind or escape your future.

Part of the story involves Taylor's decision to help smuggle a couple from Guatamala out of Arizona.  The plight of undocumented aliens is very timely but I couldn't help but think that it is unlikely that Taylor would have been able to so easily have smuggled them out of Arizona in this day and age.  That's why I felt that the novel was out-of-date.  The militarization of immigration had not yet occurred when this novel was written.

What Kingsolver does best in this novel is give the reader a sense of what it is like to not belong and the intense desire to belong and feel safe.   This novel is filled with characters who are "other".   Taylor of course is new to Tucson but she never really felt she fit in with the people in Kentucky. Her new roommate Lou Ann Ruiz is also a newcomer to Tucson and must decide if she wants to stay in Tucson or follow her ex-husband on the rodeo circuit. Estevan and Esperenza are immigrants whose lives would be in danger if they were deported to Guatamala. 

This is also very much a novel about women and how they deal with situations that they find themselves in.  It includes how they deal with their children.  Lou Ann has a son, Esperenza had a daughter that was taken from her and Taylor has Turtle who the state is threatening to take from her.   It is also about how women can support one another and help make each others' lives better.

I picked this novel up at my local bookstore because it was on a shelf marked "summer reading list".  The books were on the summer reading list of the next door girls' high school and this was on the sophomore reading list.  I figured if sophomores were reading it, I should too. 

The week I read it I was riding public transportation to work for the first time in 20 years and it was a joy to have something good to read during the commute and not only at lunch.  I would read it on the light rail train in the morning and evening.  This was the first novel I've read in a long time that I would count the minutes until I could get back to it.  And I was sorry when I was finished.