THE BEAN TREES/Barbara Kingsolver

Clear-eyed and spirited, Taylor Greer grew up poor in rural Kentucky with the goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting away. But when she heads west with high hopes and a barely functional car, she meets the human condition head-on. By the time Taylor arrives in Tucson, Arizona, she has acquired a completely unexpected child, a three-year-old American Indian girl named Turtle, and must somehow come to terms with both motherhood and the necessity for putting down roots. Hers is a story about love and friendship, abandonment and belonging, and the discovery of surprising resources in apparently empty places.

This book has been in my to-read shelf for quite sometime and had it not been for my self-imposed reading challenge, I wouldn’t have picked this up considering all other more “interesting” choices. For one, my copy is quite old, the pages are already yellowish, and two, I haven’t read any BK book in the past to make me interested.

But one thing that makes me glad about my reading challenge, aside from actually making a dint off my shelf, is that I discover some unexpectedly good books buried deep on my TBR pile. One example is Danielle Steel’s Kaleidoscope.

The Bean Trees is a joy to read. Except that I had to read the entire book by parts (argh, work!) which spoiled the spontaneity of the story. The only chance I get to read are at bedtime (during which I always fall asleep after a few pages) or at the terminal waiting for the bus. Because of the apparent reading inconvenience, I often have to go back a few pages because I already forgot the other characters or the other events. Despite my predicament, I still thoroughly enjoyed the book. I am fascinated by Taylor’s honesty and resilience. She is a picture of a strong and enduring young adult who doesn’t whine and complain when things do not turn out favourably for her. For one, she managed to take care of a three-year old and apparently abused child she named Turtle who was not her own despite of the fact that the reason she left rural Kentucky was to avoid getting pregnant.

With the main character, Taylor, as narrator, The Bean Trees talks mainly about how we need other people to help us survive the complexities of life. The bean trees, as in the title, is the name given by Turtle to a plant called wisteria vines and how a certain bacteria called rhizobia helps it grow even in poor soil. I love the allegory of this illustration and how it completely stitches together the entire theme of the story. Just as wisteria needs rhizobia to bloom, all the characters in the story have someone to find strength and support in order to survive life: Turtle and Taylor, Lou Ann and Taylor, Virgie and Edna, Esperanza and Estevan and Mattie.

I love Barbara Kingsolver’s prose. I especially liked the conversations between Lou Ann and Taylor. I like how she started to talk about Lou Ann and Mattie in Chapter 4, which for a while made me wonder what it has got to do with Taylor’s story, and then proceeds to tie up with Taylor halfway of Chapter 5. And I love the subtitles for every chapter, they make each chapter intriguing. I also love the humor. Consider these parts:

“Missy was what everyone called me, not that it was my name, but because when I was three supposedly I stamped my foot and told my own mother not to call me Marietta but Miss Marietta, as I had to call all people including children in the houses where she worked Miss this or Mister that, and so she did from that day forward. Miss Marietta and later on just Missy.”

“I had decided early on that if I couldn’t dress elegant, I’d dress memorable.”

“When I drove the Pittman line I made two promises to myself. One I kept, the other I did not. The first thing was that I would get myself a new name. I wasn’t crazy about anything I had been called up to that point in life, and this seemed like the time to make a clean break. I didn’t have any special name in mind, but just wanted a change. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that a name is not something a person has the right to pick out, but is something you’re provided with more or less by chance. I decided to let the gas tank decide. Wherever it ran out, I’d look for a sign.”

My most favorite part, the scene that has touched me the most, was in Chapter 16 between Taylor, Turtle, Esperanza and Estevan at the law office of Mr. Jonas Wilford Armistead. The adoption scene was particularly poignant, I was teary-eyed for a moment.

I had no expectations whatsoever with The Bean Trees as this is the first BK book I read, and so as it turned out I was easily pleased. For certain, this will not be the last Barbara Kingsolver book that I will read.

3 stars.

8/50 Goodreads 2011 Reading Challenge.
5/30 Off The Shelf Reading Challenge.

Book cover image and blurb from Goodreads.

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