It is hard to believe that The Bean Trees is Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel. A story that flows smoothly with a plot that brings out themes of personal freedom, homeland and family, it is a beautiful work of art from the first sentence to the last.
When Marietta Greer leaves her small hometown in Kentucky to seek her fortune in the world, renaming herself as Taylor as her car stops in Taylorville so as to build a completely new identity to go with her new life, she resolves to avoid two things at any cost – tyres and motherhood. However almost immediately after setting out on her journey, she finds herself the adopted mother of a little Indian girl and working as an assistant at Mattie’s Jesus is Lord used tyres in Arizona.
The first few chapters of the book alternate between the stories of Taylor and Lou Ann, a young woman whose erstwhile cowboy husband has left her. After a hilarious encounter with a group of new agers who eschew caffiene and live on beancurd, Taylor moves in with Lou Ann. The two young women cannot be more unlike each other, in spite of their similar backgrounds – While Taylor is spunky and confident thanks to her supportive mother, Lou Ann is timid and has a tendency to victimize herself, conditioned by years of ill treatment by her family.
Taylor and Lou Ann settle into a comfortable routine along with their respective babies. Turtle, the little Indian girl adopted by Taylor whose dark past of abuse had rendered her mute and dormant begins to heal with time as she starts to grow and talk. When Taylor finds herself in trouble with the authorities as Turtle is not her legal daughter, she goes to check on the whereabouts of Turtle’s relatives with a couple of friends – Estevan and Esperanza, who are themselves fugitives on the run, and from there the book flows into a moving, realistic conclusion.
Taylor is a honest, strong protagonist whom one grows to like and admire over the pages. The way she balances her independent spirit that craves freedom with her love for her mother, her selflessness in adopting the abused child, her dry sense of humour in the most trying situations, her friendship with Lou Ann that is marked by both empathy and non-interference and the way she refrains from voicing her feelings for her loved one who sadly belongs to another make her stand out as one of the finest characters in literature.
Everything about this book was just right – The plot, the themes, the dialogue, and above all, the characters all of whom come alive, from the main protagonists to the side characters like Mattie – the kind, no-nonsense old lady who runs an illegal asylum for the homeless immigrants above her used tyres shop, Lou’s neighbours – The rude Edna and sweet, blind Virgie, the taciturn social worker who is nevertheless sympathetic to Taylor and even the schizophrenic cat Snowboots.
Certain scenes linger long after the book is finished – Like the vision of the night-blooming cereus at Edna and Virgie’s house, Taylor’s reaction when when Estevan stops the car allowing a quail to gather her chicks to safety, her musings on how the moon light resembles her mother’s potato soup after she decides to stay away from the man she loves, her longing for a normal family and the way she exclaims that miracles do happen when she sees beans growing in wisteria trees.
The Bean Trees is a delightful book that gives the reader a glimpse of life in the world where it is set, and one of the most likeable protagonists in literature.