When I went to my parents’ house for Labor Day, I had a mission: raid the bookcase in my old bedroom. I’ve always been a book hoarder, and my shelves are definitely home to years’ worth of well-thumbed books. There were specific titles that I was looking to retrieve (I’ll tell you which ones once I’ve reread them) and Barbara Kingsolver‘s first novel was at the top of my list. Since book club and I had chosen her most recent work, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, for our next read, I thought it made perfect sense for me to go back to the beginning.
Here’s how I got introduced to Kingsolver: required reading. In the middle of what our teachers liked to call our “high school careers,” the education board introduced mandatory summer reading lists; The Bean Trees was the first underneath the sophomore honors level header. I chose it because the title seemed leagues more interesting than My Ántonia and its intimidatingly accented A.
Oddly, The Bean Trees shifts from Taylor Greer’s first-person narrative and Lou Ann Ruiz’s third-person storyline; Taylor clearly emerges as the novel’s protagonist, describing her travels out of Kentucky in her beat-up Volkswagen. Halfway across the country, on the fringes of the Cherokee Nation, Taylor is literally given a baby: a mute, molested and all but comatose toddler. Taylor — whose main motivation for leaving Kentucky was avoiding the cliché of becoming pregnant and potentially barefoot — is completely bewildered but determined to provide for the child. Ultimately, Taylor nicknames the baby Turtle, “on account of her grip,” about which Taylor has this to say, before she has had a chance to determine Turtle’s gender:
The most amazing thing was the way that child held on. From the first moment I picked it up out of its nest of wet blanket, it attached itself to my by its little hands like roots sucking on dry dirt. I think it would have been easier to separate me from my hair.
In the end, The Bean Trees is about one thing: the concept of family and community. Kingsolver’s characters are either thrown together or meet via happenstance; jointly, they cobble together a slapdash support structure whose members include everything from a pair of Guatemalan political refugees, a blind elderly woman and her roommate, and the proprietress of a auto-supply shop called Jesus Is Lord Used Tires.
It’s funny, isn’t it? I mean, I grew up being told that we can choose our friends, but not our family — yet I find that so many of us do that exactly. With some relationships, definitions blur and the people we choose to surround ourselves with do in fact become practically kin. This novel is a perfect example of that.