Another Book Club Road Trip.

Not too long ago, some of the ladies of book club and I piled into Amanda’s petite black car and hit the road.  Our destination on a sunny November Saturday was the small town of Quechee, home of the Vermont Farmer’s Diner, which was featured in our previous month’s pick of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  In that book, Kingsolver and her family visit the original Vermont Farmer’s Diner in Barre; it had since closed and reopened adjacent to a strip mall in Quechee.

the-dining-carI know I was a bit surprised to see the diner in what I can only describe as a tourist trap of a strip mall — one of the stores featured t-shirts emblazoned with moose and endless brown plastic jugs of maple syrup.  I was even more stunned when we entered the diner; a small portion of the seats were in an old-fashioned train boxcar, but the rest were in a sparsely decorated and cavernous room that reminded me of an elementary school auditorium.

Food-wise, the diner was fine, but certainly not worth driving almost three hours for.  Granted, the diner did deliver on its promise of relying upon local vendors whenever possible; the beef on my burger ($7.00) came from PT Farms, my tomato from Long Wind Farms and my cheese, of course, was from Cabot.  My incredibly thick milkshake, the highlight of my meal, was made of Strafford organic milk and was well worth its steep price of $6.00, especially considering the sheer quantity of shake — it filled two Mason jars, and was so think I could stand my straw straight up in its center.

Over our meal, we discussed this month’s book, Zorba the Greek… and how we all hated it.  To be fair, only one of us actually finished it — but the rest of us couldn’t even get past page thirty or so.  While our group is very flexible when it comes to completing our chosen book, a situation like this is most certainly unusual.  So if you do have a hankering to read Nikos Kazantzakis‘s novel, consider yourself warned.  The same, I’m sorry to say, could be said about the diner.

Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver.

Barbara Kingsolver‘s novel Animal Dreams marks the fourth and volume in my self-imposed Kingsolver minimarathon, which I started after the book club girls and I chose Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as September’s pick.  Like The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven and The Poisonwood Bible, Animal Dreams was a reread for me;  however, unlike the other three, Animal Dreams is a book that I’ve returned to time and time again.

Set in the mid-eighties, this is the story of Codi Noline, who has returned to her hometown of Grace, Arizona, to both teach high school biology and to care for her estranged father Doc Homer, who is battling Alzheimer’s.  Animal Dreams focuses almost entirely on Codi and is told from her point of view, though her chapters are occasionally broken up by a few pages detailing Homer’s increasingly entangled mind.  Codi struggles with this, along with her sister Hallie’s life-altering decision to live and work with local farmers in Nicaragua after the country’s revolution.  Codi and Hallie’s relationship is almost impossibly close, so much so that Doc Homer, in the novel’s opening, acknowledges concern:

He feels a constriction around his heart that isn’t disease but pure simple pain, and he knows he would weep if he could.  Not for the river he can’t cross to reach his children, not for distance, but the opposite.  For how close together these two are, and how much they have to lose.  How much they’ve already lost in their lives to come.

Codi unknowingly proves Doc Homer right; even as she finds the possibility of love and learns exactly how far the branches of her family tree reach, her thoughts are always on her sister.

Something I find compelling about Animal Dreams is Kingsolver’s choice to have Codi narrate her chapters from the future; her portions of the novel are her recollections, and even she acknowledges it, starting off her narration with “I am the sister who didn’t go to war.  I can only tell you my side of the story.”  Yet, in spite of this, Kingsolver gives the reader multiple chances to look at Codi through another’s eyes with Doc Homer.  So, does this make Codi fall into the category of “unreliable narrator”?  Does this make her untrustworthy?  Of course not — everything she says and feels and does is completely honest and genuine, and by giving Codi the gift of hindsight, Kingsolver creates a more complete character.  Codi is flawed and she recognizes it as only one can with the sort of distance provided by time.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver.

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.