The Bean Trees

Monday, December 20, 2010

I came across this book as a result of the Birth Year Challenge. I have read The Poisonwood Bible a few times and really love it, but another Kingsolver novel and I had not gotten along quite as well, so I was hesitant to read any more of her work. I am so glad that I was able to read Kingsolver's debut, The Bean Trees, for this challenge as it is one of my favorite books I have read this year.

The Bean Trees is the story of Taylor, a poor girl from Kentucky who is determined to get out. After a few years of hard work in a hospital laboratory, she buys a Volkswagen with no windows and no destination other than away. On her journey she winds up with a homeless, nameless Native American girl. Her tires blow out in Tucson, so that is where she ends up. The novel is an exploration of their relationship and other friendships Taylor makes along the way.

One of my favorite things about The Poisonwood Bible that is also true in The Bean Trees is Kingsolver's masterful way of giving each character an individual voice. Taylor is rough around the edges but sharp, honest, and fresh. She is one of the most likable characters I have read in a long time. Here is how she describes herself:

At school it was a piece of cake to pick me out of a lineup of town girls in their beige or pink Bobbie Brooks matching sweater-and-skirt outfits. Medgar Biddle, who was once my boyfriend for three weeks including the homecoming dance, used to say that I dressed like an eye test. I suppose he meant the type they give you when you go into the army, to see if you're color blind, not the type that starts with the big E. He said it when we were breaking up, but I was actually kind of flattered. I had decided early on that if I couldn't dress elegant, I'd dress memorable. (5)
Taylor's best friend, Luann, also has an awesome voice. Although the story is never told from her first person perspective, her personality was just bursting out of the dialogue. I can just hear her high, worried voice with its Southern accent: "Well my gosh, I mean, here you are, so skinny and smart and cute and everything, and me and Dwayne Ray, well, we're just lumping along here trying to get by." (79) Despite her potentially annoying worrywart tendencies, she is sweet and lovable.

Honestly, all the characters touched me in some way - sad, baby-hungry Esperanza, handsome and intelligent Estevan, and courageous, fierce Mattie. The strength of their friendships and the things they learned from each other were beautiful and moving.

Underlying the actual plot of the story were some recurring themes. The theme of abandonment appeared time and time again, starting when Turtle was deposited in Taylor's Volkswagen and echoing in choices the characters must make. When do you leave? Where do your loyalties lie? Kingsolver explored these ideas with heartbreaking choices made by many of the characters.

This story also had a coming-of-age feel for Taylor, although she is in her mid-twenties. She starts out as a young woman escaping what she sees to be a dead-end existence in her poverty-stricken home of Kentucky and becomes a mother and fierce protector of Turtle. She learns about tragedies beyond her grasp, and despite her difficult, under-privileged childhood, she realizes her life was a paradise compared to some. You can hear her voice maturing as she faces difficulties and is changed by the love she feels for her new friends.

In addition to the moving subject matter, this book has stunningly beautiful writing. I read that Barbara Kingsolver has a graduate degree in biology - perhaps this is why she is able to describe nature in such a passionate, detailed way. I was born in Arizona but have no memories of it - this book made me want to go back and see the beauty hidden in the desert. Here's a little taste of one of my favorite passages:

One of the plumes of rain was moving toward us. We could see big drops spattering on the ground, and when it came closer we could hear them, as loud as pebbles on a window. Coming fast. One minute we were dry, then we were being pelted with cold raindrops, then our wet shirts were clinging to our shoulders and the rain was already on the other side of us. All four of us were jumping and gasping because of the way the sudden cold took our breath away. Mattie was counting out loud between the lightning and thunderclaps: six, seven boom! ... four, five, six, boom! Estevan danced with Esperanza, then with me, holding his handkerchief under his arm and then twirling it high in the air - it was a flirtatious, marvelous dance with thunder for music. (171)
I found out a little after the fact that there is a sequel to this book, Pigs in Heaven. I am almost disappointed, because I think this book's ending was so perfect. I am usually unsatisfied in some way with an ending. Most books, I love so much that I hate to see them end, and in "real life" there are always loose ends. Usually stories only pretend to tie them up and get them out of the way. This book didn't necessarily tie up all the loose ends but it left me with a feeling of contentedness.

So basically - you have got to read this book. I hope you fall in love with it like I did.

Accessibility/Readability - Very.
Aesthetics/Literary merit - 4.5
Plot - 4 - I loved it but at times it was a bit slow.
Characters - 5
Personal Response - 5.
Overall: 4.75

I read this book for the Birth Year Challenge hosted by Hotchpot Cafe. 1 more to go!


  1. This sounds like a lovely read. I haven't read any Kingsolver but have wanted to for quite awhile. This sounds like a good place to start.

  2. I remember loving this book when I read it years ago. Animal Dreams by Kingsolver is also one of my favorite all-time books. And, Prodigal Summer was also really good.

  3. Wonderful review. I haven't read this book yet but I want to. I enjoy Kingsolver's writing. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is one of my favorites.

  4. I've read "The Poisonwood Bible" and "The Lacuna" and very much enjoyed both so I'll definitely be giving this one a go :)

  5. This sounds like a Must Read for me. I know Kingsolver is good but I have only read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and it didn't quite take with me. I bet this one will, though. (Glad it worked out so well for you in the challenge, too! Win-win.)

  6. @Brenna - I hadn't read anything other than The Poisonwood Bible, but now I want to go after all her other writing!

    @Helen's Book Blog - I have been hearing good things about Animal Dreams. I think I'm going to have to add that one to the TBR for sure.

    @Leslie - I'll have to add that one to my TBR as well. I haven't read any of Kingsolver's nonfiction.

    @Sam - I just told my mom I wanted The Lacuna because she said she needed a stocking stuffer for me. I'm hoping to read it this year!

    @J.G. - I hope you like it! It was a little slow for me at first, but by the end I was in love with the characters. Thanks for hosting the challenge so I could discover this one!

  7. I loved this book! I really need to reread it, but seriously- I loved it! I do want to read Pigs in Heaven, but I AM a little nervous about it, because The Bean Trees IS perfect and complete within itself. But awesome review! Makes me want to reread this NOW!

  8. I want to reread it too! At least before I read Pigs in Heaven, because I have to remember the perfect feeling of finishing The Bean Trees. One of the places we might be moving next year is Arizona, and I am definitely going to have to reread it if we go there!


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