The premise of this book syncs up pretty nice with that old Alanis Morissette song about things being ironic. Basically, you go way out of your way to make sure that something NEVER happens, and then, just when you least expect it, it happens anyway. Yup, that's Alanis in a nutshell.
Getting sidelined by the unexpected is exactly what happens to Taylor Greer, the twenty-something protagonist of Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees. Having grown up poor and female in rural Kentucky, Taylor has made a point of never ending up barefoot and pregnant in anybody's kitchen. Which was pretty typical in rural Kentucky in those days, if you didn't get that.
Basically, to her, the burdens of marriage and child rearing seem like terrible traps. But then, just when she finally hits the road to meet her fortune in the great unknown, the unthinkable happens: a Cherokee woman in Oklahoma tells Taylor to take her child.
Barbara Kingsolver published The Bean Trees in 1988. It was her first novel, and her first big break as a fiction writer. Since then, the novel has become an American classic, and—as you may have guessed—a familiar selection for high-school English curricula.
Set in the early 1980s, The Bean Trees tackles a whole slew of topics that you can go ahead and file under the heading "social justice issues." Front and center?
Got it? Good.
So, tying these issues together, The Bean Trees has some powerful things to say about the responsibility that human beings have for one another—even when it seems that, as individuals, the whole seven billion of us are worlds apart.
In 1993, five years after The Bean Trees was published, Kingsolver followed it up with a sequel called Pigs in Heaven. Which may sound like a super bacon-y breakfast or a certain type of mud bath the hogs can't stop raving about, but as far as sequels go, this one's worth a read. There are some folks who'd say that the story in The Bean Trees just isn't complete without it. Think Star Wars without The Empire Strikes Back. Inconceivable, right?
In the meantime, to fill you in on your Kingsolver background, after publishing The Bean Trees she went on to become one of the biggest names in contemporary American writing. President Clinton presented her with a National Humanities Medal, Oprah praised her novel The Poisonwood Bible (1998), and her books were nominated for dozens of awards.
So yes, what we are saying is that Barbara Kingsolver is kind of a big deal. Which means that The Bean Trees, as her very first novel, is pretty up there too.
We know, it's easier to sit on your couch and gape over the dragons than think about what Game of Thrones actually represents about particular elements of our society. But isn't it kinda satisfying to take sword in hand and plunge into battle—we mean, debate about how it comments on things like gender, violence and race in our culture?
Back to The Bean Trees: this is a book that confronts its readers with piles of provocative questions to consider. It asks you to think about issues like ethics, citizenship, violence, and empire, and those questions alone could fuel raging debates and intense discussion for hours (um, yes, we could still be talking Game of Thrones).
Plus, critical readings of the book can swing wildly in more than one direction. On the one hand, the novel could be read as a strong indictment of American imperialism; on the other, it could be read as a book that fails to recognize its own investments in imperial and colonial privilege. We smell a spitfire classroom debate.
So. The Bean Trees is set in the early 1980s, a decade in which the United States gave financial and military support to governments and other forces enacting fierce violence in Central American countries. In the meantime, concerned American citizens were organizing a solidarity movement to give refuge to Central Americans who were fleeing for their lives.
As scholar Patricia Stuelke says, The Bean Trees is "the most famous fictional representation" of that solidarity movement. Which means that, for those who read the book as an indictment of American imperialism, its sympathy for Central American refugees is a clear marker of Barbara Kingsolver's commitment to social justice.
As she points her finger at the Reagan administration's involvement in Central American bloodshed, she asks: "If no one ever told you that your government was doing something wrong, would you still feel responsible for its actions? What would you do to put things right?"
That's serious stuff, man. When Taylor Greer finds herself faced with these questions, we readers have no choice but to face up to 'em too.
But wait! Let's look on the flip side, where there are plenty of reasons to question The Bean Trees' commitment to social justice. As Patricia Stuelke argues (yes, we'll link that same essay one more time), the novel takes on a whole different tone if we ask what injustices it takesfor granted, and therefore fails to address or expose.
In other words, even though The Bean Trees seems to be critical of American imperialism, it could be argued that the book's central plot relies on an imperialistic perspective.
An example, you ask? We'd be happy to.
In the novel, a nameless Cherokee woman abandons a Cherokee child to the first young white woman (yes, Taylor) who happens to come her way. Later, that same young white woman secures a formal (but still technically illegal) adoption of the child. Most importantly, all of this happens after a long period in which state services throughout America were forcibly removing Native children from their homes and putting them up for adoption. Yeah, it's pretty awful.
So why doesn't The Bean Trees mention such a crucial aspect of its cultural and political context? Sure, the novel's sequel, Pigs in Heaven, clears this context right up, but not one single person in The Bean Trees ever asks if Taylor is right to take Turtle away from Cherokee Nation territory. Not to mention the problems of naming a human "Turtle."
The question: is Taylor's ability to secure an illegal adoption of this Cherokee child a sign of Taylor's inherent colonial privilege? Or does their life afterward justify the decision?
Ripe for debate, we know. And that's just a taste of the multiple and controversial flavors of The Bean Trees.
Barbara Kingsolver—The Authorized Site
Your go-to place for Barbara Kingsolver news, books, the author's biography, and FAQ about her work.
"Your Money or Your Life"
Barbara Kingsolver offers words of wisdom about life, adulthood, and community in this 2008 commencement address at Duke University.
"She Hung the Moon and Plugged in All the Stars" (April 1988)
A New York Times review of The Bean Trees. Yes, the title of the article is more poetic than most of the book.
"And Baby Makes Two" (June 1993)
A New York Times review of Pigs in Heaven.
"At Lunch with Barbara Kingsolver" (September 1993)
An engaging New York Times interview that features lots of extra commentary from the interviewer, Sarah Lyall. Good one for the essay you're bound to write.
An Interview with Barbara Kingsolver (April 2013)
A more recent interview, in which Barbara Kingsolver talks about motherhood, climate change, and the lies people tell on the internet.
"Live from the NYPL"
Barbara Kingsolver visits the New York Public Library to talk about the importance of libraries, books, and doing lots of research for her novels. We wonder if the Horticultural Encyclopedia makes a cameo.
"Talking Volumes" Interview
Barbara Kingsolver talks about getting into the lives, minds, and voices of her characters.
Barbara Kingsolver on The Strombo Show
Canada's George Stroumboulopoulos (no wonder he shortened it to Strombo) interviews Barbara Kingsolver about her recent book on gardening and local foods, which is called Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: A Year of Food Life (2008).
"Barbara Kingsolver on The Poisonwood Bible"
Barbara Kingsolver may not be talking about The Bean Trees in this audio interview for The Guardian, but it'll give you a great sense of her character and style, along with some info about her more famous book.
The lady author herself.
The Harper Torch reissue edition of The Bean Trees
Who's that poking her head up from the garden? Symbolism much?
The Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition of The Bean Trees
Can't you just feel that dry desert heat?