There are three books I can clearly remember reading before I went to college. I know I read other books, but none of them hit me the way these three did. The first was Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It was the first book that just floored me, showing me the power of fiction to completely transport a reader. The second was Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince, because it had the first graphic sex scene I’d ever read (and I read it during a high school assembly because a friend shoved it in my hand). The third was The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver. The more I think about it, the more I think The Bean Trees set me on the path to being a librarian and an English major.
The novel opens in Pittman County, Kentucky. In Taylor’s hometown, the main occupation for teenagers her age is to start making babies. But Taylor has a plan. It’s not a detailed plan, but it exists. As soon as she’s old enough and has the means, she will leave. After graduation, she does and takes off across the country in a dilapidated Volkswagen with a faulty ignition. Her plan goes off the rails in Oklahoma, when a Cherokee woman talks Taylor into taking her three-year-old niece away from the reservation. The girl, later called Turtle for the way she holds on to people and objects, had been abused. Her aunt believed that leaving was the best hope for the girl and that leaving with a woman was her only option. Even though Taylor was running away from motherhood, she takes the girl with her. In less than a year, Taylor is ready to do anything to keep Turtle.
By the end of the book, Taylor and Turtle have a family—an usual family, to be sure, but still a family. In one sense, The Bean Trees is about making the best of what life hands you. In another sense, the one I prefer, The Bean Trees is about making a home and a family that works for your needs. Taylor found her new family by chance, but they ended up being what she needed. She helps them by staying strong and by moving forward. They help her when she runs out of strength and needs a little push to get back on track.
There are symbols throughout the book that draw attention to the fact that life can thrive in even the most difficult of circumstances, as long as the organism in question can adapt and make use of whatever resources might be available. The novel is set primarily in Tucson, Arizona. For most of the year, the desert just roasts. But the animals and plants known how to make use of the scant rain when it comes. In a park near the home Taylor and Turtle share with a new friend and her son, there’s a wisteria that can blossom in even the worst soil and conditions. The characters also live in their own kinds of deserts, created by lack of love or poverty or danger, yet everyone finds a way to live just like the wisteria and the spadefoot toads and the ocotillo.
I first read The Bean Trees in high school and it was one of the first books I remember having to analyze. I have no idea what I thought of the book then or what I would have written my paper on. The Bean Trees upset some of the other students in the class, which led to my first experience with parents getting up in arms about what we young’uns were reading. Some of the students, I recall, ended up reading something else. I stuck with The Bean Trees. I’m still sticking with it, because I’ve found the book isn’t quite done revealing itself to me.