The Bean Trees – Barbara Kingsolver – 1988
Reviewed by: Stephen A. Haines Date: 12 May 2002
Stories of women overcoming adversity are becoming common. There’s more than a little justice achieved by these tales. Many of them, particularly this work, show how women use their power of community to manage their lives successfully. These stories need to be told, and Kingsolver has given us a superlative example. The community theme is superbly demonstrated in Estevan’s recital of heaven and hell – hell is peopled with those who cannot reach out to others, starving in a kitchen full of food.
Lou Ann and “Taylor” are fellow Kentuckian exiles living in Tucson. The relocation has bought unexpected challenges to their lives. Not the least of these is the additional burden of infants: Lou Ann’s by an unwanted pregnancy and Taylor’s by an abandonment. What does it say about women that Taylor makes no attempt to off-load Turtle to a state agency, but keeps her to raise. Kingsolver evokes the reader’s sympathy for both Taylor and Lou Ann, although both are in situations of their own making. Mattie, too, might have been given greater role, particularly since she provides so many fundamental changes in Taylor’s life.
Kingsolver’s character development makes wonderful reading. Occasionally, her descriptive powers overcome her characterization and Taylor waxes rather more eloquent than her background and education [which is almost entirely self-taught] would warrant. It’s easy to forgive these lapses in light of how well she relates the story. Throughout the book i wondered why only Taylor speaks in the first person. A dual viewpoint of characters and events might have given this story more depth.
Estevan and his wife, Esperanza, are Guatemalan refugees. Kingsolver’s use of these characters to point up America’s support of the oppressive regime is depicted with skill. Taylor’s growing awareness of conditions there represents that of the average American -it’s visible only by direct confrontation. Unfortunately, Taylor lives where sympathy for refugees from oppressive regimes is minimal. The place is called the United States, symbolized, interestingly enough, by a woman standing in a harbour offering sanctuary to the oppressed.
There is a disturbing element in this and similar stories by and of today’s women. Men here are universally portrayed without a redeeming feature. There are no “neutral” males who provide any form of support or reinforcement. Angel Ruiz could just as easily have lost more than a leg in his rodeo accident. Instead, he must be portrayed as a deserting husband. Kingsolver, however, has him appearing in cameos which only reinforce his role as the uncaring male. We are returned here to the early days of feminism in declaring males superfluous to the community of women. It’s not a healthy indication for the future. If the atmosphere of “us versus them” intensifies, there will be greater backlash than is currently the case. If men have truly failed women over all these millennia, then it’s reconciliation that’s required, not intensifying of resentments. That only builds mutually reinforcing resentment.