The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

the bean trees

I was amazed to learn that this was Kingsolver’s first novel. I read it for the Sin City Bookers book group, but I would have got around to it eventually because I love Barbara Kingsolver. We have read two Kingsolver books for this group now, and I find it interesting that both times the group was divided. She seems to be a person who you love or loathe. I find this odd, because she is insightful and writes beautifully whilst being easy to digest. I cannot fathom why anyone wouldn’t like her. I love so many things about this short novel that I do not really know where to begin.

I love the setting. Our protagonist hails from Kentucky, which I know very little about, except to say that her town sounds much the same as my home town; small, dull and pretty terrible. The kind of place that some get stuck in, but some make it their ambition to leave. Out hero drives out of town with no goal in mind, but ends up in Arizona. She doesn’t seem to notice that where she ends up isn’t so very different culturally from the place she left. I love the Western US desert, and this is a lovely portrait of a middle-of-nowhere US desert town, rather different from my current home of Las Vegas.

The book covers almost a year in the desert, and in July, after some months of stifling dry heat, the first rain of the summer falls. We learn that this is what the Native Americans thought of as New Year’s Day. Whenever the first summer rains fell was when they started everything afresh, planing new crops and celebrating. I love this image.

There’s a running theme of characters changing their names. Our hero changes her name, the girl she “inherits” (as the book jacket puts it) has two names and the refugees in the story have three! According to our book group organiser, Kingsolver wrote this as a sort of brain-dump of a bunch of things that were going around her head, and it shows. It is about a lot of things; growing up, the importance of friendship and social responsibility, and the way a person’s life can move through a series of very different phases, I think she highlights that with the name changes.

This story could only have taken place in America. Only in this vast country can someone drive across it for a few days and find something so physically different, yet culturally so similar to where they started off. This book touches on the bizarre relationship that white Americans have with Native Americans, and the relationship they have with immigrants. I think Kingsolver had probably had several thoughts on this, and could explore it much more, which I believe she may in her novel Pigs in Heaven.

This book is full of metaphor and beautifully poetic. A good example of this is the national symbol of the Indian people in Guatemala being a beautiful macaw-like bird that dies if you try to keep it in a cage. Our hero does not consider herself the brightest person, but at one point her friend tells her that she is a poet. She really is, I love the way that she talks, and she made me laugh out loud several times. The major metaphor is explained to us towards the end; the tile of the novel. The bean trees grow because of the natural support network of other creatures that live around the plant. Without them it just will not survive. Just like us humans.

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