Monday, July 17, 2017

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Here were a mother and her daughter, nothing less.  A mother and child--in a world that could barely be bothered with mothers and children--who were going to be taken apart.  Everybody believed it.  Possibly Turtle believed it.  I did.

Taylor Greer leaves home in a beat-up car, vowing to take it as far as it will carry her away from the hills of Kentucky.  She wants to escape the cycle of poverty and pregnancy that dogs people in that hardscrabble part of Appalachia.  But in Oklahoma, something strange happens: a Native American woman in a diner follows her out to her car and bestows a three-year old child on her.  Taylor takes the child with her, not knowing what else to do, before the car finally gives out in Tucson, Arizona.  She names the kid Turtle because she clings to her "just like a mud-turtle."

Conflict in The Bean Trees is rarely near-at-hand. The trauma that Turtle faced is back in Oklahoma, the torture that Taylor's newfound friends Estevan and Esperanza faced in Guatemala is, well, back in Guatemala.  There's an episode where Turtle is nearly snatched by a predator in a park because Taylor leaves her in charge of a freaking blind woman, but it reads as if Kingsolver is too guarded to actually imagine what such a person might look like.  The Bean Trees has little to say about the sociopolitical unrest that would lead people to abandon their home in Central America, and less to say about domestic conflicts--beyond a vague sense that Taylor, like the two refugees, is in danger from bureaucratic forces who would be so mean as to separate her from Turtle.

Arrayed against these forces are the powers of sisterhood and motherhood.  Taylor and Turtle lead a not-perfect but heartwarming life in Tucson with Lou Ann, another single mother who's been abandoned by her husband, and various other (mostly female) well-wishers.  The novel conveniently forgets that Taylor escapes Kentucky for the express purpose of avoiding becoming a mother.  Or, I hope it forgets, because the other option is that The Bean Trees wants to suggest that Taylor's independence is misguided, and what she really needs is the purpose that motherhood brings.  Kingsolver masks these troubling conclusions with cloying cuteness and schmaltz.  Here's the last paragraph of the novel, which refers to Turtle's precocious knowledge of plant life:

But it didn't seem to matter to Turtle, she was happy where she was.  The sky went from dust-color to gray and then cool black sparked with stars, and she was still wide awake.  She watched the dark highway and entertained me with her vegetable-soup song, except that now there were people mixed in with the beans and potatoes: Dwayne Ray, Mattie, Esperanza, Lou Ann and all the rest.

And me.  I was the main ingredient.

This novel should have been titled Love Soup.  Or maybe Vegetable Soup for the Single Mother's Soul.  That would give an accurate impression of its intellectual and spiritual depth, as well as its pathological avoidance of anything like real conflict.  Sisterhood and motherhood--and, for that matter, un-motherhood--deserve better.

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