Reading Women Writers #2: Barbara Kingsolver – The Bean Trees

This is the second post in the Reading Women Writers series.

In The Golden Notebook, Anne writes that “One novel in five hundred or a thousand has the quality a novel should have to make it a novel–the quality of philosophy” (Lessing 59). By that standard, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees is without question a novel. Its philosophy is the polar opposite of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Rand sees a world where ‘great’ men and woman are solely responsible for their own success and altruism is a sin; Kingsolver sees a world that is unjust, yet people can thrive in it if they care about and look after each other.

Marietta Greer, who eventually changes her name to Taylor, is from a poor area of rural Kentucky. She describes her county as “twenty years behind the nation in practically every way you can think of, except the rate of teenage pregnancies” (47). She is determined to not share the fate of the girls who were “dropping by the wayside like seeds off a poppyseed bun” (3). She graduates high school, works at a hospital for 5 years to save up for a ’55 Volkswagen bug, and sets off west not knowing where she would end up. Along the way, outside a bar near the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, a woman leaves Taylor with a baby Indian girl. Taylor ends up settling in Tucson, Arizona, living with another Kentuckian, Lou Ann Ruiz and her newborn son Dwayne Ray. They, along with Mattie, a widow who owns and operates a used-tire shop that doubles as a refugee sanctuary, Estevan and Esperanza, a married couple who are undocumented refugees from Guatemala, and their neighbors Edna Poppy and Virgie Mae Parsons, form a familial group.

This brings us to one of the themes of the novel: blood-relation does not make a family, and a family doesn’t require blood relation.

Throughout the novel there are examples of unhealthy blood-relations:

What she said was “Why not, my daddy’d been calling me a slut practically since I was thirteen, so why the hell not? Newt was just who it happened to be. You know the way it is.”
I told her I didn’t know, because I didn’t have a daddy. That I was lucky that way. She said yeah. (9)

She started telling me how it was all Newt’s daddy’s fault, he beat him up, beat her up, and even had hit the baby with a coal scuttle. (9)

Somehow it’s more excusable to be mean to your own relatives. (116)

She told me that maybe one out of every four little girls is sexually abused by a family member. Maybe more. (173)

Turtle was severely abused before she was rescued by Taylor. Lou Ann’s mother and grandmother caused her to be afraid of everything and have almost no self-confidence, while her father used to lash her with a belt. Lou Ann’s husband Angel left her when she was pregnant with Dwayne Ray. The two positive family relationships are Taylor with her mother and Estevan with Esperanza.

At first, Taylor has a difficult time coming to terms with the idea that a family doesn’t require blood:

At least she did remember to ask about Turtle. “She’s great,” I said. “She’s talking a blue streak.”
“That’s how you were. You took your time getting started, but once you did there was no stopping you,” Mama said.
I wondered what that had to do with anything. Everybody behaved as if Turtle was my own flesh and blood daughter. It was a conspiracy. (110)

“Lou Ann, I moved in here because I knew we’d get along. It’s nice of you to make dinner for us all and to take care of Turtle sometimes, and I know you mean well. But we’re acting like Blondie and Dagwood here. All we need is some ignorant little dog named Spot to fetch me my slippers. It’s not like we’re a family for Christ’s sake. You’ve got your own life to live, and I’ve got mine. You don’t have to do all this stuff for me.” (85)

Eventually Taylor acknowledges that what they all have is a kind of family after phone conversations with her mother and Lou Ann:

“Well, she comes by that honest.”
“Don’t say that, Mama. That means it proves the baby’s not a bastard. If it acts like you, it proves it’s legitimate.”
“I never thought about it that way.”
“It’s okay, I guess I’m just sensitive, you know, since she’s not blood kin.”
“I don’t think blood’s the only way kids come by things honest. Not even the main way. It’s what you tell them, Taylor. If a person is bad, say, then it makes them feel better to tell their kids that they’re even worse. And the that’s exactly what they’ll grow up to be…” (223)

“Taylor, remember that time you were mad at me because you didn’t want us to act like a family? That all we needed was a little dog named Spot? Well, don’t get mad, but I told somebody that you and Turtle and Dwayne Ray were my family. Somebody at work said, ‘Do you have a family at home?’ And I said, ‘Sure,’ without even thinking. I meant you all. Mainly I guess because we’ve been through hell and high water together. We know each other’s good and bad sides, stuff nobody else knows.”
It was hard for me to decide what to say.
“I don’t mean till death do us part, or anything,” she said. “But nothing on this earth’s guaranteed, when you get right down to it, you know? I’ve been thinking about that. About how your kids aren’t really yours, they’re just these people that you try to keep an eye on, and hope you’ll all grow up someday to like each other and still be in one piece. What I mean is, everything you ever get is really just on loan.”

“I guess you could say we’re family,” I said. (230-1)

This concept of family is tied to the central philosophy of the novel, which is exemplified by two stories. The first:

“Tortolita, let me tell you a story,” Estevan said. “This is a South American, wild Indian story about heaven and hell.” Mrs. Parsons made a prudish face, and Estevan went on. “If you go to visit hell, you will see a room like this kitchen. There is a pot of delicious stew on the table, with the most delicate aroma you can imagine. All around, people sit, like us. Only they are dying of starvation. They are jibbering and jabbering,” he looked extra hard at Mrs. Parsons, “but they cannot get a bite of this wonderful stew God has made for them. Now, why is that?”
“Because they’re choking?’ For all eternity?” Lou Ann asked. Hell, for Lou Ann, would naturally be a place filled with sharp objects and small round foods.
“No,” he said. “Good guess, but no. They are starving because they only have spoons with very long handles. As long as that.” He pointed to the mop, which I had forgotten to put away. “With these ridiculous, terrible spoons, the people in hell can reach into the pot but they cannot put the food in their mouths. Oh, how hungry they are! Oh, how they swear and curse each other!” he said, looking again at Virgie. He was enjoying this.
“Now,” he went on, “you can go and visit heaven. What? You see a room just like the first one, the same table, the same pot of stew, the same spoons as long as a sponge mop. But these people are all happy and fat.”
“Real fat. or do you mean just well-fed?” Lou Ann asked.
“Just well-fed,” he said. “Perfectly, magnificently well-fed, and very happy. Why do you think?”
He pinched up a chunk of pineapple in his chopsticks, neat as you please, and reached all the way across the table to offer it to Turtle. She took it like a newborn bird.” (107-8)

The world is abundant (the stew) yet unjust (the spoons). If we only think about ourselves, while blaming and scapegoating others, we make the world hell. If we realize we are doomed if we are isolated and choose to take care of each other, we can thrive.

Unfortunately, society seems systematically predisposed to resemble the hell of Estevan’s story. Taylor laments that “the whole way of the world is to pick on people who can’t fight back” (170).:

“There’s just so damn much ugliness. Everywhere you look, some big guy kicking some little person when they’re down–look what they do to those people at Mattie’s. To hell with them, people say, let them die, it was their fault in the first place for being poor or in trouble, or for not being white, or whatever, how dare they try to come to this country.”

“Look at those guys out in the park with no place to go,” I said. “And women , too. I’ve seen whole families out there. While we’re in here trying to keep the dry-cleaner bags out of the kids’ reach. those mothers are using dry-cleaner bags for their children’s clothes, for God’s sake. For raincoats. And feeding them out of the McDonald’s dumpster. You’d think that life alone would be punishment enough for those people, but then the cops come around waking them up mornings, knocking them around with their sticks. You’ve seen it. And everybody else saying hooray, way to go, I got mine, power to the toughest. Clean up the neighborhood and devil take the riffraff.”
Lou Ann just listened.
“What I’m saying is nobody feels sorry for anybody anymore, nobody even pretends they do. Not even the President. It’s like it’s become unpatriotic.” I unfolded my wad of handkerchief and blew my nose. “What’s that supposed to teach people?” I demanded. “It’s no wonder kids get the hurting end of the stick. And she’s so little, so many years ahead of her. I’m just not up to the job, Lou Ann.”
Lou Ann sat with her knees folded under her, braiding and unbraiding the end of a strand of my hair. “Well, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger,” she said. “Nobody is.” (170-1)

Mattie tells Taylor that they have to find a way to get Estevan and Esperanza to a sanctuary in a different state because of immigration crackdowns and explains how the legal system for granting asylum is a catch-22:

“The only legal way a person from Guatemala can stay here is if they can prove in court that their life was in danger when they left.”
“But they were, Mattie, and you know it. You know what happened to them. To Esperanza’s brother, and all.” I didn’t say, To their daughter. I wondered if Mattie knew, but of course she would have to.
“Their own say-so is no good; they have to have hard proof. Pictures and documents.” She picked up a whitewall and I thought she was going to throw it across the lot, but she only hoisted it onto the top of a pile beside me. “When people run for their lives they frequently neglect to bring along their file cabinets of evidence,” she said. Mattie wasn’t often bitter but when she was, she was.
I didn’t want to believe the world could be so unjust. But of course it was right there in front of my nose. (159)

Estevan and Esperanza’s baby daughter Ismene was kidnapped after a government raid on Estevan’s teachers’ union, which claimed the lives of her brother and two friends. She was taken because Estevan and Esperanza were the only people who knew the names of the 17 other members of the union and the government wanted to force them to reveal the names. They chose to save the lives of their 17 friends by fleeing Guatemala without their daughter, hoping that she would be adopted and live on. This sacrifice exemplifies the ultimate expression of the novel’s philosophy.

Taylor, Mattie, Estevan, and Esperanza all take risks and make sacrifices for others. They are willing to break laws that are unjust. Mattie runs an illegal sanctuary for refugees; Estevan and Esperanza risk capture when they help Taylor get legal guardianship of Turtle; Taylor risks arrest by transporting Estevan and Esperanza to a new sanctuary in Oklahoma.

“…Some folks are the heroes and take the risks, other folks do what they can from behind the scenes.”
“Mattie, would you please shut up about heroes and prison and all.”
“I didn’t say prison.”
“Just stop, okay? Estevan and Esperanza are my friends. And, even if they weren’t, I can’t see why I shouldn’t do this. If I saw somebody was going to get hit by a truck I’d push them out of the way. Wouldn’t anybody? It’s a sad day for us all if I’m being a hero here.” (188)

Estevan’s tells Taylor as they part that “in a world as wrong as this one, all we can do is make things as right as we can” (220). We do this by not being selfish, by taking care of one another.

The second story that exemplifies the central theme of the novel is about wisteria vines, which Turtle calls bean trees:

…wisteria vines, like other legumes, often thrive in poor soil, the book said. Their secret is something called rhizobia. These are microscopic bugs that live underground in little knots on the roots. They suck nitrogen gas right out of the soil and turn it into fertilizer for the plant.
The rhizobia are not actually part of the plant, they are separate creatures, but they always live with legumes: a kind of underground railroad moving secretly up and down the roots.
“It’s like this,” I told Turtle. “There’s a whole invisible system for helping out the plant that you’d never guess was there.” I loved this idea. “It’s just the same as with people. The way Edna has Virgie, and Virgie has Edna, and Sandi has Kid Central Station, and everybody has Mattie. And on and on.”
The wisteria vines on their own would just barely get by, is how I explained it to Turtle, but put them together with rhizobia and they make miracles. (227-8)

These themes are universal and timeless. 25 years after it was first published, it speaks to the political philosophical debates of today. Conservatives claim that a traditional, blood-related family is the only true family. They argue against adoption by same-sex partners, against same-sex marriage. Conservatives, especially Objectivists, believe that everyone is solely responsible for all their successes and all their failures. The negative attitudes towards the poor and immigrants largely remain the attitudes of conservatives. Our society more closely resembles the hell of the first story, with selfish bickering, blaming, and scapegoating, than the humanistic vision of heaven.