by Barbara Kingsolver

I like stories about ordinary people doing heroic things
that are heroic only if you look close enough.
–Barbara Kingsolver

THE BEAN TREES, Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, is a story she must like, although some of the heroism in it doesn’t need a close look to be seen. THE BEAN TREES is about thriving and failing to thrive, about the struggle for liberty, and, perhaps most of all, about the definitions of home and family.

Barbara Kingsolver’s parents both grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, and, although she was born in Maryland, she grew up in Carlise, Kentucky, from the age of two.

In 1963 her father practiced medicine in the central African country then named the Congo, now called Zaire, and in 1967 he also took his family with him when he practiced in St. Lucia, a Caribbean island. Another ethnic influence was the result of Dr. Kingsolver’s pride in his Indian heritage…. Overall, Barbara Kingsolver’s family background was very stable and supportive and thoroughly Kentuckian. However, various elements of her upbringing did prepare her to become a writer sensitive to multi-ethnic issues.
–George Brosi, KYLIT–A Site Devoted to Kentucky Writers

Kingsolver graduated from Nicholas County High School, then took a Bachelor’s degree from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where she majored in English and Biology, though she attended on a music scholarship. She studied in Athens and Paris, and moved to Tucson, where she took a masters in animal behavior in 1981.

She was married and has a child, Camille, but is divorced.

At some point (I’ve seen her and heard her in various public television and radio interviews), she joined a rock band, all of whose members are authors. Some of the other members are Stephen King, Amy Tan, and Dave Barry. The name of the group is The Rock Bottom Remainders.

THE BEAN TREES was her first published book. It reflects her passion for social justice, and her gentle insistance on addressing social issues in her fiction.

Kingsolver says that, although her books aren’t autobiographical — she says she doesn’t have the energy to do the things her characters do — she does base her characters, to some extent, on things she has done and people she has known because that’s the only way she knows of to get the details right.

Like Kingsolver, the main character of THE BEAN TREES leaves her small Kentucky home town and moves to Tucson. According to Kingsolver, the resemblance ends there. Taylor Greer leaves in an old Volkswagon with a broken ignition; the only way to start it is to push. Taylor says this isn’t much of a problem in Kentucky, where you’re usually parked at the top of a hill whether you mean to be or not, but it becomes a problem when she gets to The Great Plain, which she hates.

Her rocker arm breaks in Oklahoma near the Cherokee Nation. She has it repaired by a mechanic named Bob Two Two, then goes into a diner for a cup of coffee. She, two men, and a round Indian woman sit in silence, watching a silent television screen, where a broadcast from Oral Roberts University urges viewers to call 1-800-THE LORD. When she goes to her car, the Indian woman follows her and, in almost a parody of childbirth, makes herself thin by pulling a blanket-wrapped child from under her own wrap and placing it in Taylor’s passenger seat. She says it’s her dead sister’s child, and begs Taylor to take it. When they stop for the night, she gives the child–a girl–a bath and finds signs of terrible physical and sexual abuse. Because the girl tends to grab whatever is in reach and hang on, Taylor calls her Turtle. Turtle looks old enough to walk, but she never says a word.

The car breaks down again in Tucson–rather, a hail storm drives them off the road, and they cut two tires to ribbons on broken glass. They manage to get to JESUS IS LORD USED TIRES, where they meet Mattie, the woman who owns the business. Taylor takes a job there, and shares a house in the neighborhood with Lou Ann Ruiz, another transplanted Kentuckian.

Lou Ann’s husband has just left her and their baby boy. She’s a worrier; she expects nothing but the worst from fate and thinks the worst is good enough for her. Taylor is a strong voice from home, counteracting the home voices from her past who taught her to be so negative.

Gradually, Taylor learns that Mattie, her boss, runs a safe house on the Underground Railroad smuggling refugees from Central America. Mattie also has a garden in back of the store, where Turtle says her first word: Bean. After that, Turtle adds new words every day, but they’re all fruits and vegetables, anything that will grow once it’s planted. The “bean tree” of the title is Turtle’s name for the wisteria arbor in a shabby and nearly-grassless neighborhood park. Taylor reads that wisteria thrives in poor soil, and calls the beautiful plant “the miracle of Dog Doo Park.”

Taylor and Turtle become friends with Esteban and Esperanza, a Mayan couple from Guatemala. One night, the couple comes to visit and to watch Mattie in a news interview about the urgency of the refugees’ situation.

Not long after this, Esperanza attempts suicide. Taylor, who is half in love with Esteban, is furious–how could she do this to him? He explains that they were teachers in Guatemala, and belonged to a teacher’s union. The police raided the neighborhood, killed three members of the union, including Esperanza’s brother, and kidnapped Esperanza and Esteban’s daughter, Ismene. The police would give her back in exchange for the names of the other members of the union. They escaped to America, leaving Ismene to be adopted by a military or government couple and raised as one of the oppressors.

At about the same time that immigration is closing in on Esteban and Esperanza, the Child Welfare office notices Turtle, and warns that they’re going to take her into foster care. At first, Taylor withdraws. Then, when she goes to plead with the “heartless bureaucracy” for a way to keep Turtle, the social worker gives her the name and address of an official in Oklahoma who might be able to help her document her guardianship. Finally, she decides to do two things at once: she’ll take Turtle back to Oklahoma and find her real family in the hope of getting some documentation, and she’ll drive Esteban and Esperanza to the next stop on the Underground Railroad, which is also in Oklahoma. She could get five years in prison and a $2,000 fine for each illegal alien she’s transporting.

Turtle rides in the back with Esperanza and, if anyone asks whose child she is, Esteban says she is theirs. She looks like them (she looks, Esteban tells Taylor, uncannily like Ismene). Esteban and Esperanza want to come looking for Turtle’s family, too. The diner is under new management, even Bob Two Two’s garage is closed. There is no way for Taylor to find the people who can formalize her relationship to Turtle.

The next scene takes place in the office of the notary public whose name Taylor was given by the Arizona social worker. Esteban and Esperanza, claiming to be Stephen and Hope Two Two, the parents of April Turtle Two Two, grant official custody to Taylor. Esperanza clings to Turtle and cries. She is finally, in her heart, saying goodbye to Ismene, giving her over to someone else’s care.

After Taylor leaves Esteban and Esperanza at their new safe house, she takes her daughter home to Tuscon.