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Book Review: The Bean Trees – by Barbara Kingsolver

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I picked up The Bean Trees on the morning on July 26 of this year and finished it by 11:00 P.M. that night. I do not read fast. In fact, I’m a pretty slow reader. I think I learned to read slowly because I tend to savor the words. I can read more quickly, if I have to, but I prefer to take it at about the same speed as if I were reading it aloud, if that gives you an idea. So finishing a book all in one day doesn’t happen often for me. In fact, this was only the fourth time. The other three books I read like that were Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody, The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds, and Home is Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts. I have decided that what it comes down to is I love character-driven novels with a Southern flavor. With the exception of Not Without My Daughter, which is just extremely suspenseful, the others all fit that category.

I absolutely loved the characters in this book. Taylor Greer is smart-mouthed and tough. I would like to be like her. Taylor eschews glamor in favor of down-to-earth practicality. Then there’s Turtle, who is so smart. Had I not had a Maggie running around, I wouldn’t have thought a three-year-old as smart as Turtle could have existed. I just ached for her — she was so resilient. I think one of my litmus tests is does a character seem real enough and likable enough that I start feeling like he/she is a friend and I want to follow him/her to see what happens? If the answer is yes, the book always winds up a favorite.

The “accidental” ways the characters seemed to meet each other just when they needed to meet someone special to fulfill their needs reminded me very much of Where the Heart Is. Some people might say that’s contrived. I don’t. I think life can be amazingly synchronous.

Besides the well drawn characters, the writing was so fresh and funny. How can you fail to appreciate this:

She got off at the Roosevelt Park stop, which was a half block from the park itself. Sprawled over the large corner lot was a place called Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. You couldn’t make a mistake about the name — it was painted in big, cramped blue letters over the door, with periods inserted between the words: JESUS.IS.LORD.USED.TIRES. On the side of the pleated tin building there was a large picture of Jesus with outstretched hands and yellow streamers of light emanating from His head. There was also a whitewall tire, perhaps added to the mural as an afterthought and probably meant to have no direct connection with the Lord, but it hung in the air below His left hand very much like a large yoyo. Jesus appeared to be on the verge of performing Around the World or some other fancy trick.

Top-heavy, chin-high stacks of Firestones and Michelins at the edge of the paved lot formed a wall between Jesus Is Lord and a combination night club and pornography shop next door called Fanny Heaven. There was no mistaking this place either. The front windows were whitewashed, and large signs painted over them declared GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS on one side of the door and TOTAL NUDITY on the other. On the front door of Fanny Heaven was a life-size likeness of a woman with long red hair and a leopard-skin bikini. Public art of various types was popular on this block.

I mean. Come on. How can you not love that? I laughed out loud. I must have read it three times before I could move on.

Another favorite passage ties in the theme and title of the book. Turtle is something of a savant with plants. She’s fascinated by them. Lou Ann points out some dead looking vines in Roosevelt Park and declares that they are wisteria. Taylor is doubtful, but sure enough, they bloom. Later, the flowers turn into beans.

When Taylor and Turtle are in the library, they find a horticulture encyclopedia. Turtle recognizes a black-and-white picture of wisteria — bean trees. Taylor reads the article about wisteria to Turtle.

But this is the most interesting part: 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 the idea. “It’s just the same 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.

There’s nothing I can really add to that. The people in this novel are all bean trees. And they’re all rhizobia, too. I really loved the symbolism of that image.

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About Dana Huff

  • dan

    i had to read The Bean Trees 5 years ago for my junior year in high school. not only was it the least favorite of that year, it was a book i pained myself through because i hated it so. Barbara Kingsolver is not a brilliant writer by any means; in fact her wording i found quite dull, her characters as transparent as phantoms, and the plot uninspiring. -thanks

  • http://www.planethuff.com/dana/ Dana Huff

    Your email address is spam-protected, just an FYI. I wanted to share my rebuttal with you, but you used a fake email address. I am not very mean — I was actually only going to say it’s decidedly a “chick book,” and some of my male students didn’t enjoy it as much as the girls did. Aside from that, I would suggest that you need to bring certain things to a book when you read it, and no offense, but if this book didn’t speak to you, you weren’t bringing the right things to it. Teachers are often guilty of murdering appreciation for books, too. Books speak to us for a variety of reasons, and it would be hard to find the average teenage male that this book could speak to. That said, many of my male students were open-minded and receptive to the book and enjoyed it a great deal.

    “Dull” wording isn’t really specific. I don’t know what you mean by that. Her characters were often symbolic, which I grant you could be seen as transparent. Plot uninspiring? Again, what do you mean by that? If it means you were supposed to go out and try to change the world — think of single parents and illegal immigrants in a different light — then I agree with you. It didn’t make me feel that way either. I think when you share your opinion in the way you did, it would be more polite to underscore that it is indeed your opinion. The way you stated it could be considered sort of an attack rather than an attempt to engage in intellectual discourse. So to say “she isn’t a brilliant writer” is very different from saying, “I don’t think she is a brilliant writer.”

  • nancy

    I am teaching this book to a group of 7th graders and they are loving evry minute of it. The characters are identifiable and the plot is mesmorizing for the purpose of teaching visualization. I am searching for a movie version to watch after we finish the book. Finishing it will be a great accomplishment for them. Any suggestions.

  • nancy

    Sorry..typing fast…I meant “every” not evry.

  • curious

    is this published?

  • Bunny

    I was sure I had seen the movie version of “The Bean Trees” when my friend was telling me about Barbara Kingsolver’s book. Is this true? I think it was a TV movie out about 10+ years ago. I would like to find it. Can you help. By the way… Dan’s comments about Kingsolver’s writing being untalented, are very off base. He needs to read more to find this author has quite a way with words.

  • lt

    I had to read this book for my summer assignment this year and it took a while for me to get into the book and relate to the character. I had to try real hard to find emotions and feelings simlar to what Taylor was feeling. I think I would’ve enjoyed this book more if I was reading it for enjoyment, not for school.

  • M.r

    They shoul make this book into a movie if not already

  • Carolina Luz

    I just finished this book, and thoroughly enjoyed it. However the description of rhyzobia and leguminous plants is not quite correct. The rhyzobia fix nitrogen from the air not from the soil, as stated in the book. This way they increase the nitrogen content of the soil, thus improving plant growth.

  • Opinion

    Although I tend to agree with Dana Huff about the story and the characters, it does not mean that each person may have a differing opinion about the whole book in general. To state that someone isnt being open minded while reading and that they are bringing the wrong things to the table, is as much of an attack as what dan said. Each person is entitled to their own opinions and although I do not agree with his, it is without a doubt that he is still entitled to hold that opinion without being attacked for it. If the book didn’t appeal to him, he is fully allowed to speak that opinion, granted, it could have been a bit better worded.

  • David

    In my personal opinion, The Bean Trees was a very boring and monotonous book. The characters are generic and the plot is nothing special, and the writing style really grates on me.

  • Zach

    I felt the book read very well except in the begoinning until I figured out that it kept switching characters. This book read very smoothly for a school book. I hate reading complicated books with weird plots so this was up my ally. I suggesdt this book to people who don’t read much.