The Bean Trees

I have been so fortunate to be on such a “good book” run right now. Truth be told, much of it is due to the fact that I’m going to be teaching some books I ought to have read already (shame on me). But like Nanci said, you just can’t be sorry you haven’t read all the good books, because there are just too many.

Of course, there are two other reasons why I’ve been reading so much and choosing such good material. Did you ever have an English teacher you wanted to impress with your choice for a book report? Mrs. Patzel was my 11th grade teacher. Right before I moved to Georgia, I went up to her and asked her to give me a list of books she’d recommend I read — you know, so I could get ready for college. After she picked her jaw off the floor, she said she’d definitely get me a list. I didn’t understand until I became a teacher just why Mrs. Patzel was so obviously pleased and taken aback by my request. Or why, instead of a list, she actually gave me a box of books, most of them classics. But now that I’m a teacher, I know the joy of having a student who truly loves to read in my English class. And kids like the one I used to be are pretty rare. I wouldn’t be afraid to say Mrs. Patzel still remembers the big-eyed, dark-haired girl who tucked that box of books under her arm and left the classroom. Who am I trying to impress now? Well, there’s All Consuming and BookCrossing. Okay, so I have some questionable reading material on my bookshelf alongside some better selections. Ignore that for a moment. I have been reading more this year than I have in… I can’t remember when. And it has been so enjoyable.

The last book I finished was The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. I picked it up this morning and finished it by 11:00 P.M. 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. She kind of reminds me of Anne. I’d like to say it’s deeper than the fact that both Anne and Taylor are Native American. Well, Anne is. Taylor’s Cherokee pedigree is that negligible 1/8 that so many people claim. But I think it’s because they’re both so sassy and strong. I really get the impression that Anne could do just about anything, and Taylor made me think of that quality of hers. Taylor eschews glamor in favor of down-to-earth practicality, and Anne kind of seems like that to me. 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 tough. I also loved Lou Ann. She was a bit like me. She worries constantly. I’m thinking Barbara Kingsolver nailed a typical OCDer. I wonder if she realized that? I wanted to see what would happen to everyone. I had to keep on reading. 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 God hands us sychronicity just like those instances in these books.

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. I had to read it to Steve.

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. Probably looking something like this:

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. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s now on my favorites shelf. I am excited to teach it.

2 thoughts on “The Bean Trees

  1. Ohhh, I've never read The Bean Trees, but I'll be adding it to my list of things to read. I love character driven novels.

  2. I am captivated by what you've written, Dana. I want to hear more….to read it myself. It sounds simply wonderful. I must check out this book.

    I giggled out loud at the passage about JESUS.IS.LORD.USED.TIRES. Jesus and his yoyo and Fanny Heaven….ha! Brilliant and so colorful.

    Thanks for such a glowing review.

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