The Bean Trees

Barbara Kingsolver
Star Rating
Reviewer's Rating
Jan 5, 2016

Taylor Greer has just graduated from high school in rural Kentucky. Born to a poor, single mother and without many of life’s advantages, Taylor manages to talk her way into a lab technician’s job at the hospital, save enough money to buy a beat up Volkswagen Bug, and get out of town before she winds up pregnant or as some tobacco farmer’s wife. Most of Taylor’s pluckiness can be attributed to the roots her mother has provided her—encouragement and faith in her daughter’s abilities that are worth far more than the money she doesn’t have to offer.

Taylor heads west in her Bug without a destination. When she gets to Oklahoma, she runs into some challenges. The flat landscape makes popping the clutch to start her car way more difficult than it had been in her hilly hometown. And just as Taylor’s headed back on the road after stopping for coffee at a bar in the middle of nowhere, a Native American woman reaches through the windowless Bug, plops down a bundle on the passenger seat, and pleads with Taylor to take the child. She informs Taylor that she’s the aunt and the child’s mother has died. Without giving Taylor time to think about what’s happening, the Native American woman turns, gets into a truck, and leaves.

I don’t know about you, but I’d have a panic attack if that happened to me. But Taylor keeps her head about her. She finds a kind innkeeper who lets the two of them stay in exchange for Taylor’s housekeeping. When Taylor unwraps the child from her blanket, she discovers the child is a girl, and that she’s been the victim of horrific abuse. Taylor guesses she’s about 18 months old and names her Turtle because of the way she clings to her.

Back on the road, the Bug’s two back tires go flat in Tucson, Arizona. When they find their way to “Jesus Is Lord Used Tires,” Taylor decides they’ve found home. The tire shop owner, a generous widow named Mattie, offers Taylor a job. She finds a roommate, Lou Ann, who is also a transplant from Kentucky and a new mother, recently deserted by her rodeo husband. Their elderly neighbors—one a warm-hearted blind woman who “works PR” for the other, a crotchety woman who nevertheless cares for the blind woman without complaint—babysit for Taylor and Lou Ann when their work shifts overlap. Taylor finds many supportive neighbors in Tucson. She also finds homeless people living in the park and illegal refugees living in the area. These discoveries allow Taylor to witness the important influence people have over each other, and how resilient humans can be with a little help.

Even though this novel was written almost thirty years ago, its humanist theme is timeless, and its depiction of how our country treats refugees and other outsiders is as relevant as ever. That Kingsolver has wrapped up such a serious message in the package of a quick, surprisingly funny read is amazing. 

Reviewed by Becky C.
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