Barbara Kingsolver wrote The Bean Trees during pregnant insomniac nights, inside a closet so she wouldn’t wake her sleeping husband. I know. When I was pregnant during sleepless nights I turned the AC on full blast and ate ice cream out of the container in bed while my husband tried to avoid hypothermia under three blankets and his parka. As a wannabe writer who complains about the time I lack to write while working full time and taking care of my four year old, I vacillate between admiration and envy over Ms. Kingsolver’s feat.
The protagonist, Taylor Greer, is also one of those people who amaze me with their accomplishments. Born in rural Kentucky to a single mother, 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 the hell 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 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. Taylor finds a kind innkeeper who lets the two of them stay in exchange for Taylor’s housekeeping. When Taylor unwraps the child’s blanket, she discovers the child is a girl, and that she’s been the victim of physical and sexual 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 above Mattie’s tire shop. 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 over twenty years ago, its humanist theme is timeless, and its depiction of how our country treats 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. That she did so while pregnant during sleepless nights is a testament to the strength of women. If Kingsolver’s influence can continue to inspire me to change my lazy-writer ways, it will be a miracle.