The Bean Trees

By Barbara Kingsolver

Taylor Greer grew up in small town, Kentucky and lived there just until she could move out. After spending her high school years dodging accidental pregnancies and saving every last dime, Taylor buys an old car and decides to head west with no plan other than the end up where the car breaks down. Along the way, she makes a brief stop in Oklahoma, where her late night coffee also comes with a surprise passenger. An unknown woman at the truck stop leaves a bundle of blankets on Taylor’s front seat, and having not even the slightest inkling of what in the world to do about it, Taylor drives off with the bundle on board. Eventually, Taylor and the baby end up in Tucson, Arizona with just enough wits and cleverness to survive. Taylor earns work at a local tire shop, and then moves into the spare bedroom of a recently divorced single mom who also has roots in Kentucky. The pair of unexpectedly single mothers become fast friends, each gradually uncovering the best in the other. As Taylor establishes a new life in this foreign land, she realizes that some relationships are worth fighting for, some are worth preserving, and some are worth remembering even after they are lost.

“The Bean Trees” is one of Barbara Kingsolver’s more well-known novels, published early in her career. Throughout the novel, Taylor pays attention to the sharp contrast between the hilly mountains of Kentucky and the arid desert of Tucson. Kingsolver describes the desert with the attention to detail of someone who is new to the area and recognizes all the quirks, but also the veneration of one who feels a sense of belonging. Taylor’s relationships develop along with her growing sense of “home,” and her fierce independence bordering on abandonment gradually softens to accept and even appreciate the routine and expected presence of others. Taylor builds complex relationships transcending political and social boundaries. Not only does she develop mothering instincts toward a child with whom she has no biological relation or responsibility, but she also befriends an array of community members across all spectrums of age, ability, and documentation status. Taylor accepts these friendships without any sense of cognitive dissonance, and the depth and sincerity of these relationships force the reader to reconsider the importance of labels, categories, and socially constructed limits. Underneath all the complexities lies plain and simple human connection.

I find myself drawn to this book because of the geography. I’m partial to anything set in the southwest, but can also relate to the nostalgia for mountains. The story seemed to lag early on, but once Taylor met other characters in Tucson, the pace rapidly picked up and I found myself completely hooked. In fact, I recommended this book to a friend before I had even finished it. With moments of prose but a general sense of nonchalant transparency, this book offers a dose of reality tinged with hope. Highly recommended.

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