The Blurb (from Goodreads):
Clear-eyed and spirited, Taylor Greer grew up poor in rural Kentucky with the goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting away. But when she heads west with high hopes and a barely functional car, she meets the human condition head-on. By the time Taylor arrives in Tucson, Arizona, she has acquired a completely unexpected child, a three-year-old American Indian girl named Turtle, and must somehow come to terms with both motherhood and the necessity for putting down roots. Hers is a story about love and friendship, abandonment and belonging, and the discovery of surprising resources in apparently empty places.
The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favourite books, but I have never read this debut novel by Barbara Kingsolver. I found it on the shelves of the yacht in which we were sailing around the Greek islands this summer (I know! Lucky me!)
It tells the story of a young woman named Marietta Greer who grows up poor in rural Kentucky. She works hard and buys herself a car so she can escape, then decides to rename herself: ‘I wasn’t crazy about anything I had been called up to that point in life, and this seemed like the time to make a clean break. I didn’t have any special name in mind, but just wanted a change.’ Marietta decides she will call herself after the first place she has to stop i.e. wherever she may be when her petrol tank runs dry.
“I came pretty close to being named after Homer, Illinois, but kept pushing it. I kept my fingers crossed through Sidney, Sadorus, Cerro Gordo, Decatur, and Blue Mound, and coasted into Taylorville on the fumes. And so I am Taylor Greer. I suppose you could say I had some part in choosing this name, but there was enough of destiny in it to satisfy me.”
Taylor’s voice is tough and pragmatic, yet still clearly that of a naïve young woman. It is richly coloured with homespun Kentucky wisecracks and wisdoms, and rings very true to my uneducated ears.
‘You got anything to eat that costs less than a dollar?’ I asked the old guy behind the counter. . . .
‘Ketchup,’ the grey-hat cowboy said. ‘Earl serves up a mean bottle of ketchup, don’t you, Earl?’ He slid the ketchup bottle down the counter so hard it rammed my cup and spilled out probably five cents’ worth of coffee.
‘You think being busted is a joke?’ I asked him. I slid the bottle back and hit his beer mug dead centre, although it did not spill.
At first, I thought The Bean Trees was going to be a classic road trip novel with romance and redemption found along the way. Much of the early parts of the book are comic, with a range of different colourful and eccentric characters.
However, the story takes a darker tone when Taylor is given a mute and clinging child. It soon becomes clear the child has been badly abused, and Taylor finds herself a reluctant foster mother, struggling to support them both. The introduction of a pair of illegal Guatemalan refugees, Estevan and Esperanza, darkens the story even further. This juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy sits a little uneasily together, as if Barbara Kingsolver set out to write one kind of book then found herself writing something very different.
The crisis and resolution of the story also feels a little forced and unrealistic, as if the author could not see her way out of her plot tangle and so contrived a false adoption so that the little girl – named Turtle – could stay with Taylor. I am no expert on adoption laws, but it seemed highly illegal to me. Though I was so glad that the two weren’t separated, I was willing to forgive the implausibility.
The Bean Trees has such a big heart, I’m willing to forgive these minor flaws. And, yes, there is a hint of a very sweet, very sad unfulfilled romance along with the final redemption.