Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

This book, and its sequel, Pigs in Heaven, are far and away my favorite Barbara Kingsolver books. They tell the story of Taylor Greer, a simple and straightforward young lady from Kentucky who strikes out on her own with an old junky car and what little money she has to find her way in the world. Heading west across the U.S., she winds up encountering a little more adventure than she bargained for.

On her way through Oklahoma, Taylor is basically handed a little girl - she is of Cherokee descent, pretty much catatonic, and the woman who gives her to Taylor insinuates that she will be far better of away from there. Taylor calls her "Turtle" due to the strong, clinging grip the girl has. As they make their way further west, it is evident that Turtle has not had an easy life, but Taylor provides her with the first stability she's known in quite some time. They make it as far as Tucson, where her car finally gives up. Luckily, one of the first people she meets is Mattie, the proprietor of the tire shop where she takes her car.

Mattie is a nurturing, yet tough woman who takes Taylor and Turtle under her wing, eventually giving Taylor a job at the shop. Taylor moves in with another single mother, Lou Ann, and together they forge a unique family unit, taking each day as it comes. Through Mattie, who seems to have lots of different people staying with her at various times, Taylor meets Estevan and Esperanza, a married couple on the run from Guatemala, to whom she grows quite close.

Following a close call with Turtle, a social worker becomes involved with Taylor and Turtle, discovering that Taylor has no legal rights to Turtle. She points Taylor in the right direction to have this amended, and Taylor and Turtle set off for Oklahoma, bringing Estevan and Esperanza, who are headed for a safe house in the same area. Will they make it safely? Will Turtle be returned to her biological family? You'll have to read it to find out....

This is a heartwarming, if implausible, story of fighting against the odds, love and friendship. Published in 1988, a new paperback edition has just been released for those of us who may have missed this one the first time around. Interestingly, immigration is one of the subjects tackled by Kingsolver in this book, something that is as timely today as it was in the 80's. Taylor will have you cheering, for her strength, her vulnerability, and her ability to love. This is a wonderful story of underdogs and their fight for life, and I also heartily recommend the sequel, Pigs in Heaven for those who would like to continue Taylor and Turtle's story.

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