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May's Book
The Bean Trees
by Barbara Kingsolver

Bill:
Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, published in 1988, is a remarkable, enjoyable book. In it we meet Taylor and Turtle, Lou Ann and Mattie. It’s a Kentucky Southern novel that travels west to Arizona and takes root with striking images and fine, funny, inspiring dialogue—Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees. bookclub@ket starts now.

[Music]

Bill:
... Before she even decides to leave, she goes through a job or two and a relationship or two. Do you get some kind of an inkling of what kind of person she is?

Dava:
Well, she grew up pretty poor, from what we get from the novel. But she had a very loving mother, and she makes it clear at the beginning of the story that her mother thought she hung the moon. So she did grow up in a very, very nurturing environment. So you can understand how she would not be materialistic at all, and so, as far as being secure, that wouldn’t be one of her priorities. She was very naive, because she has always been brought up in an environment where essentially there was nothing to harm her. So I could understand how she would say, well, I’ll let the road take me wherever I go—because really, in her mind, she thinks the world is very benign at this time.

Jonathan:
Yeah. I mean, in one sense, it’s a novel about adventure and her desire for adventure. Like a lot of American novels, it’s a novel of the open road. It’s a novel about explorations, a novel about just saying goodbye to the past and going west, which is what she does. And I think I agree with you. She had a very happy-go-lucky disposition. And then at the moment when the Native American woman approaches her out of the burger joint with the baby and gives it to her, she doesn’t really have much time to say no, because by the time she wants to say no, the lights go off in the restaurant and the occupants drive away and the lady disappears. For a while she is going to drive but she doesn’t know if she is going to keep it. She’s driving and we’re following her thoughts, and she says, what should I do with it? I mean, there are things she could have done. She could have taken it to the hospital. But it’s characteristic of her that she holds on to it for a while and lets fate make up her mind for her. And then, of course, once she sees that the child has been sexually abused, then she feels very protective towards it.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
When she sees how much it has suffered, she then feels she has a bond with it, and she wants to protect it. And I think that is one of the themes of the novel: this desire of hers to protect the child and to what extent you can protect the child from the world. I think that’s one of the themes that comes up.

Bill:
Do you think she knew that early on, about what had happened to Turtle?

Wilma:
Well, she ... that night ...

Bill:
She suspected something, of course.

Wilma:
Yeah, her first night. It was very obvious when she gave Turtle a bath the first night that Turtle was with her that she had not only been beaten but sexually abused. So she didn’t have to know the details to know the overall picture of what had happened to Turtle. And I think that at that point it would have been very difficult for her to have given her up.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Bill:
[There are a] couple of name changes that I think are quirky in the novel, but interesting, too. We talked about Marietta leaving Kentucky, and then she becomes Taylor.

Wilma:
And she’s been missing before that.

Bill:
And she was missing.

Wilma:
Actually, almost everyone in the novel has at least two names, and some people, like Estevan and Esperanza, have three names. And that is part of the theme of the novel—of something being hidden, something under the surface. We have so many different types of names for each person, and then also even for the cat. The cat has two names.

[Everyone agrees]

Wilma:
The [cat] that Lou Ann has. And that’s one of the basic themes of the novel: what is lying underneath, what’s the truth underneath. So we have people hiding; we have people escaping; we even have the themes of burying the seed so that the seeds will grow into something else. So we have a lot of hidden things in the novel, including the main changes which I thought were very interesting and very important in the novel. Actually the people hardly know who they are.

Gabrielle:
Right, right.

Wilma:
They have so many identities, and that’s part of the big theme.

Dava:
Well, a lot of the book is so fun, because it is a voyage of such self-discovery—a lot for Taylor, of course. Then there’s Lou Ann, who has absolutely no self-esteem at the beginning of the book. Her husband leaves her, and she’s almost like Taylor. She’s like, well, I’ll just do whatever comes next. And it’s so amazing to see all these people develop a strong character.

Wilma:
There is only one person, really ... It’s interesting that this is, as Jonathan said, a novel of the road, because truly Taylor doesn’t know where she’s going. It’s a novel of the road, but she has no direction. She thinks she is going somewhere. She’s on the road; she’s physically moving forward. But there are so many things stopping her. She can’t move forward emotionally in the first part of the novel at all, nor can Lou Ann. There are so many things she’s so careful about. She’s not moving forward either, even though you know she is trying to figure out how to be a good mother and so on. Mattie, on the other hand, is ... She’s not going anywhere, and yet she has the most direction of anybody in the book. She knows exactly where her life is and exactly the importance of what she’s doing for other people. So I think that that’s a really good point that you are making, Dava, about Lou Ann not having much direction herself. Many of the characters are stumped that way.

Bill:
She certainly is the more passive of the two, and the least active and that sort of thing, until later in the book, when she finally sort of finds her way and becomes much stronger. But I think it’s also very interesting the way this cast of characters meet up together, when Taylor ends up at Mattie’s just because that’s where she had two flat tires ...

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
... in her Volkswagen bug. And Lou Ann lived right across the street from there. There is a period of time where Taylor is on her own for a while; she takes some jobs here and there. I think at that point you really begin to see a lot of things develop. Lou Ann is still pretty much ... although she’s not in the background, her character, her personality has yet to really blossom. It takes her a while to sort of take off.

Let’s talk about Turtle’s language. I think it was pointed out that she really didn’t speak at all because of this brutal nature of the way that she had come to Taylor in the first place. I don’t think she spoke until maybe the seventh chapter, and then—somebody tell me.

Wilma:
Bean, beans.

Bill:
She started talking about vegetables.

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
And she started using beans. Is that symbolic of any other theme of the novel, or is that just a sort of humorous [aside] or an oddity that Kingsolver brings in?

Wilma:
Well, there is one of the themes. Go back to Mattie, because she’s kind of the focal point of all of it. She kind of has it all together; she’s kind of the earth mother, and she has this wonderful garden out back. And that’s one reason that Turtle is so interested in vegetables: because she’s exposed to them. But this is the entire life cycle in Mattie’s back yard. So we have things growing from seeds and maturing. Then we even have the death, of course, of various vegetables with the frost and so on. But yes, it is important; it’s not just a happenstance. It’s kind of funny that she’s interested in vegetables. I think that is a very interesting point. I mean, it’s funny in just the basic plot, but the very idea that fruits and vegetables are things she’s most interested in, and they are the most basic parts of life—I think you have to look at that as a life cycle and a growth.

Dava:
And it’s all about burying, like you said—burying seed to make it grow into something fruitful.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Dava:
That is Turtle’s whole language. That’s all she talks—fruit and vegetables. She calls her cars carrots and a fire engine a tomato. But also, when a social worker starts coming in contact with Turtle, she is very concerned because she always buries her doll under things. Taylor thinks it’s because she wants to grow little dollies, but then we learn later that it’s actually because Turtle had seen her own mother buried when she was very small. And you got that part of the story when they are in a park and Turtle buries the dollie, and Taylor just says she leaves it there.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Dava:
But everybody buried something there. And it’s about burying a seed of some sort, a spiritual seed—maybe something that has been ... maybe some baggage—and then having something beautiful grow out of it. You know, moving on. So Turtle does, Taylor does, Esperanza, Estevan ...

Bill:
I want to remind all of you that on our bookclub web site there is a lot of information and some background, some theory and some themes discussed, and it’s a good place to go for information for everyone.

We have talked about some of the female characters, and we’ve mentioned Estevan. What about the male characters? Is there an attempt to, to downplay or cast some less importance to the male characters than the female characters, who are definitely the stronger characters in the novel?

Jonathan:
Yeah, well, in one sense it’s a book about travel and it’s a book about trying to find a home, but it’s also a book about friendship, despite the fact [that] there is the terror of the Guatemalan police somewhere on the distant horizon, which is the reason why Estevan and Esperanza are seeking refuge in the United States. And then there is the terror of the abuse, of the child abuse that took place in the background. But it’s a very warm book; it’s a very friendly book. I mean, it’s a book about conversations with people who are very warm to each other and open their hearts to each other. And so perhaps it just so happens that most of her close friends are women—Mattie, Lou Ann—and the men are less prominent. Perhaps the most important man for the narrator is Estevan. Now I would like to know your views, because I was surprised. Estevan and Esperanza, a couple, are traveling with Taylor, and she is trying to find a safe home in Oklahoma to keep them protected from the immigration authorities, and then all of a sudden, out of the blue, we learn that she is in love with Estevan. I guess there were a few hints of her fondness for him prior to that, but it came rather suddenly, I thought.

Dava:
I knew she was in love with him.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
I think it was talked about, and Gabrielle, I’m sure, will back me up on this one. But it was talked about before, especially when Esperanza had attempted suicide, and she and Estevan were together at Lou Ann’s house at night, and she was saying her heart was thumping because he was so close to her. But I know what you are saying. It seemed abrupt to me, too. It didn’t seem to me that it was fully developed enough for her to have felt this great loss. I mean, she did say when she first saw him how attractive he was, but a person can find another person very attractive without having this deep love.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Wilma:
Is that the type of thing you saw, Gabrielle?

Gabrielle:
I think because he was caring in nature and was in conversations, in deep conversations, and was very nurturing because his wife was not in the best state of mind ... She had lost her daughter, so I think because he was in the nurturing mode, it was very easy for Taylor to be able to communicate with him.

Wilma:
But if there is a weakness—maybe that wasn’t developed well enough. It surprised the reader. I think that’s what it was.

Jonathan:
Maybe it’s another example of what you described as buried feelings.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
You know, she had these feelings, but she never had the opportunity really to express them because she felt it was kind of—not illicit, but they were very inconvenient feelings, because he was with Esperanza.

Bill:
I want to hear Dava on this because I think I’m going to agree with her a little bit more.

Dava:
One of the lines I thought was so hilarious in the book was Taylor complaining about men, and Lou Ann said, “Taylor, you act like the only reason men were put on earth is so urinals won’t go to waste.” And that seemed to be how Taylor felt. But then Taylor says, “Well, Estevan is a nice guy.” I think Taylor had grown up thinking that men run away from their responsibilities. That’s what her father did.

Bill:
Her father did that. Angel had done that.

Dava:
Yeah. So to her, to find a man who stuck by his wife through thick and thin, as Estevan had ... Esperanza had tried to kill herself various times—I’m not sure what number it was in the book—but to have a man who stuck by his wife, who was so caring about her, what she thought, how her emotional state [was], which is rare for the characters in this book. She thought he was the best, and I was not surprised at all.

Bill:
I sort of saw the fondness growing also. It didn’t surprise me that much, but that’s why we read and have different opinions about things.

We have talked about him and other male characters. Lou Ann’s husband leaves her and then makes some attempt to come back later, but by that time she has gotten her back up about that and stands up to him. I think it’s his mother who finally says to her, he was just trying to get your money.

Jonathan:
No, the mother said he always wants what he can’t have.

Bill:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
And if he’s in Montana and he wants you to join him, then as soon as you get there, he’ll not want you anymore.

Bill:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
Yeah. The women are the strong characters and the warmest characters here.

Bill:
Well, I think the male characters are somewhat less important, too, because of the strength of the female characters. I mean, when she left Kentucky, you knew that she was principled, and she was already fair and very strong-minded, and she carried that all the way through. When she took the second journey with Esperanza and Estevan, did she have the same sort of zeal and strength that she had in the beginning of the novel?

Wilma:
It was a different type.

Dava:
I don’t know if she could. I mean, at the beginning of the novel she had no cares in the world, really, and she never had to face any great decision or great hardship. Now she is going to Oklahoma, presumably to find the parents of this abandoned child. She’s not sure whether or not she is qualified enough to be her parent. She’s not sure whether she’s going to find these people. She’s not sure if she’s going to get caught by immigration. For once, you know, she is faced with something more than just getting food on the table and getting clothes on her back. It’s so big.

Wilma:
And it’s the way she changes. It’s the first time ... She has been moving what she thinks is forward the entire time. This is the only time she is actually moving forward, and she is actually going back. She knows exactly where she is going and what for this time. It’s not this aimless wandering that Taylor was doing at the beginning. So she’s changed. That’s how she’s changed in the novel, and that’s where we see that she’s changed. She is still on the road; she is still traveling; but she has a definite purpose this time, not just getting away.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Wilma:
She knows exactly where she is going and what she wants to happen there. So certainly she’s much stronger at the end. You know, she looks headstrong at the beginning, but she has no direction. So therefore, she’s not that strong of a character.

Jonathan:
That’s why it’s just ... At the beginning it’s just going away for the sake of freedom ...

Wilma:
Right.

Jonathan:
... and for the sake of, perhaps, escaping from the inevitable fate of a young woman in Kentucky. And therefore it’s much more of a quest, and there is a lot of danger attached because she is in danger of losing everything. She’s in danger of losing her child if she meets the biological parents, or one of the parents, who might claim her back.

[Everyone agrees]

Jonathan:
And she’s also in danger of losing Estevan and Esperanza if the immigration authorities catch them. She’s also in danger of getting a heavy fine or jail for being accessory to helping refugees seek asylum. So it’s quite a dangerous mission ...

Wilma:
Actually ...

Jonathan:
... although I think that we don’t actually witness much danger. You know, she gets to the place where she found the baby and it’s all changed, and it’s under new ownership, and there is nothing sinister there at all. And she might have done more with that, actually.

Wilma:
But she takes the risk. It’s the first time she has taken the risk.

Jonathan:
Oh, she does, yeah. Yeah. She takes the risk.

Wilma:
Even if there is not actual danger when she gets there, she takes the risks, and don’t you think that’s the important thing?

Jonathan:
Yeah. It’s to do with the strength she discovers in herself and the courage that she finds there, so ...

Gabrielle:
And it’s ironic, because it’s Lou Ann that kind of pushes her and ...

[Everyone laughs]

Gabrielle:
... says, why don’t you take care of Turtle? You need to do this. And all of a sudden it seems like something clicks, and she gets a very strong purpose and focus.

Bill:
I think, too, that you find out at that point, when she leaves for this journey, how close she and Lou Ann have become.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Bill:
They had their problems when they were roommates and raising children together, and there were times when Taylor questioned everything about Lou Ann, but they become fond of each other.

Wilma:
They become a family.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
And that’s, I think, one of the strong themes of the book. The question, the big question, is, what is family? There is not one traditional family in this book—if you are thinking mother, father, two children, and a dog—not one traditional family, and yet we see many families, many loving families. But it’s different combinations of people. The funny thing is, and the ironic thing, the only family in the book is that paper-doll family that Taylor has. She has a child; there was a mother and a father and two children, but they were paper dolls. And so there is no other family in the book of that sort. And yet, of course, there are very close ties. Even Lou Ann finds that Angel’s family is her family. Her estranged husband’s family is her family.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Wilma:
And certainly Lou Ann and Taylor with their children have made a family. So I think that’s part of the way that Lou Ann and Taylor have become close, even though at one time Taylor says, I don’t want us to be Ozzie and Harriet. I don’t want to come in and you have food on the table, and she said I don’t want to be that kind of family.

Bill:
Pretty clever the way Barbara Kingsolver tied in the family theme—which, I think, if there is a dominant theme, certainly that has to be close to the top, if not the dominant theme. The way she ties in the title of the book, Barbara Kingsolver’s true life—her real life as a writer, as a scientific writer, as a biologist—her degree in biology from DePauw University, and the theme of family that she puts in with the “bean trees” and mentioning wisteria, and the way the beans grow in the pods and all of that, and the way she ... She concludes by saying on page 227—you have to wait ’til the whole novel before this sort of reveals itself—

[Reads]

“‘It’s like this,’ I told Turtle. ‘There’s a whole invisible system for helping out the plant that you’d never guess was there.’ I loved this idea. ‘It’s just the same as with people. The way Edna has Virgie, and Virgie has Edna, and Sandi has Kid Central Station, and everybody has Mattie. And on and on.’

“The wisteria vines on their own would just barely get by, is how I explained it to Turtle, but put them together with rhizobia and they make miracles.”

So in just a few sentences there I think she really puts that together.

Wilma:
Also on the title of The Bean Trees, that’s part of it, too. Turtle has decided that the wisteria vine is a bean tree because she sees the pods hanging and she interprets that as a bean tree, even though no one else has seen that. And I think that is one of the big themes of the novel: We all interpret things differently. And it’s part of the hidden theme of the novel, too: that both of us can see something [different] and still see something positive.

Gabrielle:
And just from our conversation now, I see that I have to go back and read some more, because there are some things that you are interpreting and little subtleties that I didn’t pick up when I read it the first time.

Bill:
It all works. I mentioned a minute ago the web site, www.ket.org, and you go to the bookclub, and this is what she said about writing. This is what Kingsolver said about “poetic writing,” as she styled it:

“Kentucky has in common with the rest of the South that captivation with language, that use of story in everyday life. You don’t just say someone’s ugly. You say she’s ugly as a mud stick fence. I grew up hearing that poetry that I didn’t even recognize as poetry. I thought it was just the way you talked to people. When I moved to Arizona, I found myself trying to write stories set in Arizona, but they always ended up back in Kentucky or some reasonable facsimile like West Virginia. And I didn’t know why that was, and I found it very frustrating. The Bean Trees finally began to work when I imported characters from Kentucky and put them in Tucson.”

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
So you can see you travel with the novel from Kentucky to Arizona. But the writing, Jonathan, as poetic writing—it just, to me, flows. It’s so readable. It almost has a language and music of its own. Don’t you think it’s very easy, but it’s very deep at the same time?

Jonathan:
Yeah, well, one of the reasons it’s such an enjoyable book is the accessibility of the narrative voice. You know, she’s at times very chatty. It’s very amiable; it’s very warm; it’s very spontaneous. At times it sounded like a kind of Catcher in the Rye with a heart.

[Everyone laughs]

Jonathan:
First-person narration, telling the story with all sorts of slang thrown in ... but a very compassionate novel and a very compassionate narrator, I think. But on the question of planting and so on, I think in a sense all the characters are transplants from another place, and the beans were transplanted, weren’t they, from China?

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
They were brought from China in 1907, and they grew there. And so it’s a very fitting symbol for anybody who’s a transplant, who goes from one place to another, perhaps.

Dava:
It’s a symbol for something growing out of, presumably, what looks like nothing. They are in a very hot and arid climate of Arizona, yet there is this beautiful garden. There are these people thriving. And these people who seem to have nothing to begin with, now they have each other, which is a whole lot.

Wilma:
I like the way she often tied in nature as a symbol or a parallel to what was going on with the people’s lives. The toad—I mean there were so many, but one that just came to mind in the desert—the toad that had been waiting, the dormant toads that had been waiting for the water ...

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Wilma:
... to come, so that they could come up and mate and lay their eggs in the puddles and then presumably die after that. There were so many parallels about what was happening in nature along through this, and I think that helps make the writing very good, too.

Bill:
And humorous at times, too. Has anybody got a particular place?

Gabrielle:
I think the tire blowing up at the very opening of the book ...

[Everyone agrees]

Gabrielle:
... and her fear of that.

Bill:
Very first sentence, isn’t it?

Gabrielle:
Yeah. And you chuckle, but then you think, personally, am I fearful of situations that when you look at them again they are not as daunting?

Wilma:
I think the tire is a good symbol, too, because she’s traveling, but she’s afraid of tires. I mean, that’s very important. She’s afraid of something that’s going to make her go forward.

Bill:
So one of the big reasons we are choosing to read The Bean Trees is to go along with our project What If All Kentucky Reads the Same Book? [featuring] The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. And that all leads up to our May 31 [2001] live interview and program, which you are a big part of on May 31—here at KET and broadcast live across the state. Are you hearing a lot about it?

Gabrielle:
Yeah, I am excited. The Lexington Public Library is doing some stuff. There are book clubs all over that have adopted the book, and I think we are going to have a great turnout.

Bill:
Some of you are going to make appearances.

Wilma:
I have been asked, yes—an important appearance. Truly, I mean I am very excited about it. Centre College wants to have a discussion for the people of Danville and the Centre College students, and they have asked me to lead that discussion, which I think is going to be fun.

Dava:
It is just going to be great to have her here live and be able to ask her our questions that we have about her writing and specifically The Bean Trees. It’s going to be a good time.

Jonathan:
How long did it take her? Did she have many drafts prior to the final draft? [Whether] she wrote the chapters separately ...

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