I have been under Barbara Kingsolver’s spell since I read The Poisonwood Bible a decade ago. I don’t quite know what it is she does: there is a quiet, clear gaze through which she narrates; an intelligent preoccupation with the nature that surrounds us; stories told from smaller places that still matter; a resonance to her preoccupations. She sees poetry in the world, and calmly, perfectly captures it. She feels steady, reliable, beautiful. The Bean Trees is her first novel, published in 1988, and it was fascinating to read where it all begun.
Taylor Greer is different to others in her small, poor Kentucky town. So far, she has already succeeded: she has finished school and avoided pregnancy. As soon as can afford her ’55 VW bomb, she leaves town heading west, driving until it feels right. By the time she arrives in Tucson she has picked up a new name and a speechless little Cherokee girl she calls Turtle. This forces Taylor to confront both motherhood and the necessity for putting down roots.
The premise is odd, and at first there is little there for me to relate to. But Taylor is spirited, funny, bold. It becomes a story about finding and defining home, vulnerability, and emerges into a quiet, sad, tale of love. I love the steady, peaceful pace of this book. As Taylor rolls on through the states, coming to terms with her incidental guardianship of Turtle, there is this dauntless clear-eyed narration. She is young, open-hearted, and raw.
This book has a rhythm of its own. After Taylor’s journey, a cadence of a new every day life establishes, and even through this the narration still sparkles through those same eyes as when travelling: a sharp perception, taking note of everything. There is a crystalline way of seeing things, of relishing moments.
“That was when we smelled the rain. It was so strong it seemed like more than just a smell. When we stretched out our hands we could practically feel it rising up from the ground. I don’t know how a person could ever describe that scent.”
In some ways, you can tell this is Kingsolver’s first book: it feels less established, less honed. But for me, it suits this story and these characters. Taylor is starting out a new life for herself, and with it the struck little Turtle. A slightly rougher, more naïve approach matches their approach to life, how they are finding their way.
There is a magic to this book, a light in Kingsolver’s narration, a brightness to her touch. The Bean Trees tells the beginning of Taylor’s story, and is the beginning of Kingsolver’s own as a writer, and it is clear-eyed, full-hearted, and it can’t lose.