Barbara Kingsolver

"The Bean Trees"

(Reviewed by Pat Neuman JUN 4, 2006)

“I was in hog heaven to be on the road again.  In Arizona.  My eyes had started to hurt in Oklahoma from all that flat land.  I swear this is true.  It felt like you were having to look too far to see the horizon.

… By the time we were in sight of Tucson it became clear what those goofy pink clouds were full of hail.  Within five minutes the car was covered in ice inside and out, and there was no driving on that stuff.  The traffic was moving about the speed of a government check.”

As a child, Marietta Greer chose to be called “Missy.” Her single mother had named her after a town where she was conceived and so it makes sense for her to re-name herself by one of the first towns that she comes to in her escape from the poverty and hopelessness of Pittman, Kentucky. Thus she becomes Taylor Greer. Her plan was to take her life savings and go as far west as her broken-down ’55 VW bug would take her.

Along the way, she makes a stop at a diner in the middle of a desolate part of Oklahoma and when she comes out to her car, there is an Indian woman who places a small child on her front seat, telling her that no one wants or can care for it. In spite of having spent her entire adolescence trying to avoid the trap of unwanted parenthood, Taylor takes the child and drives on until she comes to a motel where she can unwrap and bathe the baby, which she discovers is a little girl. The child is preternaturally quiet (in fact, catatonic, due to abuse) and all she can do is grab onto Taylor and not let go. So Taylor starts calling her “Turtle” because she latches on like a snapping turtle

The only thing that Taylor is afraid of is exploding tires, so when she runs out of money with 2 flat tires in Tucson, Arizona, - naturally she ends up working at the “Jesus.Is.Lord.Used.Tires" store.

This is a story told simply in the first person with an authentic southern voice you will want to savor (without all the annoying phonetic spellings). Taylor is charmingly unaware of her strengths and takes for granted her streak of hard-scrabble common sense. Having never been a mother, let alone a single mother, she nevertheless quickly adjusts to the role. She learns as she goes: such things as taking advantage of the 2 hours of free childcare offered at the local mall while she is working, although it is intended for shoppers; and when Turtle’s first words are names of vegetables, Taylor cheerfully begins reading her seed catalogues instead of bedtime stories.

“I’m just a plain hillbilly from East Jesus Nowhere with this adopted child that everybody keeps on telling me is dumb as a box of rocks.”

She builds a life with a colorful group of friends: her roommate, Lou Ann Ruiz, also from Kentucky and newly divorced from her rodeo-rider husband, and her infant son, Dwayne Ray; Mattie, her boss and owner of the tire store (whose garden introduces the meaning of the title.) Mattie is also a strong advocate for an underground railroad for illegal Salvadorans who are escaping certain persecution or death at home. Through Mattie, Taylor also befriends two such refugees: Estevan, a former school teacher and his wife, Esperanza, who will play a pivotal role in Turtle’s future.

As Taylor immerses in her new life and nurtures her informally-adopted daughter, reality intervenes and she must find a way to make Turtle’s status secure. This ultimately involves going back to Oklahoma and trying to trace the woman who thrust the little girl into her life. Along the way, she learns much about the meaning of community and belonging.

As Kingsolver says about The Bean Trees: "I always think of a first novel as something like this big old purse you've been carrying around your whole life, throwing in ideas, characters, and all the things that have ever struck you as terribly important. One day, for whatever reason, you just have to dump that big purse out and there lies this pile of junk. You start picking through it, and assembling it into what you hope will be a statement of your life's great themes. That's how it was for me. It probably wasn't until midway through the writing that I had a grasp of the central question: What are the many ways, sometimes hidden and underground ways, that people help themselves and each other survive hard times?"

It is most impressive to realize that this was Kingsolver’s first novel and yet everything about it is so right. The voices are most appealing and authentic, the character development is illuminated, the pacing of the story keeps you racing along with it, and most of all, the humanity, humor, gentle wisdom, and good-heartedness are touching and inspiring. You will definitely want to know more about what happens to these delightful characters and will want to read the sequel Pigs in Heaven.

  • Amazon reader rating: from 564 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Bean Trees

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"Pigs in Heaven "

(Reviewed by Pat Neuman MAY 31, 2006)

“They’re gone, aren’t they?” Annawake finally asks.


“How gone?”

Jax ponders the question.  “She packed all Turtle’s clothes.  All of her books.  She picked about 200 green apricots and laid them out on the shelf behind the backseat hoping they’d ripen.  When they pulled out of here, they looked like the Joads.”

Annawake has to think awhile to place the Joads, and then remembers “The Grapes of Wrath,” from high school.  White people fleeing the dust bowl of Oklahoma, ending up as fruit pickers in California.  They think they had it bad.  The Cherokees got marched out of their homelands and INTO Oklahoma.

Nominally a sequel, this novel more broadly develops some of the colorful characters first introduced in The Bean Trees and expands and continues their stories.  When Taylor Greer takes her adopted native American daughter, Turtle, on a vacation to visit the Hoover Damn, the little girl is apparently the only one who witnesses a young man slipping over the side of the spill way.  Although no one wants to take the word of a six year old child, Taylor adamantly defends her story even though she did not witness the event herself.  Ultimately, this leads to the rescue of a young retarded man and their invitation to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show about children who are heroes. 

Unfortunately, Annawake Fourkiller, a new attorney for the Cherokee Nation, happens to catch the show and instantly recognizes that Turtle is of Cherokee descent.  Pursuing the story, she checks the facts of the information available from that interview and expresses doubts about the legality of Turtle’s adoption because of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

The next week, Annawake is attending a conference in Tucson and visits Taylor to ask some questions.  Things do not go well, and after she leaves, Taylor packs her meager belongings and flees with Turtle, leaving behind her live-in boyfriend, Jax, to deal with Annawake when she returns.  Annawake talks to him frankly about what is necessary for continuation of the Cherokee culture and the benefits of being a member of a tribe:  “Its hard for someone outside our culture to understand, I guess... There are ways of letting  [Turtle] know about who she is.  My position is essentially neutral.  I have information that Taylor could use.”

“Neutral snootral.  You know that thing they say about getting between a mother bear and her cub?  Annie dear, YOU might think you’re just out picking blueberries, but that is highly irrelevant to Mama Bear.”

Sympathetically told from both points of view, the issue of the adoption of Indian children by white families is a thorny one.  While it seems heartless to separate a child from the only home and family she has ever known, there are just causes to consider doing so.  No one outside of the Cherokee nation seems to be aware that through forced adoption, they have lost nearly one quarter of their children.  This is having a profound impact on the cultural degradation of their society.  At the same time, there is a terrible price being paid by the Indian children who have been adopted by white families.  Consistently, they seem to hit an insurmountable obstacle about the time that they reach puberty.  That is the time that the differences of their “Indian ness” become more apparent and arouses other people’s prejudices.

On the run with no place to go, Taylor and Turtle are shortly joined by Taylor’s mother, Alice, and they end up in Portland, Oregon.  Alice soon decides it would be best if she were to go to Heaven, Oklahoma to visit a long-lost cousin who is a member of the Cherokee Nation to see what help she can solicit. While there, she meets with Annawake Fourkiller and learns that things are more complicated and serious than they knew.  As Annawake explains to Alice: “We've been through a holocaust as devastating as what happened to the Jews, and we need to keep what's left of our family together.”  While continuing to seek a solution and staying with her cousin, Alice is both charmed and drawn into their lives – even unknowingly set up for a possible relationship with Turtle’s newly-returned maternal grandfather.

Kingsolver’s sketches of life on the reservation are warm, simple and sympathetic.  There are a lot of insights into the character of these people and their relationships, culture, beliefs, and way of life.  Also, there is the poignant Native American history and how they have come to be in the situation that they are today.  Their love of extended family and their way of life is expressed in ways that seem somewhat foreign to Alice, although it turns out that she is technically 1/8th Cherokee herself.  But, like most of us, she was raised in and only knew a totally different world.

Meanwhile, Taylor is struggling desperately to keep a roof over their heads and work full time without the benefit of any childcare, respite or help.  She is gradually losing the battle of financial viability and is growing more alarmed at the decline in her ability to provide for the well-being of her daughter. Taylor’s self-perception is rocked to its core because she had always been confident that she was capable of doing whatever was required of her.  But it seems now that in spite of trying her hardest, there is nowhere that she can turn.  This is a lovingly told story of the plight of a single mother, fighting valiantly to maintain a precarious existence while trying to not lose hope in the face of numbingly discouraging circumstances. She comes to realize that things can only deteriorate so far and a responsible mother will have to bravely set aside her own instincts in consideration of the welfare of her child – no matter what the price.  So, finally, in a telephone call to Alice, she is convinced to bring Turtle to the Cherokee Nation, where Turtle’s future will be decided.

Because of her own Southern roots and having also lived in the southwest, many people think that Kingsolver’s work is autobiographical, but she maintains that it is not. Obviously, she has a good ear for these authentic voices and a good heart for finding the best in people, without ever being “preachy” or heavy-handed.  There is a lot of gentle wisdom and strength in what she has to say and it is a joy to read her work.

  • Amazon reader rating: from 224 reviews


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About the Author:

Barbra KingsolverBarbara Kingsolver was born in 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland but grew up in rural Kentucky where most people earned a subsistence-level income through farming and depended heavily upon their neighbors to get through life. By the time she entered Nicholas County High School, she was already writing poetry and short stories. In 1973, she enrolled at DePauw University (Indiana) intending to study instrumental music, but eventually changing her major to biology. She also took one creative writing course and was active in the last anti-Vietnam War protest. During her time at DePauw she launched an effort to eradicate her rural Kentucky accent and to eliminate from her speech expressions peculiar to her native region, both of which, she told an interviewer sometimes made her an object of ridicule. Years later, she has said, she realized that such language was "a precious and valuable thing," and she "tried to recapture it" in the voices of some of her fictional characters.

After graduating in 1977, she lived and worked in a widely scattered places. She spent time living in various parts of Europe and across the United States, supporting herself with a diverse array of jobs. Some of Barbara's work experience includes employment as an archaeologist, typesetter, x-ray technician, copy editor, biological researcher and translator of technical medical documents.  She ended up receiving a M.S. from the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1981 where she studied biology and ecology. After graduate school, a position as a science fiction writer for the University of Arizona led her into writing for journals and newspapers. In 1986 she won an Arizona Press Club for outstanding feature writing.

In 1985 Kingsolver married her first husband. While pregnant and suffering from insomnia she started The Bean Trees. When published The Bean Trees was enthusiastically accepted and won the American Library Association Notable Book, New York Times Notable Book and was nominated for an ABBY, as has the majority of her books published since then. In 1995, she was awarded the Honorary Doctorate of Letters from De Pauw University.

She is now a full-time writer and as an activist she is very committed to the issues of human rights, social responsibility and the environment. Her articles appear in publications as varied as The Progressive, The Sonoran Review and Smithsonian.

Barbara currently lives in home built in the Tucson Mountains with her husband, Steven Hopp and two daughters: Camille from her first marriage and Lily, born in 1996. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014