Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Bean Trees

The Bean Trees
The Bean Trees

I started reading another book, State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, which is a set of essays, one about each state. They're short enough to read more than one in a sitting, but I didn't want to. I wanted to separate them in time, and mull over each separately. So to break them up, I picked up The Bean Trees. I had read it in high school, and loved it. I wanted to know if it was as good as I remembered.

Often, my experience with a book depends on exterior circumstances, what's going on in my life at the time, where I read it, etc. I read The Bean Trees in 11th grade. That year, I read hardly any of the assigned books, because they were boring. Grapes of Wrath, The Crucible, The Jungle, Death of a Salesman, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby: I hated them all. And finally we were given a chance to read one of maybe 5 or 6 choices, and it was like salvation. Finally, a book written in English I could understand and relate to. Finally, a book where the plot is just as interesting as the symbolism, if I bothered to dissect it (I didn't). Barbara Kingsolver has since been one of my favorite authors.

The plot is this: To avoid getting pregnant, like most girls in her dead-end Kentucky town, Taylor heads west, intending to settle wherever her car breaks down. On the way, someone hands her an infant. They settle in Tucson and make friends with some interesting characters, including a couple of Guatemalan refugees (illegal aliens).

What I remembered most about the first time I read it is the rich writing. I felt like this book was full of little things that mean something, but I wasn't going to stop to mull it over. I had the same feeling on this reading, and sometimes wish I had an 11th grade discussion of the symbolism involved. (It would have been much more effective than with any of those books I didn't bother to read.) The cereus flower that blooms only at night, one night a year, and the blind woman notices it first, from the scent. The beautiful Guatemalan bird with the very long tail that dies if you try to cage it. The many vegetables, and the bean trees themselves, that thrive in poor soil with the help of rhizobia, a network of microbes that fix nitrogen. The symbolism is there, but it's not shoved in your face. It's a pleasant read, and I think were I to read it ten more times, I'd keep enjoying it, and keep finding more gems.

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