The Bean Trees By Barbara Kingsolver

Year 2 of MFA. Critical Paper #3

I digress. I do. And, I like to. I have long loved writers who lead me through a story without predictability, who take tangents, who comment on and make connections to phenomena and ideas beyond the scene. I like to take a good metaphor and sit with it over coffee. So, when I began to follow the string of Barbara Kingsolver’s words through her novel The Bean Trees, my stomach growled. The beans on Mattie’s trees may be purple, but there is nothing purple about the prose in this book. Taylor is a straight-talking first person narrator who spends most of her words laying out the scene for us. Her comments are spare, but powerful, her comparisons modest and real. She describes the people in each scene vividly. All of this makes perfect sense. Taylor is strong, observant, and practical.
In this second draft of the novel I am working on now, one of my primary concerns is to expand each existing scene and to include more scenes, to create more space between commentary and digression, to make the scenes themselves more sustained, textured, and resonating.
The Bean Trees reads as a succession of scenes connected by a sentence or two here and there of the narrator’s commentary. I truly felt that the writer had stepped away from the text and let Taylor tell the tale. She doesn’t dwell or explain, she just says, oh that’s sort of funny or I thought that was dumb and moves on to the next scene. The readers are left to make significance or not of Taylor’s commentaries.
Here’s a short scene that involves most of the novel’s primary characters:
“Taylor, no! You mustn’t.” Lou Ann said.
“For heaven’s sake, Lou Ann. I’ve got on decent underwear.”
“No, what I mean is, you’re not supposed to go in for an hour after you eat. You’ll drown, both of you. It’s something about the food in your stomach that makes you sink.”
“I know I can depend on you, Lou Ann,” I said. “If we sink, you’ll pull us out. “ I held my nose and jumped in.
The water was so cold I couldn’t imagine why it hadn’t just stayed frozen up there on the snow-topped mountain. The two of us caught our breath and whooped and splashed the others until Lou Ann was threatening our lives. Mattie, more inclined to the direct approach, was throwing rocks the size of potatoes…
Estevan went from whooping to singing in Spanish, hamming it up in this amazing yodely voice. He dog-paddled over to Esperanza and rested his chin on the rock by her feet, still singing, his head moving up and down with the words. What kind of words, it was easy to guess: “My sweet nightingale, my rose, your eyes like the stars.” He was unbelievably handsome, with this smile that could crack your heart right down the middle.
But she was off on her own somewhere. From time to time she would gaze over to where the kids were asleep on the blue bedspread. And who could blame her, really? It was a sweet sight. With the cottonwood shade rippling over them they looked like a drawing from one of those old-fashioned children’s books that show babies in underwater scenes, blowing glassy bubbles and holding on to fishes’ tails. Dwayne Ray had on a huge white sailor hat and had nodded forward in his car seat, but Turtle’s mouth was open to the sky. Her hair was damp and plastered down in dark cords on her temples, showing more of her forehead than usual. Even from a distance I could see her eyes dancing around under eyelids as thin as white grape skins. Turtle always had desperate, active dreams. In sleep, it seemed, she was free to do all the things that during her waking life she could only watch. (94-95)
Notice the economic use of dialogue, the attention to character description, and the focus and attention on the setting. There is so much to be seen here beyond the scene. There is contrast between Taylor who wants to drink in freedom in large gulps and Lou Ann who is frozen by fear, and we see this as the two exist side by side in scene after scene. There is conflict in this contrast. How will these two continue to live together in peace? There is contrast between Estevan and Esperanza here and each time we see them. Estevan is content with the love they share. Esperanza is wanting something more. There is the presence of Turtle, who the reader just knows is going to come out of her shell one day (all based on physical description) and we are anxious to know who will emerge when she begins to talk, what might come of those “desperate, active dreams.”
Each detail in the scene is economical, has resonance beyond the scene. As I look back over the novel now, this is consistently true. Kingsolver has a clear thematic agenda in this book and it reads as awfully “political”on the issue of gender, but her writing is pure. She stays true to the story and its themes. Though I read the first half craving more literary antics, I did finish the book with some lessons from Taylor, who sees things, sees things quite clearly.


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