Classic review: The Bean Trees

Barbara Kingsolver gives readers a character to believe in and laugh with and admire.

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    The Bean Trees
    By Barbara Kingsolver
    HarperCollins
    265 pp. $13.99
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[This review from the Monitor’s archives originally ran on April 22, 1988.] The Bean Trees, a refreshingly perceptive first novel, celebrates a young woman's coming of age in an unusual setting peopled by wonderfully outrageous characters. In a neatly constructed tale, Barbara Kingsolver gives readers something that's increasingly hard to find today - a character to believe in and laugh with and admire.

Taylor Greer jump-starts her elderly '55 Volkswagen bug one fine day and lurches out of the grinding poverty of Pittman County, Ky., bound for a better life somewhere out West. The VW makes it as far as Arizona, and Taylor figures that's as good a place as any to stop for repairs. In addition to four busted tires, she suddenly has a child to care for - an abused, catatonic Indian baby thrust into her arms at an Oklahoma stopover by a frightened Cherokee woman.

The challenges are formidable, but so are Taylor's resources. She lands a job fixing spares at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires and finds a housemate in Lou Ann Ruiz, another transplanted Kentuckian and single mother. Together, they reminisce about potato-chip casseroles and Coca-Cola cake at church potluck suppers back home and get on with the day-to-day trials of raising kids and bringing some focus to their own lives.

The scenario has a familiar ring, as does its independent and irreverent '80s heroine. But Kingsolver delivers enough original dialogue and wry one-liners to put this novel on a shelf of its own: Taylor disparages the traffic out West as ``moving about the speed of a government check'' and recalls that when she crossed into Rocky Mountain time, ``I had set my watch back two hours and got thrown into the future.''

That's not to say this is merely laugh-a-minute fluff, however. The tire-repair shop where Taylor works is also a safe house for Central American refugees, and as she gradually learns about the suffering some of her new-found friends have endured, she begins to make her own significant commitment to protecting their hard-won freedom. This is character development at its richest, with Taylor growing from happy-go-lucky hillbilly to caring friend and parent. When her daughter ``Turtle'' (nicknamed for her fierce grip) utters her first recognizable sound - a laugh - it is a moving moment.

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