Barbara Kingsolver wrote a book in 1988 called The Bean Trees. Thirty years ago. And it is this book that is resonating with me right now, today, all these years later. It is as relevant and pertinent today as it was when it was written. In fact it may be even more germane today as we face the global and national challenges of our world. I have been reminded of the book many times in recent months as I watched the news. Because, as one character in the book reminds us, we live in this world.
A good place to start in telling you about this novel (before I get too involved in a summary) is with the blurb from Harper Collins Publishers which describes the novel as:
Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, now widely regarded as a modern classic. It is the charming, engrossing tale of rural Kentucky native Taylor Greer, who only wants to get away from her roots and avoid getting pregnant. She succeeds, but inherits a 3-year-old native-American little girl named Turtle along the way, and together, from Oklahoma to Tucson, Arizona, half-Cherokee Taylor and her charge search for a new life in the West. Written with humor and pathos, this highly praised novel focuses on love and friendship, abandonment and belonging as Taylor, out of money and seemingly out of options, settles in dusty Tucson and begins working at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires while trying to make a life for herself and Turtle. (HarperCollins.com)
Reviews of the novel talked of its wry and “fast-moving humor,” its characters that “tug at the heart and soul,” and described it (in words seeming at odds with each other) as tough, tender, gritty, moving, guileless, refreshing, touching, humane, and as an “affirmation of risk-taking, commitment, and everyday miracles.” The humor and Taylor’s voice in the opening lines draw you into the novel from the first page. And then it is both that humor and the quirky, lovable, and heartbreaking characters that have you turning the pages unable to stop. The novel is thoroughly enjoyable, but it is also at times a disturbing sociological x-ray of the way people behave toward others. Especially to those less fortunate.
The story withinThe Bean Trees that has been echoing in my mind lately is a telling of the “How They Eat in Heaven” allegory. After suffering the verbal abuse directed at himself and his wife as well as the narrator’s little daughter by two, elderly neighbor ladies, Estevan tells a story to the little girl:
“Tortolita, let me tell you a story,” Estevan said. “This is a South American, wild Indian story about heaven and hell.” Mrs. Parsons made a prudish face, and Estevan went on. “If you go to visit hell, you will see a room like this kitchen. There is a pot of delicious stew on the table, with the most delicate aroma you can imagine. All around, people is, like us. Only they are dying of starvation. They are jabbering and jabbering,” he looked extra hard at Mrs. Parsons, “but they cannot get a bit of this wonderful stew God has made for them. Now, why is that?…
“…They are starving because they only have spoons with very long handles. As long as that.” He pointed to the mop, which I had forgotten to put away. “With these ridiculous, terrible spoons, the people in hell can reach into the pot but they cannot put the food in their mouths. Oh, how hungry they are! Oh, how they swear and curse each other!” he said, looking again at Virgie. He was enjoying this.
“Now,” he went on, “you can go and visit heaven. What? You see a room just like the first one, the same table, the same pot of stew, the same spoon as long as a sponge mop. But these people are all happy and fat…Perfectly, magnificently well-fed, and very happy. Why do you think?
“He pinched up a chunk of pineapple in his chopsticks, neat as you please, and reached all the way across the table to offer it to Turtle. She took it like a newborn bird.” (from The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, p.119-120)
It is the headlines in recent weeks regarding the treatment of families arriving at our border that had me thinking of this novel. When I see children being ripped away from their parents, the issue isn’t about politics. It isn’t about a specific law, who started the law or when it began. It is about human rights. It is about morality, humanity, and love for our fellow man. I don’t want to be involved in playing the blame game. I’d rather be about figuring out the way forward with as much compassion and empathy as possible. Both the news reports and this novel remind me of the passage in Matthew 25:44-45 that says, “‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’” (NLT)
But it isn’t just the separation of children from their families at the border weighing on us. It is the atrocities we see around the world and do nothing about. We tsk-tsk at hearing the news and wonder what the world is coming to. And then we go about our business. It seems so overwhelming that there isn’t much we could be doing about it. We’re just thankful not to be part of this. And just as she did in the passage above, Kingsolver again brings us up short with a reminder of our place in the world.
Estevan tells Taylor of the atrocities that he and his wife Esperanza faced in their native Guatemala. They had seen the torture and murder of friends and family members. Their daughter had been kidnapped in order to pressure the couple into giving names of people opposed to the government. This would inevitably lead to the torture and deaths of these people as well. Estevan recounts the horrific events matter-of-factly. Taylor’s reaction is beyond shock. She “felt numb” as if she had “taken some drug” when Estevan asked, “What would you do Taylor?”
It’s an important question for all of us. And as you contemplate what your response would be, look at the remainder of the conversation. Taylor responds, “I don’t know. I hate to say it, but I really don’t know. I can’t even begin to think about a world where people have to make choices like that.”
‘You live in that world,’ he said quietly, and I knew this, but I didn’t want to.” (153)
Later Taylor reflects on some of what she has witnessed, heard and experienced. Her dejection is a feeling that many people I know have also expressed today.
“There’s just so damn much ugliness. Everywhere you look, some big guy kicking some little person when they’re down — look what they do to those poor people at Mattie’s. To hell with them, people say, let them die, it was their fault for being poor or in trouble, or for not being white, or whatever, how dare they try to come to this country… But it just goes on and on, there’s no end to it.” I didn’t know how to explain the empty despair I felt… “How can I just be upset about Turtle, about a grown man hurting a baby, when the whole way of the world is to pick on people that can’t fight back?…What I’m saying is nobody feels sorry for anybody anymore, nobody even pretends they do. Not even the President. It’s like it’s become unpatriotic.” (191)
We live in this world. And like Taylor, part of us doesn’t want to know it. Most of us aren’t living the parts of it we see on the evening news. We aren’t the Islamic refugees trying to find a place to live where we won’t be tortured and killed. We aren’t the people fleeing from a war-torn country where life is made untenable due to danger, food shortages, and corruption. We aren’t living on the island of Puerto Rico wondering whether we will have electricity today and whether we will finally be able to rebuild our house as the next hurricane season looms large. We aren’t from families living in a neighborhood where people are routinely searched, harassed, and subjected to brutality for the color of their skin. We aren’t wondering where our next meal will come from and if it will come today or tomorrow or next Monday. We aren’t wondering if we will be able to pay the utilities and rent before we are homeless. We aren’t children going to school afraid of gunmen opening fire. We aren’t the law enforcement officers who are trying to help people only to be ambushed and attacked for the sins of others.
We cannot bury our heads in the sand. We need to feel for our neighbors – as Jesus defined our neighbors in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). Certainly, we as individuals cannot help everyone. But each of us can reach out and help those nearby, we can become part of the solution and not part of the problem, we can make a difference. If we do a little research and reading. And by that I mean actual learning rather than just reinforcing our own prejudices by watching news stations that pander to people’s biases…reading from across the spectrum to learn truth that cannot be found in any one source. Through this we can educate ourselves about what is going on, why it is happening, who is responsible, and who is already trying to help. We can then support those working for good through our words, actions, money, and time. Maybe you can’t give money, but you can write letters to those in power. Maybe you can’t add another commitment to your day, but you can speak or donate. Everyone can do something. We can’t just say “someone ought to do something.” We are someone.
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
- The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
- Sold by Patricia McCormick
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
- I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
- Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
- A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
- March (Books 1, 2, & 3) by John Lewis
- Night by Elie Wiesel
- The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream by Sampson Davis, George Jenkins, Rameck Hunt, and Lisa Frazier Page
- Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi
- Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall
- A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne
- The Generosity Factor by Kenneth H. Blanchard
- It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going! by Chelsea Clinton
- The Millennial’s Guide to Changing the World: A New Generation’s Handbook to Being Yourself and Living With Purpose by Alison Lea She
- Raising World Changers in a Changing World: How One Family Discovered the Beauty of Sacrifice and the Joy of Giving by Kristen Welch
- You Are Mighty: A Guide to Changing the World by Caroline Paul and Lauren Tamaki
- Your Next 24 Hours: One Day of Kindness Can Change Everything by Hal Donaldson and Kirk Noonan