Book Review : What’s Bad in the World

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper & Row: $15.95; 240 pages)

Sure, you could say that there are a couple of places in “The Bean Trees” where the author hits you on the head with a plot point or two. You could be the kind of person to whisper snidely, “Isn’t the author just a little bit on the nose here, letting her lowly bean tree actually turn out to be the spectacular wisteria? And isn’t her metaphor about the invisible networking of unattractive root systems here just a little bit forced?” But if you were that kind of person there wouldn’t be much hope for you--you’d be a poor sort of persnickety noodle, good only for working on budget committees in orphanages that malnourish their charges--you’d be a regular creep.

Only a Dickensian villain could fail to like this book. “The Bean Trees” is so open, so upfront about what’s bad in the world, so matter of fact about what a mess we are in, that it leaves you open-mouthed and smiling.


Doesn’t Hang Back

This author, this Barbara Kingsolver, just doesn’t hang back: “What’s with everybody always trying to get rid of the Indians?” Kingsolver has her heroine, Taylor Greer, ask, rhetorically, almost at the end of this novel, and she drives a couple of Guatemalan refuges from Tucson, Ariz., over on into Oklahoma some place, so that they might once again begin to be marginally safe.

Kingsolver doesn’t start or stop with “What’s with everybody always trying to get rid of the Indians?” She’s also just about had it with child pornography, and wife beating, some school kids being a whole lot poorer than other school kids, the homeless, child molestation, and the overriding fact that the people who are supposed to be taking care of this stuff are all out somewhere, either getting indicted for this-or-that, or getting their pictures taken for the local society pages, or stashing away their ill-gotten gains in their numbered Swiss accounts. It doesn’t matter what the rich folks, the white folks, the “haves” in our society are doing--they’re not taking care of their responsibilities.

Invents a System

And so, Kingsolver makes up a system where the outcasts take care of each other, and themselves. Of course, “The Bean Trees” is fiction. But in its simple descriptions of what’s wrong in underclass America, and in its lovely conjuring up of how some people might get busy fixing things if they had a mind to, this novel goes beyond ordinary storytelling in its noble intent.

The plot creeps a bit, but who cares? Taylor Greer, raised by a mother who loved her dearly in the poor Kentucky South, gets up one day and goes, vowing to drive west until her car stopped.

Taylor has left partly because, where she’s grown up, the only sanctioned activity for poor girls is to have untold handfuls of children. Taylor wants no part of that, but out on a side road in a crummy bar, an American Indian woman hands Taylor a kid--a scarred, silent tot who has been cruelly molested. Taylor continues on to Tucson where soon she’ll fall in with a lovable worry wart named Lou Ann, deserted by her husband, who has a kid of her own. Taylor will also encounter the proprietor of Jesus Is Lord Tire Co., who shelters Central American deportees.

The author here is dealing with relationships so unrecognized or unseen in this society as to be almost invisible. (There are, for instance, two elderly women wandering through here as supporting characters--dismissed by the heroine, meant to be dismissed by the reader, as simply what they seem--two “old ladies,” one nice; one grumpy, but both of them of no “importance . . . ").

Kingsolver’s notion is that all these “unimportant” people, if they put their minds to it, might form a sort of counterculture, so that what is seen by the Establishment as unattractive, utilitarian at best, the bean trees of America, so to say, might somehow blossom and thrive. If all the women, all the children, all the old, all the brown and black people began to work together, to help each other out, well, America might become the regular wisteria world.

Again, it’s easy to dismiss the “thinking” as simplistic in this book. But often the best “thinking” serves only to delineate a particular problem and then to finesse the solution. “The Bean Trees” is the book of a visionary. John Steinbeck, Kenneth Patchen, Kate Seredy, would all be proud to be seen in Barbara Kingsolver’s company.