Shae's Shelves: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

A woman's journey, or headed west into motherhood.

Ever since reading The Grapes of Wrath in high school, I’ve dreamed of running away to Oklahoma. I imagined it as an empty, barren expanse of land, wide open, unpopulated. There I could be alone to just be, without having to hide in my bedroom or lock myself in the bathroom, which were my main ways of surviving living with my parents. I soon truncated the dream to simply running away, and first chance I got (that is, to go to college) I left Western PA.

But going to some place (first Brooklyn, then Roanoke, Va., and finally here in Tampa where I’ve been for nearly eight years) isn’t the same as running away from. Going to implies a predetermined destination; with running away the focus is on getting moving, watching things over your shoulder grow smaller. I think here of On the Road, the quintessential novel of journeys, of running away, which, yes, I also read in high school and which changed my life, in its own way, just as it did Dylan’s or Jim Morrison’s (by, I’d say, adding an extra layer of influence, that desire for a new path, but not necessarily carving one out). In my journals, frustrated, I’ve written, “Why is there no female Kerouac? Why is there no woman-led On the Road?” 

And then I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees. Comparing Kingsolver’s first novel to Kerouac’s most famous is sloppy at best, completely missing the mark at worst, but The Bean Trees’ protagonist Taylor (née Marietta) Greer, early on in the tale, buys a ‘55 VW Bug and, having to push-start the car with her foot, leaves her hometown of Pittman, KY with no plan other than to never return. In Pittman, young women’s lives are already written for them: Get pregnant, get married. Taylor wants more. She heads, as most do, west, and somewhere in Oklahoma (my Oklahoma), which she curses for its flat emptiness, her car breaks down. She gets it fixed, but before leaving, stops at a roadside greasy spoon, has a burger (all that she can afford) and in the parking lot, as she’s about to head off again, is given a child by a woman she had spotted in the diner.

The woman explains the child belonged to a dead sister and had no one who could take care of her. Without thinking, Taylor drives off with the child wrapped in a pink blanket in the shotgun seat. This is the beginning of her real journey, one that renders any comparison to On the Road invalid and one I’ve never yearned for: becoming a mother. The irony’s not lost on Taylor: She set out to avoid this fate, then she finds herself back on the road, again heading west, but this time with a mute, swaddled bundle next to her.

When her car breaks down again, this time in Tucson, Taylor decides to stay. In time she finds a home (renting a room in the house of Lou Ann Ruiz, another Kentucky escapee), a job (at Jesus-Is-Lord Used Tires, the spot where she stopped to get her car fixed) and a dedication to this new, unending journey (raising a child, who she dubbed Turtle).

There’s more to the story:Taylor’s boss at Jesus-Is-Lord takes in political refugees from Guatemala, one of whom Taylor falls in love with. She offers to take him, Estevan, and his wife, Esperanza, to a safer safe house in Oklahoma. Once there she aims to find some remnant of Turtle’s family so she can gain legal claim over the girl, a goal she quickly realizes is impossible. So with help from the couple posing as Turtle’s parents, Taylor finagles paperwork from a small courthouse and Turtle becomes hers, legally. Mother and daughter take to the road yet again, car pointed toward Tucson, where they now consider home.

A few of the reviews I’ve read of The Bean Trees highlight the concept of creating family — Taylor leaves her mother back in Pittman, and while she still talks to her on the phone, she’s basically alone. Until she’s given Turtle and ends up in Tucson, where  mother and daughter build an unlikely family with Lou Ann, her son Dwayne Ray, and other people in their small neighborhood. I, however, keep returning to this idea of the journey. So often the tendency is to draw the line between the genders in a facile, divisive tactic — women stay at home; men hit the road. But just as things like gender are mutable, so too is the definition of a journey. Building a family, becoming a parent, hitting the road—these are all journeys, aren’t they? I’d argue that helps to make Taylor Greer one of the ultimate journeyers. I bet Kerouac would be jealous.

So maybe a woman has never written On the Road, but she’s certainly written something different. And maybe she’s written something better. 

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