Truck drivers, legendarily, give reliable recommendations about restaurants. Librarians, famously, offer great advice about books. And even a decade ago, when Barbara Kingsolver was still largely unknown, librarians were excited about The Bean Trees, her first novel.
Ten years have only expanded the fan club for the Kentucky-born, Arizona-based Kingsolver: The Bean Trees can now rightfully be called a ”classic,” taught (to lucky students) in high schools, translated into Japanese, discussed in book groups, held dear by readers who love the heroine, Kentucky-raised, Arizona-based Taylor Greer, as one of the most memorable, strongest-minded, least predictable women in modern literature. Taylor is blessed with a great, similarly uninhibited Mama, who encourages her girl in all things (”no matter what I did, whatever I came home with, she acted like it was the moon I had just hung up in the sky and plugged in all the stars”), including getting the heck out of Kentucky, if that’s what it takes to make a life. While on the road, a stranger ”hands” Taylor a baby to keep, an Indian child she names Turtle. Touching down in Tucson, Ariz., Taylor and Turtle patch lives for themselves, finding richness, friends, and a form of family in the most hardscrabble of spots.
In the decade since The Bean Trees was first published, Kingsolver has expanded on her vision of motherhood, human connection, social justice, and the brilliant Arizona sky in Pigs in Heaven and the exquisite Animal Dreams. But by now we had come to expect — to rely — on the author’s understanding of the delicate balance involved in being a parent to a child, mate to a man, friend to a friend. Rereading The Bean Trees, now out in a pretty 10th-anniversary hardcover edition, is a chance to feel that jolt of discovery once more, the thrill that got all those librarians talking in the first place.