The Bean Trees was Barbara Kingsolver’s first book, published in 1988. For years, Kingsolver has been my favorite author, but I had never read this book until now. It feels as though fate brought me to this book in such a time, not only in my life, but all of our lives. The messages displayed in this book are more important than ever. Reading it, I feel as if Kingsolver saw ahead into the future with everything happening politically and socially, and wrote this book as if to say, it’s okay. It will all be okay.
Set in the 1980’s, protagonist Taylor Greer leaves her home in small-town Kentucky, and sets out for a new life in an old Volkswagen Beetle, which finally breaks down in Tucson, Arizona. Along the way, Taylor suddenly finds herself a new mother of an abandoned Native American baby, which she calls Turtle. Once Taylor and Turtle settle in Tucson, they find themselves in the midst of political and personal crises. As she struggles to find a way for herself, Taylor finds herself befriending a Guatemalan couple, Estephen and Esperanza. The book highlights the struggle and danger the couples have had to face in their native country, and the dangers that still plague them living illegally in the United States.
Fleeing from a corrupt government, where their young daughter was taken from them as a political fugitive, Estephen and Esperanza are left at the mercy of their friends, moving from safe house to safe house, and never feeling quite at home. Even in an area where non-white people are the majority, especially near the Cherokee tribal lands the main characters find themselves in, Estephen and Esperanza are singled out and profiled. At one point in the story, they are able to blend in to the crowds because, as Estephen puts it, white people cannot tell the difference between non-white people.
By the end of the book, Taylor aids the couple in crossing the Arizona border into Wisconsin, after ICE begins to crack down on the immigrant community. It is unclear at the end what becomes of Estephen and Esperanza, after they are left at another safe-house, doomed, it seems, to live out their lives never again feeling at home, or even welcome, anywhere.
While the book addresses themes of parenthood, growth, and freedom, it also leans heavily towards political ideas. The book targets the plights of illegal immigrants, and the discrimination they endure once they arrive in the United States, a land, supposedly meant for all peoples. One of the most overlooked, yet vital, facts in this book comes with the main character, a young girl who spent her whole life in rural-born Kentucky, where teen pregnancy and racism ran rampant. Though she grew up this way, as many people continue to do even today, Taylor is aware from a very early age that racism is wrong. Kingsolver comes to the conclusion, throughout the book, that racism is not inherent and is not learned behavior, but it is instead a deeply personal choice.
Years before the idea of white privilege came to light all over social media, Taylor recognizes her shock for what Estephen and Eserpanza had experienced. After Estephen tells Taylor of the horrors they encountered in Guatemala, she states, “there was no way on earth I could explain what I felt, that my whole life had been running along on dumb luck and I hadn’t even noticed.”
Closer to the end of the book, after witnessing racism against her Native-American daughter, she begins to better understand the plights of the immigrant experience. As she falls in love with Estephen, Esperanza begins to love Turtle, seeing in her the daughter they left behind in Guatemala. Taylor experiences for herself the love and compassion that had since been taken from Esperanza, who in the beginning of the book, attempted suicide. Once Taylor learns of ICE’s intense search for Tucson immigrant’s, Taylor states, “To hell with them, people say, let them die, it was their fault in the first place, for being poor or in trouble, or for not being white, or whatever, how dare they try to come to this country.”
To someone reading this in today’s political climate, it can be taken with a heavy dose of both apprehension and anger. In Trump’s America, these issues are only heightened, and they’re not just targeting immigrants anymore. Any non-white person; Mexican, Muslim, African American, etc. is a victim of racism and discrimination, even from our own president. Years before the presidential election of 2016, Kingsolver shows us the reality of racism, white privelege, and illegal immigration, never imagining it could get worse. While issues of this kind have existed far before either Trump or the book, no one can deny that since the beginning of his administration, tensions have been rising among those of different racial backgrounds, and even different political identities.
Readers of this book are left to wonder if the eerily truthful tale is a warning. Will things continue to get worse, will more people be subject to racism and discrimination, before we realize that we can either stop it, or succumb to it.
Kingsolver’s words from the past have put a new light on the turmoil we find ourselves in today, and we can only hope that people today can take example from her protagonist, to progress towards a better future.