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The Bean Trees
Submitted by Jean Trounstine (profile)
Title and Author: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
Themes: A very accessible novel, only 232 pages, and one that I often use early on in the semester because it grabs the women immediately with its coming-of-age theme. What makes Kingsolver's work unique is the character of Taylor Greer, a young woman who feels she is an outsider and whose relationship with Turtle, a child she literally finds on her way to a new life, leads her to confront what being human really means and then to fight past the fears of hurt and attachment. Taylor learns to take emotional risks, and to be open to love despite the pain such openness invites.
Class type: Women
A mainstay of CLTL readings! The women love this book, and there are many characters and situations in the book for them to relate to. Taylor comes from rural Kentucky and a poor family and wants to get out, not just out from poverty but from a dead-end existence. This in itself provides conversation.
--What is a dead-end existence?
--How do you know?
--How do you get out or should you?
--Do people get hurt?
--How do we determine what is worth the risk of changing our lives?
Taylor leaves in an old car with bad tires and finds herself in a Cherokee bar in Oklahoma and, once outside, is confronted by an Indian woman who desperately thrusts a child into Taylor's arms. Taylor discovers that the child has been severely abused and cannot help but keep her. Another issue.
--How does this child change Taylor, and, more universally, how do children change us?
--What does it take to raise a child, and what sacrifices do we see in Taylor's new world?
As Taylor finds a place to settle down, she meets an eventual roommate, Lou Ann, and has more to learn from her about friendship.
--What, I ask the women, does it mean to be a friend?
--Is Lou Ann a better friend to Taylor than Taylor is to her?
Taylor eventually gets involved with the widowed owner of a tire store, whose other business is helping political refugees enter the U.S. illegally, and this brings politics into the book. We get a chance to talk about values and what is right.
--Is the law always more important than morality?
--How do we make that decision?
Questions from the Barbara Kingsolver website that also may be used with the book:
1. The Bean Trees deals with the theme of being an outsider. In what ways are various characters outsiders? What does this suggest about what it takes to be an insider?
2. How and why do the characters change, especially Lou Ann, Taylor, and Turtle?
3. In many ways, the novel is about "the education of Taylor Greer." What does she learn about human suffering? About love?