REMINDER: The next Book Club meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, December 7 at 6:30 pm in the Fiction/Hawaiiana section of the Library. Please be sure to RSVP if you plan to attend so that we know to expect you. Thanks to those who have already emailed me their intent to attend the discussion. We still have open seats at this time.
Seana will lead December’s discussion meeting. The title she selected is The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver.
She has sent along a summary and a bio about the author. The discussion questions follow after that.
Marietta Greer spent her childhood in rural Kentucky determined to do two things: avoid getting pregnant and escape rural Kentucky. At the start of the novel, she has headed west in a beat-up ’55 Volkswagon, changing her name to “Taylor” when her car runs out of gas in Taylorville, Illinois. By the time two tires give way in Tucson, she has with her a stunned, silent three-year-old Cherokee girl who was, literally, dropped into her arms one night. She has named the child Turtle, for her strong, snapping-turtle-like grip.
In Tucson, Taylor finds friendship and support in Lou Ann Ruiz, a fellow Kentuckian and single mother, with whom she and Turtle share a house. Her newfound community also includes Mattie, who runs a safe house for political refugees in the upstairs rooms above her auto repair shop.
The novel’s themes of fear, flight, homelessness, and finding sanctuary within a community are present in Taylor’s struggle to find a place where she belongs, and the more urgent plight of two Central American refugees, Estevan and Esperanza. These fellow travelers help one another create new lives and redefine the meanings of home and family. (From the publisher)
• Birth—April 8, 1955
• Where—Annapolis, Maryland, USA
• Education—B.A., DePauw University; M.S., University of Arizona
• Awards—Orange Prize
• Currently—lives on a farm in Virginia
Barbara Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955. She grew up “in the middle of an alfalfa field,” in the part of eastern Kentucky that lies between the opulent horse farms and the impoverished coal fields. While her family has deep roots in the region, she never imagined staying there herself. “The options were limited–grow up to be a farmer or a farmer’s wife.”
Kingsolver has always been a storyteller: “I used to beg my mother to let me tell her a bedtime story.” As a child, she wrote stories and essays and, beginning at the age of eight, kept a journal religiously. Still, it never occurred to Kingsolver that she could become a professional writer. Growing up in a rural place, where work centered mainly on survival, writing didn’t seem to be a practical career choice. Besides, the writers she read, she once explained, “were mostly old, dead men. It was inconceivable that I might grow up to be one of those myself…”
Kingsolver left Kentucky to attend DePauw University in Indiana, where she majored in biology. She also took one creative writing course and became active in the last anti-Vietnam War protests. After graduating in 1977, Kingsolver lived and worked in widely scattered places. In the early eighties, she pursued graduate studies in biology and ecology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she received a Master of Science degree. She also enrolled in a writing class taught by author Francine Prose, whose work Kingsolver admires.
Kingsolver’s fiction is rich with the language and imagery of her native Kentucky. But when she first left home, she says, “I lost my accent… [P]eople made terrible fun of me for the way I used to talk, so I gave it up slowly and became something else.” During her years in school and two years spent living in Greece and France she supported herself in a variety of jobs: as an archaeologist, copy editor, X-ray technician, housecleaner, biological researcher, and translator of medical documents.
After graduate school, a position as a science writer for the University of Arizona soon led her into feature writing for journals and newspapers. Her numerous articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Nation, the New York Times, and Smithsonian, and many of them are included in the collection, High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never. In 1986 she won an Arizona Press Club award for outstanding feature writing, and in 1995, after the publication of High Tide in Tucson, Kingsolver was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from her alma mater, DePauw University.
Kingsolver credits her careers in scientific writing and journalism with instilling in her a writer’s discipline and broadening her “fictional possibilities.” Describing herself as a shy person who would generally prefer to stay at home with her computer, she explains that “journalism forces me to meet and talk with people I would never run across otherwise.”
From 1985 through 1987, Kingsolver was a freelance journalist by day, but she was writing fiction by night. Married to a chemist in 1985, she suffered from insomnia after becoming pregnant the following year. Instead of following her doctor’s recommendation to scrub the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush, Kingsolver sat in a closet and began to write The Bean Trees, a novel about a young woman who leaves rural Kentucky (accent intact) and finds herself living in urban Tucson.
The Bean Trees, originally published in 1988 and reissued in a special ten-year anniversary edition in 1998, was enthusiastically received by critics. But, perhaps more important to Kingsolver, the novel was read with delight and, even, passion by ordinary readers. “A novel can educate to some extent,” she told Publishers Weekly. “But first, a novel has to entertain—that’s the contract with the reader: you give me ten hours and I’ll give you a reason to turn every page. I have a commitment to accessibility. I believe in the plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want the people I grew up with—who may not often read anything but the Sears catalog—to read my books.”
For Kingsolver, writing is a form of political activism. When she was in her twenties she discovered Doris Lessing. “I read the Children of Violence novels and began to understand how a person could write about the problems of the world in a compelling and beautiful way. And it seemed to me that was the most important thing I could ever do if I could ever do that.”
The Bean Trees was followed by the collection, Homeland and Other Stories (1989), the novels Animal Dreams (1990), and Pigs in Heaven (1993), and the bestselling High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now and Never (1995). Kingsolver has also published a poetry collection, Another America: Otra America (Seal Press, 1992, 1998), and a nonfiction book, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of l983 (ILR Press/Cornell University Press, 1989, 1996). The Poisonwood Bible (1998) earned accolades at home and abroad, and was an Oprah’s Book Club selection.
Barbara’s Prodigal Summer (2000), is a novel set in a rural farming community in southern Appalachia. Small Wonder, April 2002, presents 23 wonderfully articulate essays. Here Barbara raises her voice in praise of nature, family, literature, and the joys of everyday life while examining the genesis of war, violence, and poverty in our world.
Two additional books became best sellers. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle came in 2007, again to great acclaim. Non-fiction, the book recounts a year in the life of Kingsolver’s family as they grew all their own food. The Lacuna, published two years later, is a fictional account of historical events in Mexico during the 1930s and moving into the U.S. during the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
Kingsolver on The Bean Trees
I always think of a first novel as something like this big old purse you’ve been carrying around your whole life, throwing in ideas, characters, and all the things that have ever struck you as terribly important. One day, for whatever reason, you just have to dump that big purse out, and there lies this pile of junk. You start picking through it and assembling it into what you hope will be a statement of your life’s great themes. That’s how it was for me. It probably wasn’t until midway through the writing that I had a grasp of the central question: What are the many ways, sometimes hidden and underground ways, that people help themselves and each other survive hard times?
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? How does feeling like an outsider affect one’s life?
2. How and why do the characters change, especially Lou Ann, Taylor, and Turtle?
3. In many ways, the novel is “the education of Taylor Greer.” What does she learn about human suffering? about love?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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