The Bean Trees. Barbara Kingsolver 1988. (232 pgs)
First Sentence: “I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign. I’m not lying.” (First chapter title: THE ONE TO GET AWAY)
Prevailing Narrative Voice: First person. Past tense. A spunky, upbeat recollection from a woman about when she was an adolescent country girl who realizes she might have a chance go farther than her circumstances.
Setting: The south, possibly Kentucky, in a town of haves and the have-nots. The narrator clearly came from the have-not community.
What we learn in first paragraphs: It is interesting that the opening paragraphs reflect the second sentence: “I’m not lying.” We are about to embark on the narrated story of a girl’s coming of age and the narrater wants us to believe she is credible. It is also interesting that the narrator offers more information about Newt Hardbine than the main character in order to substantiate the alternative direction the girl’s life could have gone.
What we learn in first 10 pages: Marietta, who demands to be called “Missy” at a young age, is a success story, because she realizes that she must direct her fate if she ‘s going to avoid following the path of most of the girls in her school; barefoot and pregnant by tenth grade. The action of the first ten pages begins with the tractor tire accident that maims Old Man Hardbine, and ends with the self-inflicted shooting death of his son, Newt. It is the tidiest ten pages I have read so far, and what makes it more convenient to discuss is that Missy uses parallels from the life story of Newt Hardbine as a contrast to her own. The reader is lucky to have this narrator retelling her story from several years down the road. Even though her circumstances are humble the voice is never discouraging. I doubt that I could have picked a better example for first10pages.
A secondary factor, but equally important in these early pages and for the whole story, I suspect, is the absolute, ongoing love and support that Missy receives from her mother, a grateful single parent who says about Missy’s absent father, “He was famous for drinking Old Grand Dad with a gasoline funnel, and always told Mama never to pull anything cute like getting pregnant. Mama says trading Foster for me was the best deal this side of the Jackson Purchase.” Missy’s mother offers Missy alternative ways to view the events of her life and her presence offers the reader confirmation of and a counterpoint to Missy’s movements through the story.
Plot & Expectations: I don’t know how the title contributes to the overall story as there is no mention of Bean Trees in the first ten pages, but the irony of bean trees seems to underscore the non sequitur of how Missy, a poor country girl, seems to be endowed with the ability to climb out of her circumstances and flourish. Even though the narrator, who resides in the future and voices the story from the future, has the benefit of time to understand past events, she doesn’t give away the outcome, which heightens tension. I expect “older” Missy to recount the story of her life in an engaging and entertaining way focusing on following key life lesson regarding people: “The way I see it, she said, “a person isn’t nothing more than a scarecrow. You, me, (him), the President of the United States, and even God Almighty, as far as I can see. The only difference between one that stands up good and one that blows over is what kind of a stick they’re stuck up there on.”
Notes: I’ve not read any Barbara Kingsolver, but a close friend of mine was so enamored by The Poisonwood Bible that she detailed the plot so meticulously that I feel I’ve read it myself. I look forward to reading the entire book. Probably during the summer.