Monday, June 28, 2010

Barbara Kingsolver, Solver of Kings

"Kingsolver." That would be a great compliment, if it were a term people used for description and not an author's surname. E.g. -- "Jim's a real kingsolver, you know?"

I wanted a Barbara Kingsolver primer before I got started on something of hers that's considered a cut above -- say "The Poisonwood Bible" or "The Lacuna." So I stole or "borrowed indefinitely" a book someone gifted to my mother a couple years back. Mom was finished reading it, to be fair to my sticky-for-books fingers, and she's aware that I've taken it for my own. So these facts justify my theft, I've decided. And anyway, what an enjoyable steal "The Bean Trees" is. Perhaps I might just start "liberating" books from all sorts of places I hadn't thought to before.

As for "The Bean Trees," well . . .

Some female writers nicely execute a very particular kind of coming of age story (Marilynne Robinson comes immediately to mind). Barbara Kingsolver achieves this nice execution, too, in the first part of "The Bean Trees." The second part is different, a narrative depicting her protagonist, Taylor Greer, fully come of age, you could say, and navigating the uncommon circumstances of life, of making one's way. Greer does so by abandoning the town of her birth and upbringing in Pittman County, Kentucky, for the greener pastures of anywhere else. She chooses a westerly path, going north and then south in that direction.

She's leaving the kinds of things that force one to remain static in one place, family and careers and, in general, responsibilities. She notes aptly of the young women in her town's tendency to become impregnated, "Believe me in those days the girls were dropping by the wayside like seeds off a poppyseed bun and you learned to look at every day as a prize." (An especially apt description because have you ever noticed how seeds fall off a poppyseed bun? It's amazing there are any that actually stay put.) Saying Greer's not looking to be tied to responsibilities is obviously not to say she's inclined to be irresponsible, but rather, she's a free spirited, slightly naive wayfarer content to roam and find her niche wherever it appears to her to be. This notion of allowing what will be to be becomes, slowly over the course of the novel, her guiding philosophy.

Taylor goes so far as to change fundamental aspects of her person, remaking herself with the legal change of her name from Marietta to Taylor (after Taylorville, IL, which is the place she is forced to stop in when her gas tank becomes completely empty -- a kind of new name roulette, she plays). She then travels southward where she by chance ends up in a hole-in-the-wall bar/diner whereupon she's spotted by a group of Cherokee who transfer abruptly to her custody a little girl no more than three years old. Thus, ironically, she becomes a young mother in spite of her best efforts to avoid that fate.

With the young Cherokee girl ("Turtle" she nicknames her) in tow, she travels further south to Arizona, settling near Tucson when her tires can no longer bear the burden of the road. She rolls up to a repair shop called Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. There she meets Mattie, an elderly mechanic and proprietor of the shop, who also moonlights as a harborer of Central American refugees. In still more summation of the plot and its participants, Taylor eventually comes to live with a single mother of one named Lou Ann, who is left high and dry by her abusive husband and so needs a roommate to make ends meet.

But enough plot synopsis -- while Kingsolver doesn't floor me with presentation of a story I feel I've never seen before, she is still successful in the most crucial and compelling ways. One of those is that she richly establishes her characters, beginning with Taylor and branching out to Lou Ann (an obsessively careful new mother whose naivety profoundly trumps Taylor's); Turtle, who at only age three is surprisingly present throughout the story, if only referred to offhand usually, but she exhibits traits easily identifiable as the sort you'd expect of a girl her age, becoming a sort of amateur horticulturist with a vast knowledge of the names of vegetables, which she talks about in a still very kid-like way; Mattie, an unflappable and commanding matriarch with a deep devotion to following her own personal moral compass (which involves acting as protectorate to Central American refugees to whom she provides haven in her attic at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires); and though certainly not the only ones left who were carefully wrought, they are the last two whom I think bear mentioning -- Estevan and Esperanza, a couple from Guatemala who are revealed to have suffered a great many hardships en-route to illegal succor in the United States. Estevan's non-sexual but faintly romantic brushes with Taylor provide a strange bit of depth to the story, as well.

All in all, a good read with a fairly basic message -- though it's not always obvious everybody needs help in this world and there are those of us lucky enough to find it in unexpected places, and maybe even didn't entirely see that we'd been getting it all along. Taylor makes explicit reference to the latter point when she talks to Turtle about the rhizobia, a kind of microscopic bug that flourishes on the roots of plants, sucking nitrogen from the soil and making it fertile. The rhizobia implicitly stands in for the people who've helped Taylor get to where she is today, still standing.

On the "20 Under 40" Front Cont.

It must be an awesome feeling to have the kind of insanely acute perception Nicole Krauss has, as evidenced in her entry to the New Yorker's Top 20 Under 40 writers. The story "The Young Painters" is a story about the writers craft, which she subjects to not so subtly being put on trial. She indicates this with frequent references by the narrator, an author, to another individual who's called solely, "Your Honor." The story questions ideas of the culpability / responsibility of an author to his / her source material. It's a longtime conundrum, what right does an author have to co-opt, in a sense, others' stories? Should one feel guilty for doing so? What is owed to the source? It also questions how the author uses such material. Can they hide behind the idea that this is not journalism and owes nothing to "The Truth"? It is the great ambiguous morality of the author. And anyway, Krauss's narrator at least, finishes her tale with the line, "And slowly, Your Honor, I began to distrust myself." I thought that was a pretty nice way to end, dontcha think?

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