January 14, 2012

Barbara Kingsolver - The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven

I first read The Bean Trees several years ago when I was living in Tanzania and would read any book that came my way if it was written in English. If it hadn't been for that, I probably wouldn't have picked it up, since I had previously read and strongly disliked Barbara Kingsolver's better-known book, The Poisonwood Bible. But I'm glad that I did pick up and read The Bean Trees because I absolutely loved it.

It features a cast of very likeable characters; it touches on some serious topics (child abuse, human rights violation and so-called "illegal" immigration, human trafficking) while maintaining a light tone and a sense of humour. I found myself especially drawn to Taylor, the main character, for her spunk, her innocence, and her determination to do what she feels is right. And Turtle, the child that she adopts - who wouldn't love her?

I knew that there was a sequel, but had never read it; however on a trip down to the US back in December, I managed to pick up copies of both The Bean Trees and the sequel, Pigs in Heaven.

Re-reading The Bean Trees, it was just as good as I remembered it; though there were parts of the plot that I had forgotten, or remembered differently than they were.

Pigs in Heaven starts 2 years after the end of The Bean Trees; and it picks up on the one tread at the end of The Bean Trees that had disturbed me (SPOILER ALERT if you haven't read The Bean Trees) - the irregular nature of Turtle's legal adoption.

The conflict at the centre of Pigs in Heaven have to do with the adoption of a Cherokee child by a white mother. Who is the better person to raise a child - her tribe or the outsider with whom she has formed an attachment? There is lots of emotion in this book (as there was in The Bean Trees), and both books are so gripping that I had trouble putting them down. Along the way to the resolution of the primary conflict, other issues are addressed - the injustice of the cycle of poverty, racism, the history of the Cherokee people (of which I knew very little of before reading this book), and feminism, just to name a few. But the humour is always there, even when Taylor hits rock bottom and begins to question herself.

Taylor and Turtle are still the same likeable and engaging characters; Taylor's mother Alice has a bigger role in this book; some of the characters from The Bean Trees make an appearance (Lou Ann and Mattie - though I would have loved to have found out what happened to Estevan and Esperanza, the Guatemalan refugees); and there are a whole new cast of characters to get to know. Both of these books seem to have achieved the perfect balance of plot and characters.

I'm not going to spoil the ending by revealing it here; but I just want to say that it was satisfying. I would love to have another book featuring Taylor and Turtle, to find out what happens next; but I am also happy to leave it at that, knowing that things are going to work out for everyone.

I'm so glad that I discovered these books, because if it had been dependent on my reading of The Poisonwood Bible, I would have never picked up another book by Barbara Kingsolver. As it is, I read and loved her non-fiction book describing her family's effort to eat locally for a year - Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. And since Pigs in Heaven lived up to my memories of The Bean Trees, I will probably look up more of her fiction now.


LauraBee said...

You have quite the impressive reading regimen! What would you say are some of you top favorite books?

I want to read that Barbara Kingsolver book!

Kate said...

Favourite books of all time? Now that's a tough question. Each year I compile a list of favourite books discovered in the past year (look for my January 1 post each year). All-time favourites would include The Diviners (Margaret Laurence), Anne of Green Gables (LM Montgomery), most books by Robertson Davies, The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood), the Narnia series (CS Lewis) - that's just a list off the top of my head, and I'm sure I've missed some!