The Bean Trees has been one of my favorite books for some fifteen years now, the literary equivalent of a mug of hot cocoa piled high with whipped cream, a warm hug. There have been other books by Kingsolver since, more complicated, more heartbreaking, (certainly longer), but this was the first one. The first one I loved. I have read it so many times that its language has seeped beneath my skin and become part of me. When I first read it I was over a decade younger than Taylor, and now I am older. (When did that happen?). Year after year I come back to the intertwining stories of Taylor and Lou Ann and the people who come into their lives and change it forever.
From the 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 was unable to stop reading until I had followed Taylor Greer out of the only kind of future she might have had in her hometown (not much of one), across states, into accidental motherhood of a small silent child with her own haunted past, into friendships with unlikely people, into love. (And I have been afraid of putting air into anything, forget a tractor tire). The language was unlike anything I had experienced before; smart and funny, with the imagined echo of Kingsolver's Kentucky twang.
Everything she describes blooms as vividly in my mind as the night-blooming cereus did on Virgie Mae and Edna's porch. Years after I first read The Bean Trees we had our own night-blooming cereus in the corner of the living room, "flattened and spiny and frankly extremely homely." One night it bloomed in the darkness and filled the entire house with its fragrance. When I went to look, I found that homely plant burdened with flowers, each one hanging from its scrawny branch like "a magic mirror...made of some nearly transparent material that looked as though it would shrivel and bruise if you touched it. The petals stood out in starry rays, and in the center of each flower there was a complicated construction of silvery threads shaped like a pair of cupped hands catching moonlight. A fairy boat, ready to be launched into the darkness."
When I read that passage time and time again I feel myself sitting on the living room floor in the darkness, surrounded by the faintly lemony, haunting scent of the night-blooming cereus, the memory lingering like a touch. The book itself is a pair of cupped hands catching moonlight, launching laughter and friendship and love and motherhood into the bright sunshine of day, into a distant future happiness.