The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver

I knew I was going to get some good chuckles out of the book when I read the opening paragraph of Bean Trees:

“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. He got stuck up there. He wasn’t killed, but lost his hearing and in many other ways was not the same afterwards.” 

And I kept chuckling throughout the book. It’s funny but it also is a good story, really a series of good stories from beginning to end. The stories are intriguing, clever and wise.  Barbara Kingsolver has written a number of books but this is her first.  The “heroine,” Taylor Greer is a determined, spirited, and very likable young woman.  She has two goals in life: To move away from her home in rural Kentucky and not to get pregnant.  She heads off on her getaway adventure in her newly-purchased 1955 Volkswagen bug which, besides being unreliable mechanically, has no windows. No starter either, so it has to be push-started, preferably on a hill. She stuffs all the money she has into one pocket of her jeans and heads off.  

Taylor grew up poor, but she is resourceful. Her plan is to drive west and never look back until her car stops running, then settle wherever that takes her. She lands on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona on a Cherokee Indian reservation. She manages to drive her wobbling car off the highway and find a much-needed auto repair shop with the interesting name of “Jesus is Lord Used Tires.” Somewhere along the way, her trip takes a very unexpected turn. A woman places a small child wrapped in a large pink blanket into Taylor’s car, insisting that she must “Take this baby.” Taylor is too stunned to refuse and so becomes the instant mother of a three-year-old Native American Cherokee girl, a round-eyed child with a “cereal bowl haircut.” The child’s tiny hands grab and hold tightly onto everything she can reach, especially her new mother’s long braid. She also realizes that the child has been horribly physically and sexually abused. Perhaps because Turtle needs security as the result of the fear and pain she has suffered, her tiny little hands grab and hold tightly onto everything she can reach, especially her new mother’s long braid.  So Taylor names her little girl “Turtle” after mud turtles who also hold tightly to everything they can grab. 

Turtle becomes fascinated with beans, especially the purple beans from Wisteria trees and loves to collect and plant the beans, then dig them up. The little girl is also fascinated with horticultural magazines and books, anything that pictures vegetables and plants. Her quick mind helps her memorize the names and types of vegetables. In Tucson, Taylor meets and becomes good friends with Lou Ann Ruiz, whose husband has lost a leg in an accident. Lou Ann also has a child and the two women agree to move in together with their families.  From there on the book is filled with the sometimes touching and always humorous lives of the two women, their families and the events and everyday miracles in their lives. The Bean Trees is witty and wise and funny – a good read from start to finish.  I did not want it to end.

Gail Stilwill

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

This is an intriguing murder mystery, woven through the painfully beautiful story of Kya, a young girl abandoned and left to survive on her own in the marshes of North Carolina.

Kya is no stranger to the beautiful but treacherous marshes. Deserted when she was just six years old, eventually “Marsh Girl” learns to survive, thrive and find solace in the beauty of the nature all around her.

Kya, lives in a shack with her dirt-poor family “squeezed together like penned rabbits”: a caring but worn down and helpless mother, a cruel, abusive father and four older siblings. One by one they desert Kya, saving themselves from the frequent, vicious beatings of their father, who is the last to desert her. Her mothers’ leaving is the most heart-breaking and frightening for Kya. “Ma” leaves, letting the door slam with finality behind her. No good-by. Not even a wave to her 6-year-old daughter. Finally, Kya is truly alone, except for the beautiful sea gulls who swoop and dive in to eat the grits she tosses to them each evening.

She becomes a wild child, living completely on her own in the marshes with the seagulls, snow geese, doves and crows as her only companions. She takes herself to school, but stays for just one day because of the cruel mocking from her classmates. So most of what she knows she learned from the creatures with whom she shares the swap. Nature nurtured, tutored, fed and protected her when no one else would.

She grew up navigating the family’s motorboat through the marshes and is able to dock near the small general store where she can buy simple supplies, mostly grits, which she cooks with scrambled eggs, cornbread, biscuits and sometimes beans just like her mother fixed.

Kya grows older and develops into a tall, skinny, tanned teenager with hair as black and “thick as crow wings.” She begins to long for companionship, and thinks “If anyone would understand loneliness the moon would.” She becomes increasingly aware of the older boys she sees in town. And they begin to notice her, especially

Chase Andrews, the handsome only son of wealthy parents. She also becomes good friends with another young man,Tate. Tate loves and becomes protective of her, especially as he sees the questionable attention Chase pays to Kya. Tate tells Kya that his father taught him that “A real man is one who cries without shame, reads poetry with his heart, feels opera in his soul and does what is necessary to defend a woman.” Kya opens herself to Chase and Tate and to a new life.

And then…the story develops into a murder mystery and a very unpredictable ending. As my fellow St. Timothy’s Book Club readers and I discussed this book (which we all loved) – we agreed NOT to discuss the ending until all members had finished the book. It’s that unpredictable and that well done. So I certainly can’t disclose, or even hint at it, to you, Blog readers. I’ll just say it’s definitely worth the wait.

Crawdads is a wonderful, very well-told story with beautiful language and gentle descriptions of nature woven throughout. And there is wonderful poetry that appears, often when least expectedly. You might want to pay attention to it. It’s beautiful, well-written and more important than you might expect.

A word about the author, Delia Owens. She is a wildlife scientist who has coauthored three international best-selling, award-winning nonfiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist in Africa. She is much admired and respected for her extensive writing about nature. She holds a BS in Zoology from the University of Georgia and a PhD in Animal Behavior for the University of California at Davis. This is her first fiction book. We hope it is not her last.

About the title “Where the Crawdads Sing”- Kya said her Ma used to encourage her to explore the marsh. “Go as far as you can, way out yonder where the crawdads sing.” Google couldn’t help me learn if crawdads really do sing. But I did learn that they are like small, very tasty lobsters. Maybe it’s better if they don’t sing. Could ruin our appetite for lobsters.

Gail Stilwill

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

In today’s world, we get our “news of the world” instantly, and literally, at the touch of our fingers—on computers, iPads, iPhones, TVs, car radios, and if you still read them, newspapers.

But a century before all that sophisticated, fun and sometimes overwhelming communications technology worked its way into our modern world, citizens were hungry for news of their states and of the world.

Enter Captain Jefferson Kidd, a grizzled elderly widower who has lived through three wars and  fought in two of them. He made his living in Texas as a printer until he lost his business during the War Between the States.  In 1870, at the age of 71, the Captain finds a new way to make a living and enjoy the freedom of the road. He travels from town to town and state to state, giving live readings from newspapers to audiences who are hungry for news of the world and who are willing to pay 20 cents to have him read it to them.

He enjoys his rootless, solitary existence. Then in Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a fiesty, 9-year-old orphan girl to her family. Four years earlier, a band of Kiowa raiders killed her parents and sister, but spared the little girl and raised her as one of their own. She was recently rescued by the U.S. Army. Now the grizzled old man and the lost little girl both have to learn to take care of each other and find their place in the world. Joanna tries to escape every way and every chance she gets, including throwing her shoes away. But slowly they begin to form a bond during their 400-mile journey, and begin to trust each other.

Jiles is a wonderful writer, telling an imaginative story. Her descriptions make both characters and their environment alive and believable. I loved every creative twist and turn of this book and couldn’t wait to see what happened to the Captain and Johanna.

— Gail Stilwill