Marietta “Missy” Greer lives in a small Kentucky town and has so far avoided the usual trappings of pregnancy and marriage. With her mother’s blessing, she buys an old car and decides to go as far as it will take her before breaking down. Along the way to her eventual stop of Tucson, Arizona, she picks up a new name and a new child.
Originally named after the place she was conceived, she takes a chance and names herself Taylor after the first town her car runs out of gas. While traveling through the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, Taylor is handed a child to keep. She soon realizes the woman gave her the child for safekeeping after she finds signs of abuse.
Together they make their way to Arizona before their journey is halted by ruined tires that Taylor cannot afford to replace. Taylor plans to work and save to continue on, but she instead finds a new home and family.
The importance of names is a continuing theme throughout the novel. Missy began when young Marietta demanded to be called “Miss.” She then shed her given name as she ran from a life expected of her. The young child was called Turtle due to her behavior, and then later she was given the name April as a new beginning. Taylor meets a young couple who ran from danger in Guatemala. They dropped their original Indian names for the more acceptable Spanish names Estevan and Esperanza after their political climate shifted. Once they were force to flee Guatemala (and leave a child behind), they changed them again to Steven and Hope.
This book’s political focus is on the issue of illegal immigration. More specifically, the illegal immigration of people whose lives are in danger from corrupt governments. Regardless of their situations, they are deported to face near certain torture and death whenever they are caught in the U.S. Mattie is a friend and employer to Taylor. She is part of an underground movement that houses and helps refugees move to safer locations.
Taylor has to decide where she stands while facing legal issues of her own. She is forced to legalize her custody of April or lose her to the state, and that journey involves searching for her birth parents.
I think this book was better paced than The Poisonwood Bible which dragged after the first half. It ended strongly, though bittersweet, without relying on clichés. The Bean Trees is also a timely read in the midst of the current immigration debates as it offers a view from the other side of the fence.
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