AN INDIGENOUS STORY ON HEAVEN AND HELL – from the Novelist Barbara Kingsolver
Young Girl With Bread in Mexico City Bruce Witzel photo – Oct. 1992
Some truths are best expressed in fiction. This is the wonder of story telling. And American novelist Barbara Kingsolver is a literary champion in this regard, and more.
Similarly, the beloved country folk-rock artist John Prine (sadly, an early victim of Coronavirus in April 2020) has said “There’s one thing I’ve learned about writing story songs: If you are writing story songs you better have a good ending. And if you don’t have a good ending, you better have a darn good moral to the story.”
When a friend recently lent me The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel published in 1988, I read it and wept with despair, and with hope. Three decades later it rings true to our times. Especially, the scene from the book I share below – and it has a good ending and a good moral!
The book jacket blurb and a list of characters will help set up the context:
Meet Taylor Greer, who grew up in poor in rural Kentucky with the goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting away. But when Taylor heads west with high hopes and a barely functional car, she meets the human condition head-on. By the time she arrives in Tucson, she has acquired a completely unexpected child and must somehow come to terms with both motherhood and the necessity for putting down roots. Hers is a story about love and friendship, abandonment and belonging, and the discovery of surprising resources in apparently empty places.
Lit of characters, setting and plot background:
· This scene takes place in the kitchen of youthful Taylor and Lou Ann, two single mothers who join forces to make ends meet by renting a small apartment in Tucson, Arizona.
· The two elderly women are their neighbours – Edna (who is blind) and Mrs. Virgie Parsons.
· Estevan and Esperanza (Hope) are a migrant refugee couple seeking sanctuary in America from death-ravaged Guatemala in the south.
· Turtle is the 3 year old “adopted” child of Taylor Greer, who narrates this scene.
Here is the borrowed snippet from The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver –
AN INDIGENOUS STORY ON HEAVEN AND HELL
Estevan produced a package, which turned out to be chopsticks. There were twenty or so of them wrapped together in crackly cellophane with black Chinese letters down one side.
“What is it, eating sticks?” Edna ran her fingers along the thin shafts. “It sounds like a great adventure, but I’ll just stick to what I know, if you don’t mind. Thank you all the same.” I noticed that Edna ate very slowly, with gradual exact movements of her fork. Mrs. Parsons said she wasn’t game for such foolishness either.
“I never said it was foolishness,” Edna said.
The rest of us gave it a try, spearing pieces of chicken and looping green-pepper rings and chasing the rice around our plate. Even Esperanza tried. Estevan said we were being to aggressive.
“They are held this way.” He demonstrated, holding them like pencils in one hand and clicking the ends together. I loved his way of saying, “It is” and “They are.”
Turtle was watching me, imitating. “Don’t look at me, I’m not the expert.” I pointed at Estevan.
Lou Ann came back to the table. “Where did you learn how to do that?” she asked Estevan.
“Ah,” he said, “this is why I like chopsticks: I work in a Chinese restaurant. I am the dishwasher.”
“I didn’t know that. How long have you worked there?” I asked, realizing I had no business thinking I knew everything about Estevan. His whole life, really, was a mystery to me.
“One month,” he said. “I work with a kind family who speak only Chinese. Only the five year old daughter speaks English. The father has her explain to me what I must do. Fortunately, she is very patient.”
Mrs. Parsons muttered that she thought this was a disgrace. “Before you know it the whole world will be here jibbering and jabbering till we won’t know it’s America.”
“Virgie, mind your manners,” Edna Said.
“Well, it’s the truth. They out to stay put in there own dirt, not come here taking up jobs.”
“Virgie,” Edna said.
I felt like I’d sat on a bee. If Mama hadn’t brought me up to do better, I think I would have told that old snake to put down her fork and get her backside out the door. I wanted to scream at her: This man is an English teacher. He did not come her so he could wash egg fu yung off plates and take orders from a five year old.
But Estevan didn’t seem perturbed, and I realized he must hear this kind of thing every day of his life. I wondered how he could stay so calm. I would have murdered somebody by now, I thought, would have put a chopstick to one of the many deadly uses that only Lou Ann could imagine it for.
“Can I get anybody anything?” Lou Anne asked.
“We’re fine,” Edna said, obviously accustomed to being Virgie’s public relations department. “You children have made a delightful meal.”
Esperanza pointed at Turtle. It was the first time I ever saw her smile, and I was struck with what a lovely woman she was when you really connected. Then the smile left her again.
Turtle, wielding a chopstick in each hand, had managed to pick up a piece of pineapple. Little by little she moved it upward toward her wide-open mouth, but the sticks were longer than her arms. The pineapple hung in the air over her head and then fell behind her unto the floor. We laughed and cheered her on, but Turtle was so startled she cried. I picked her up and held her on my lap.
“Tortolita, let me tell you a story,” Estevan said. “This is a South American wild Indian story about heaven and hell.” Mrs. Parsons made a prudish face, and Estevan went on. “If you go to visit hell, you will see a room like this kitchen. There is a pot of delicious stew on the table, with the most delicate aroma you can imagine. All around, people sit, like us. Only they are dying of starvation. They are jibbering and jabbering,” he looked extra hard at Mrs. Parsons, “but they cannot get a bite of this wonderful stew God has made for them. Now, why is that?”
“Because they are choking? For all eternity?” Lou Ann said. Hell, for Lou Ann, would naturally be a place filled with sharp objects and small round foods.
“No,” he said. “Good guess, but no. They are starving because they only have spoons with very long handles. As long as that.” He pointed to the mop, which I had forgotten to put away. “With these ridiculous terrible spoons, the people in hell can reach into the pot but they cannot put the food in their mouths. Oh, how hungry they are! Oh how they swear and curse each other!” he said, looking again at Mrs. Parsons. He was enjoying this.
“Now,” he went on, “you can go and visit heaven. What? You see a room just like this first one, the same table, the same pot of stew, the same spoons as long as a sponge mop. But these people are all happy and fat.”
“Real fat, or do you mean just well-fed?” Lou Ann asked.
“Just well-fed,” he said. “Perfectly, magnificently well-fed, and very happy. Why do you think?”
He pinched a piece of pineapple in his chopsticks, neat as you please, and reached all away across the table to offer it to Turtle. She took it like a newborn bird.
Excerpted from The Bean Trees, Pgs. 105-108 by Barbara Kingsolver
Other highly praised books and writings by Kingsolver are Prodigal Summer, Flight Behaviour, Poisonwood Bible, and Laguna. She has a degree in biology and has worked as a scientist. For 25 years she divided her time between the borderlands near Tucson, Arizona and the place she now calls home – a farm in the Southern Appalachians.
She is one of my favourite authors.
~ Cheers ~
Oaxaca Campesina Women Preparing a Large Meal Bruce Witzel photo – Oct. 1992