Mothers and The Bean Trees
In honor of mother’s day, I’ve been seeing lists of “memorable mothers” in various kinds of fiction. That’s usually the term used, “memorable.” Because it’s hard to make a list of good mothers in literature.
There are some good reasons for that, especially in children’s literature, where the presence of a good mother would prohibit the children from going on the adventure. But when I started thinking about mothers that I considered, even briefly, as role models…there aren’t that many.
On the other side of the coin, there are a good many mothers memorable because we’re not to emulate them. The impetuous and possibly incestuous Gertrude in Hamlet. The superbly silly Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. My own personal category of mothers to avoid emulating also features the clueless platitude-spouting Mrs. Hopewell in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People” and Rhoda Manning’s ineffectual mother in Ellen Gilchrist’s “1957, A Romance.”
Some mothers are memorable mostly because of how fiercely they fight to protect their offspring. From Molly Weasley’s “not my daughter, you bitch!” to “June’s” agonizing memories of losing her daughter to the state of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. Christianna Wheeler’s attempts to keep her quintuplets alive in Bobbie Ann Mason’s Feather Crowns. Kate Redding’s attempts to keep it all together with a family and a job in Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It.
I could only think of six fictional mothers I thought of as good role models before I had children of my own, two of them from the same novel:
Taylor and Lou Ann in The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver
Pearl Tull in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler
Kate Murray in A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
Marmee in Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Ma in the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder
None of these mothers are perfect people. “Ma” and “Marmee” have little identity of their own, as I recall, but function mainly as role models and sounding boards for their daughters. Kate Murray has a little more personality, as she has taught her children well, but her role in the story is confined to cooking over her Bunsen burner and waiting for the children to rescue her husband. Pearl Tull has many flaws as a mother, but she devotes herself to the task of raising her children thoughtfully and almost exclusively.
When I thought about Taylor and Lou Ann, I found that I had to reread Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, because I don’t remember reading it after I had kids of my own. My friend Carol and I have quoted Lou Ann for years about “the only safe way to eat potato salad was to stick your head in the refrigerator.” Lou Ann became, for us, a way of laughing at our own anxious tendencies as mothers. She functions that way for Taylor, too, in the novel:
“For Lou Ann, life itself was a life-threatening enterprise. Nothing on earth was truly harmless….she saved newspaper stories of every imaginable type of freak disaster. Unsuspecting diners in a restaurant decapitated by a falling ceiling fan. Babies fallen head-first into the beer cooler and drowned in melted ice while the family played Frisbee. A housewife and mother of seven stepping out of a Wick’N’Candle store, only to be shot through the heart by a misfired high-pressure nail gun at a construction site across the street. To Lou Ann’s way of thinking, this proved not only that ice chests and construction sites were dangerous, but also Wick’N’Candle stores and Frisbees.”
Later in their friendship, though Taylor tells Lou Ann that her worrying makes her a good mother:
“The flip side of worrying too much is just not caring….Dwayne Ray will always know that, no matter what, you’re never going to neglect him. You’ll never just sit around and let him dehydrate, or grow up without a personality, or anything like that….If anything, Lou Ann, you’re just too good of a mother.”
It takes Taylor the lessons learned from her own mother, the childcare strategies she learns from Mattie, Sandi, Lou Ann, and Virgie and Edna, and the example of the bravery of Esperanza to be able to be a good mother to her adopted little girl, Turtle. When she tells Lou Ann, at one point, that she’s “just not up to the job,” Lou Ann replies “well, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger….Nobody is.”
At the end of the novel, Lou Ann says to Taylor that she’s been thinking “about how your kids aren’t really yours, they’re just these people that you try to keep an eye on, and hope you’ll all grow up someday to like each other and still be in one piece.” Maybe one of the things she’s saying is that if you raise kids right, they’re not particularly aware of how difficult it is. It’s like how a good dancer can make high leg lifts look easy, or a violinist can make a fast passage sound effortless–even inevitable.
Maybe there are so few good mothers in literature because the good ones are not memorable. What you learn from them becomes a part of you and, thus, familiar.
Can you think of another good mother in literature? What makes her “good”?