Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Gardens of Auto Parts: Kingsolver's Merger of American Western Myth and Native American Myth in the Bean Trees

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Gardens of Auto Parts: Kingsolver's Merger of American Western Myth and Native American Myth in the Bean Trees

Article excerpt

   Outside was a bright, wild wonderland of flowers    and vegetables and auto parts. Heads of cabbage and    lettuce sprouted out of old tires. An entire rusted out    Thunderbird, minus the wheels, had nasturtiums    blooming out the windows like Mama's hen-and-chicks    pot on the front porch at home. A kind of    teepee frame made of CB antennas was all overgrown    with cherry-tomato vines. (Kingsolver 45) 

Junkyards and gardens: how could two such diametrically opposed worlds flourish together? Seemingly, one would preclude the possibility of the other. Abandoned wrecks would jeopardize new tomatoes, while spilled oil would poison the fertile ground, debilitating the delicate burgeoning of a squash blossom. How can anyone tend a garden in the midst of rusted auto parts? How can growth occur in the midst of abandonment?

In the mythology that surrounds the American West, one of the primary expressions of the western experience has been the male's desire to move. Whether by horse, wagon, raft, or even later by car, action typifies the male western hero, who feels a powerful desire to hit the open road. Action and adventure are tied tightly with the need to be mobile. Adventures do not happen at home; you have to go find them. In contrast, women have been connected rather loosely to the male western archetype despite their presence on the frontier. Rather than a symbol of movement, the female experience has been firmly rooted in the image of the garden. Annette Kolodny has perhaps furthered this construction the most by exploring women's idealization of the garden on the frontier. She states in The Land Before Her that women gained access to the U. S. West by connecting themselves both literarily and figuratively with the garden. Embodying both the characteristics of the natural and procreative, gardens evolved into symbols of the home. Cultivating a garden in the West provided women a claim or admittance into a masculine world, if only to a portion of the experience. As a garden must have constant attention, movement is difficult for those who garden. Women, therefore, gained access to the frontier, yet were excluded from the adventure that men sought.

Despite the obvious oppositions, Barbara Kingsolver finds a way to unite the possibilities of a garden with the opportunities of adventure in The Bean Trees, her novel about a woman's migration from the American South to the American West. Merging these characteristics: the desire for movement and the desire to tend a home, Kingsolver is able to express a female voice that has heretofore been lost or subsumed by the white male experience. In many ways, Kingsolver creates a character who becomes that individual Kolodny speaks of at the end of The Land Before Her, for Kingsolver's main character becomes both "adventurer and domesticator" (Kolodny 240). By combining these two figures, Kingsolver fashions a new American mythology that unites both male and female imaginative constructions. The attempt is not an easy one, as access to the West has almost always been achieved, whether the individual is male or female, through performing white masculine constructions. In West of Everything, Jane Tompkins points out the difficulty women have had in gaining admittance to this masculine world, especially access to the role of the hero. Her findings reveal female desire for this access through women's own attempts to "imagine" themselves within the western landscape and culture. Tompkins notes that some women found imagining inclusion impossible, but for those who could, awkward manipulations would take place in order to create a place for the female within this world:

   One friend said she loved "Bonanza" so much that she had to invent    a female character so that she could participate as a woman ...    Another friend told me she could identify with male heroes but    only the nonwhite, non-WASP ones, Tonto and Zorro. (16) 

Clearly, the struggle to find inclusion in this myth of adventure is difficult; still the passage proves the desire of women to claim in some "real" sense the ideology represented in our imaginative constructions of the American West. …

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