There are families like the Beans all over America. They live on the wrong side of town in mobile homes strung with Christmas lights all year around. The women are often pregnant, the men drunk and just out of jail, and the children too numerous to count. In the 'Beans of Egypt', Maine, we meet the God-fearing Earlene Pomerleau and experience her obsession for the whole swarming Bean tribe. There is cousin Rubie, a boozer and a brawler, tall Aunt Roberta, the earth mother surrounded by countless, clinging babies, and Beal, sensitive, often gentle, but doomed by the violence within him.
Chute's first, and best known, novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, was published in 1985 and made into a 1994 film of the same name, directed by Jennifer Warren. Chute's next two books, Letourneau's Used Auto Parts (1988) and Merry Men (1994), are also set in the town of Egypt, Maine.
Chute also speaks out publicly about class issues in America and publishes "The Fringe," a monthly collection of in-depth political journalism, short stories, and intellectual commentary on current events. She once ran a satiric campaign for governor of Maine.
Her job career has included waitress, chicken factory worker, hospital floor scrubber, shoe factory worker, potato farm worker, tutor, canvasser, teacher, social worker, and school bus driver, 1970s-1980s; part-time suburban correspondent, Portland Evening Express, Portland, Maine, 1976-81; instructor in creative writing, University of Southern Maine, Portland, 1985.
She now lives in Parsonsfield, Maine, near the New Hampshire border, in a home with no telephone, no computer, and no fax machine, and an outhouse in lieu of a working bathroom. She is married to Michael Chute, a local handyman who never learned to read; they have a daughter, Joannah, and several grandchildren.
"They are the tackiest people on earth." ~the Beans' neighbor, Lee Pomerleau
Meet the Beans:
Reubie: Some of his fingers are missing. One nail on a remaining finger is shaped like a claw, and he uses it to dig food out of the back of his teeth. Animals of all kind should run when they see him.
Beal: His bushy black beard lashes like an angry tail and is so long it spreads across the bed when he lies down. Beal likes sex. He likes sex a lot. Teenage Beal is constantly trying to get it on with his Auntie Roberta.
Roberta: Has nine or ten kids - one or two babies are always hanging off of her like clingy baby 'possums. The rest of the gang clamber around like a bunch of little pill bugs in the dirt. Roberta sometimes takes up nephew Beal on his offers of sex. Roberta also flirts with the new neighbour by leaving a bag of fresh, bloody rabbit vittles at his door.
Bonny Lou: An aspiring scientist, Bonny Lou likes to grow mold on old food she keeps in her bedroom. She also has a spit jar she adds to every day, thinking eventually something will grow out of it.
Pip: Has gray hair that stands straight up. Tends to eat with his mouth open, dropping bits of chewed up Wonder Bread and other such delicacies back onto his plate.
These are just a few of the many Beans of Egypt, Maine. Author Carolyn Chute is a brilliant storyteller, bringing these wretched but memorable characters to life. There's not much plot to the story, and yet it's remarkably engrossing. These characters are mesmerizing with their awfulness.
The Beans are poor, dirt poor. They are not sophisticated. They are not even very likable. At times I felt downright disgust.
And yet they are human beings, with needs and wants and desires and hurts. It was easy to dislike and even judge them. I often felt abhorred. And yet you feel for these characters. Despicable as they are, you can't help but feel sympathy for them, eking out a miserable existence on the little bit of money they have, doing the best they can to survive. They are victims of America's " big corporate consumerist culture". The American Dream is non-existent for them.
This is a strange book and I can't even say why I liked it as much as I did. But like it I did.
*Note and warning: there is some hunting mentioned in this book. While it was disturbing, it thankfully was not enough to ruin the book for me.
The Bean family of the title are a motley group who bum and breed in Maine’s bucolic underbelly. They’re poor -- really poor -- but Carolyn Chute doesn’t condemn them or even keep them at an ironic distance. She celebrates them. “If it runs, a Bean will shoot it!” she writes. “If it falls, a Bean will eat it!”
“[My books] have made the professional-class people in New York very mad because they said things in some of the reviews like, ‘She sounds like she’s proud to be working class. She doesn’t want to be like us. What’s the matter with her?’” Chute once told me. “In fact, there was one reviewer of Beans in The New York Times who kind of caught some of that. She was sharp. . . . I thought she was really on to something the way she kept going, ‘Chute’s nuts.’”
“Well, I mean she was really on to something because it was so different from her thinking.”
Chute has taken her defense of her characters further than most authors. She complained that readers and especially critics have been too quick to find incest in Beans. There was the one incident, sure, she maintained. But that was it. She recalled a social worker approaching her at a reading and telling her that her denial of this central fact about her novel is probably the result of abuse as a child. “I mean, there was even a Rhodes scholar,” Chutes added, her voice quick and emotional, “and he told me what the book meant, and I told him it didn’t, and he said, ‘Well, I’m a Rhodes scholar.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m the author!’ And he didn’t even pronounce my name right.”
It’s Chute as in chickadee, by the way.
Chute was concerned enough about the misreading to take the unusual step of composing a postscript for a 1995 reprinting of Beans. In it she writes: “I often wonder if so many reviewers hadn’t misinterpreted Beans as a book on incest, would anybody have bothered to pick up the book at all? Aren’t the lives of ordinary people, stressed to breaking point by the crumbling of America’s big dream, interesting enough?”
Of course, when I met Chute, she was active in a militia of her own organization and brandishing a Russian-made assault rifle. So some may find it odd that such a woman would wonder about the establishment’s skepticism toward her. But if nothing else, Chute came by her beliefs and her characters honestly. “I have lived poverty,” she once remarked. “I didn’t choose it. No one would choose humiliation, pain and rage.”
Instead, she chose Beans.
“When I finished the book, I’d just lost my kid,” she remembered. “I couldn’t get into the hospital because I didn’t have any health insurance and they treated us like dirt. I was a month overdue. I had a 104 temperature and the baby is starved because its umbilical cord is shrunk away. And the police had to fight with them to let me in.”
Chute, a mother at 16 and grandmother at 37, was eventually admitted. “But then as we go to leave the hospital, they go, ‘How you gonna pay for this?’ So they kill our kid and we’re supposed to pay for it. And the lady goes, ‘Well, I certainly hope you don’t do this again!’”
This is exactly the sort of judgment that Beans is angrily rebelling against. It’s a rebellion, however, that seems to have failed. Instead of inspiring class-consciousness, it has inspired Gen-X irony, as in the case of rock stars Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, who christened their baby Frances Bean because, in the Bill-and-Ted-ish words of Spin magazine, “The Beans of Egypt, Maine is, like, the ultimate white-trash novel.”
I’d love to tell you what this book was about, but I’m afraid it wasn’t about very much for me. There is a lot of blood, gore, fighting, and mistreatment. There are a lot of sexual encounters (thankfully not too graphically depicted) and a lot of references to sexual encounters that have already taken place and produced innumerable sad and unkempt children. There is squalor and poverty and lack of education, and men who have a too easy affinity for guns.
For me, it is fine to expose this way of life and its underbelly if you have some point to make regarding it besides the obvious one--that it exists. I just could not unearth any other reason for this book than that. I did not see any hope for these characters, but I also did not see any awareness in them, any desire to be better or different, any struggle to overcome or any love of or ambition for their children. There were no qualities that seemed to redeem them. They just seemed content to have this squalid way of life and to want to perpetuate it indefinitely.
I kept waiting for something to happen. Not another roll in the hay or senseless fight or unwanted baby...an event that would bring some kind of meaning to one of these characters. I waited for Earlene to realize that the last thing she really wanted to be was a Bean. But, alas, I waited in vain. I suppose once a Bean, always a Bean.
“Una vez que entras en el juego de la asistencia social, ya no te pierden de vista...porque, señora…, cuando eres pobre, ¡apestas!”
Leyendo esta cita que suelta uno de los personajes centrales de esta novela única y sorprendente, pudiera parecer que lo que nos narra aquí Carolyn Chute va a resultar una historia de perdedores totalmente deprimente donde la pobreza sea el único foco central y aunque realmente es así, resulta que es todo lo contrario: el estilo único de esta autora consigue que te sonrías, o te rías a carcajadas y en muchos momentos te diviertas de lo lindo con las salidas de sus personajes. Gracias al estilo único de Carolyn Chute, fresco y totalmente arriesgado en muchos momentos, y a pesar de muchos de los temas que trata, el resultado es una novela totalmente luminosa con personajes que perdurarán en tu memoria precisamente por esa aproximación que hace la autora donde muestra la vida tal cual para unos seres humanos que viven la mayoría de sus vidas al límite.
"«¿Cuándo vamos a ir por el árbol de navidad, papá»? Papá dice: «Pronto». Se pone de pie y mira a su alrededor como si el salón se hubiera convertido en un armario oscuro."
Los Bean de Egypt, Maine es una novela de 1985, que se podría encuadrar dentro de ese gótico sureño más escondido y recóndito en el que se desvelan personajes que pertenecen a una pobreza casi que roza la inverosimilitud si la encuadramos en un país desarrollado como es Estados Unidos: mujeres que no dan descanso a sus cuerpos con el continuo encadenamiento de un embarazo tras otro, niños que quizá deberían ser reclamados por los servicios sociales, el alcohol y la violencia doméstica como vía de escape, personajes que viven fuera de la cobertura de la asistencia sanitaria, buscavidas que cada paso que dan para salir de la pobreza se ven más ahogados en ella, y en definitiva, una forma de vida, que para nosotros algunos lectores, desde nuestros cómodos hogares nos podría parecer scifi, y sin embargo, es la vida misma para muchos, y bajo el arte y la gracia de Carolyn Chute se revela también su llamada de atención que nos viene a decir: -Existen, son reales, aquí os los muestro.…-
"A veces, si sopla el viento de la montaña, el vestido de la mujer alta se pliega alrededor de su cuerpo. Y el hombre del Lincoln contempla ese fenómeno sobrecogedor. Pero luego nada cambia."
Podríamos decir que esta novela no tiene un argumento fijo o lineal sino que es el recorrido que hace la autora en la historia de dos familias que intentan sobrevivir de una manera u otra, encadenando historias, pequeñas historias que a a lo largo de la novela nos ayudarán a ver el conjunto de toda una forma de vida. Cuando comienza, desde el punto de vista de Earlene Pomerleau, una niña que vive con su padre al otro lado de la calle frente a las desvencijadas casas/caravanas de los Bean, somos testigos de la fascinación que estos Bean ejercen sobre ella: al contrario de ella que vive sometida por el férreo fanatismo religioso de su padre y de su abuela, ella es la voyeur de una forma de vida, la de los Bean, que se mueven a sus anchas, en completa libertad., sin restricciones, sin normas como las que tiene ella. Earlene es una niña que pasa mucho tiempo sola, observando tras la ventana todo lo que se desarrolla al otro lado de la acera, y cuando su padre le advierte en contra de acercarse siquiera a alguno de los Bean, más se sentirá ella fascinada por ellos, como la miel para las abejas... y será esa fascinación por lo prohibido lo que irá marcando su infancia y su vida futura.
"Es inquietantemente delgada, una mujer Tinkertoy, ojeras, pies descalzos de dedos largos largos, poseedora de una sabiduría que va más allá del genio, más allá del deseo de comprenderla de cualquier hombre."
A medida que la historia avanza abandonaremos de vez en cuando el punto de vista de Earlene y volveremos a ella de vez en cuando, ya más adulta y ya la percepción de las vivencias no serán tan divertidas como al principio porque lo eran desde el punto de vista de una niña: su percepción de lo que le rodea como adulta ya no será tan luminosa, la vida ya no será un misterio, sino que la realidad de la vida se irá mostrando frente a ella: conoceremos personajes al límite, mujeres que no se arredran ante lo que nosotros podriamos considerar lo politicamente correcto y hombres marcados una desesperanza que no tiene arreglo. Y es un impacto conocer a personajes como Roberta Bean, una mujer libre y al mismo tiempo marcada, y en mi caso ha sido un impacto conocer a Beal Bean, Ojos de zorro, uno de esos personajes maravillosamente esculpidos por la imaginación de la autora: un hombre totalmente vulnerable en un principio y más tarde, debido a los embates de la vida y de los únicos referentes masculinos que tiene, llenarán esta novela con momentos mezcla de aridez, cálidez y también por qué no, de extrema violencia.
En definitiva, Los Bean de Egypt, Maine, es una novela memorable por cómo Carolyn Chute nos sitúa frente a unos personajes al límite permitiéndote empatizar siempre con ellos aunque haya momentos en que resulte difícil entenderlos. Gracias a los dirty por rescatarla del olvido. La traducción es de Javier Lucini.
“Cuando intento recordar cómo era todo, se me tuerce la boca y lloro como nunca he llorado. ¿Amaba aquella vida o la odiaba? La abuela y Dios. Yo nunca les tuve miedo. Papá sí. Pero yo…, yo nunca estuve lo bastante aterrada… ni lo bastante al límite.”
A few pages into this novel, I was reminded of the brilliant beginning of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, "But some people can't tell where it hurts. They can't calm down. They can't ever stop howling."
The Beans in this story are a lot like actual beans. . . hard, small, and prone to flatulence. And, the Beans can't ever stop HOWLING.
Within this extended family, I found some of the most unpleasant characters I've ever encountered in literature. Believe me, you don't want to BE these people, be RELATED to these people, or live ANYWHERE near them.
They are a toxic cocktail of poverty, interbreeding and ignorance.
Yet, Carolyn Chute is their creator, and she has given them VOICE. Such a brilliant use of voice, probably the best I've encountered since William Faulkner.
She is an extraordinary story-teller as well.
I could not put down this book. I wanted to, but I could not. I could not stop reading about this train wreck, which is The Beans of Egypt, Maine.
Remember those frightening freaky hillbillies in Deliverance? (You have to have seen Deliverance. There's no ifs or buts.) Remember those immortal lines
He got a real pretty mouth ain't he? ... You gonna do some prayin' for me, boy. And you better pray good.
Spoken to Jon Voight, who indeed had a real pretty mouth . Who really didn't want to commence to the kind of praying that was being indicated. Not at all.
Well, this here slim novel is about the family whence came those hillbillies. Or okay, Deliverance was in Appalachia, and The Beans is, as is clearly stated in the title, set in Maine. Otherwise, quite similar.
A rather splendid and very creepy novel. I liked it.
Further note on Deliverance : this was Ned Beatty's first role of any significance in a movie, the first of many great character parts. But imagine the scene - all his family are accompanying him to the premiere, they're all really thrilled, there's both grannies, cousins, mum and dad, brother and sister, all agog to see their boy Ned in this role - but Ned himself is looking askance, he's distinctly worried - "y'know it's got some pretty tough scenes, do you think grandma ought to come?" "Aw ned, she's been around, that old gal, she's a tough one, shoot, she wouldn't miss this" "Well, okay, but don't say I didn't warn ya"
Here comes the big scene – and what’s this ? There’s Ned rushing up the side of some steep woodland, and all he’s wearing is big white underpants! And there’s this mountain man guy rushing after him, and he’s grabbed Ned’s pants and pulled them down! And he’s yelling “I bet you can squeal like a pig! C’mon piggy! Squeal!” And Ned is going “Squeeeeeee! Squeeeee!”
Carolyn Chute truly captures rural poverty in this enlightening, often funny, yet depressing work. I came away from this feeling that all our social programs and safety nets just can't compete with the effects of genetic inbreeding and multigenerational poverty. The dullness and hopelessness of their lives is staggeringly painful to read. One only needs to travel to remote areas here in the US to realize there is an entire culture we know very little about. This is very well-written and recommended.
I found this story to be perfectly awful. I have no issue with the author writing about living conditions in remote, economically stressed communities, but I question why the author wrote this story, for it appears to me that she despises the characters. None was interesting. Nothing happened in the story which changed the characters. Nothing was learned.
And I agree completely with the residents of the real Egypt, Maine, who railed against her depiction of characters with no redeeming qualities: many readers thought she was writing about those real people in the real Egypt, Maine. It wouldn't have taken much research to discover that there is already a community by that name. That kind of carelessness is inexcusable.
I grew up in Maine and have lived and worked in places like the real Egypt, and am well aware of the peculiarities of isolated, rural communities; such peculiarities make those communities what they are, and there is a dogged independence curiously blended with a sub-level interdependence on which survival often depended. No matter how deep or long the feud between you and your neighbor, you never let it go too far.
I did not see any respect of the author for her characters.
After reading Merry Men, I needed to devour Carolyn Chute's words with an urgency normally reserved for the need to intake oxygen. This novel is generally considered to be her masterpiece- it lacks the scope of Merry Men, which at first I had a hard time to reconcile, since it was the scope which really married my heart to her writing- but after I got into it, I became hooked. This is a far bleaker, though a bit funnier, book. If your background is far removed from rural poverty, (or perhaps urban poverty?) I think there are areas of this book that must seem freakish- if you are not so far removed from grinding rural or urban poverty, it might discomfort you to be reminded of some of the more dark elements of that.
One thing that amazes me is the compassion that Carolyn Chute has for the men of her novels- angry, passionate, dangerous, murderous men, but she gives them moments of redemption, of purity. And you see that it is that purity which ultimately causes them the greatest pain, when forced to live and act out and have families in untenable circumstances.
I would have loved it if Mrs. Chute and John Steinbeck could have sat down and had a conversation.
This book is not something to read just before you go to bed if you want pleasant dreams. I have been sad and uncomfortable for the week since reading this.
I'm editing/updating my review after reading a few others. Many people looked negatively at this story because it lacks a plot and it's depressing. If you only like books with happy endings, or books with a definite story line, you will likely not enjoy this book.
However, if you are interested in reading a book that is very well written when it comes to characterization, you should enjoy this book for that reason. It's not easy to do, to bring characters to life the way Chute does in this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed her turns of phrase.
I will never forget this book. These characters will stay with me for a long, long time. For me, that's huge when I'm doling out "stars." I'm glad I read this book.
My interest in Caryolyn Chute was piqued by a recent article in the New York Times. The photo alone was enough to get my attention--Chute and her husband decked out in mismatched flannel, bearing arms. Chute has been described as the voice of the rural poor, and according to the Times article, she practices what she preaches. Her home in Maine is unheated and without an indoor toilet. Oh, and she belongs to a militia. "The Beans of Egypt, Maine" was a fascinating read. While the characters engage in many despicable behaviors (incest, domestic violence), at times I couldn't stop myself from feeling empathetic. Chute imparts a great deal of tenderness onto the Bean clan, who are viewed as crude and dispensable by anyone outside the large circle of family. The vernacular is spot on, and I enjoyed Chute's anthropomorphic descriptions of facial hair (Beal Bean's beard takes on a life of its own). There are no happy endings here, and most of the characters seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Nevertheless, I was hopeful until the end that someone (particularly Earlene) would break out of the cycle of pain and despair.
I wanted to like this book...mostly cause I really liked the name...I really wanted to...but I couldn't stop watching cupcake wars for three months straight instead of finishing a book that should have taken one week...and cupcake wars let me tell you gets PRETTY boring after the first 5000 episodes have the exact same plot characters flavors and decorations on every gd cupcake
This is a cautionary tale: If you don't understand how something operates and you get too close, you could be injured. This is a story of poverty and two ways of dealing with it. Both ways highlight the ignorance of children and how it is simply maintained over time and nothing much changes, even as those children grow into adulthood. How the cycle of poverty continues. We, the reader have the most understanding and insight of them all. It is hard not to admire the Beans for their perseverance.
I moved from the city to rural Maine this year. I came across a story in the November 8-9 edition of the Bangor Daily News, about the author, Carolyn Chute. She's written a new book "The School on Heart's Content Road". The story (in the paper) tells of the author's life- living off the grid, as a member of a militia group, and being an author- so I decided to research her a bit.
I began by reading this, her first book. I won't deny the book is disturbing. It talks of some of today's biggest taboo topics- abuse, incest, and being just downright dirt poor. She's chosen Maine as her geographical location for the book, I suppose from knowledge of Maine-- but these intermingled, inbred, connected, tough rural families could be anywhere in the country where there are very poor, very poorly educated "underclass" (for lack of a better word- this isn't a judgement, just a word).
The language of the book is dead on what I've heard since moving here. (example-- one doesn't go outdoors- they go outdoor no 's' in the word. Same goes for indoor, upstair, downstair). It sounds quaint and familiar to me.
The book doesn't justify any of the behavior, doesn't judge, and doesn't offer political commentary ( at least not glaringly so). It simply tells a story of the Beans- a large family in a small town, dysfunction, imperfections and all. It's interesting, thought provoking, and at times even sweet. These tough, hard people have side that always has room for another, takes care of their families (even without the means to do so- nobody seems to be turned away).
I really enjoyed the book. Part of me feels unsettled by the fact that I did enjoy it, that it only took me a day and a half to read it. I couldn't put it down. The writing was superb, and I think the reason it was so good was, not that Mrs. Chute is an excellent story teller, but that there were no apologies for the subject matter, and truth and being forward about certain topics makes them clearer. I can't wait to get her other books and hope that I can enjoy them just as much.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Utterly true depiction of the grinding poverty to be found in the back woods of Maine. Having been born and raised in Maine in the 40's, growing up, I'd never seen this strata of society. Maine's lifestyle, I thought, was gritty, raw and cold, especially on the coast; though, you'll not find the Beans on the coast-- instead, they're tucked back in the woods, in the shadows where the snow barely melts in summer.
Until reading this stunning book of Carolyn's when first published, I had never been told about 'The Beans,' nor did I ever find many of my elders who admitted to knowing about them. Most turned their heads and looked the other way.
Kudos to Carolyn for learning to write and for putting these stories on paper---an incredible peek into her world; she can make your skin prickle.
Slowly rotting mobile homes. A yard full of broken down machinery being sold for parts. The stench of old cigarettes and motor oil. Illegal hunting out of season. Gum disease. Jail time. Illiteracy. Unwanted pregnancies. Developmental problems. Physical and mental abuse. Children who go to bed hungry. Praise Jesus!
This book is a brutally honest depiction of grinding rural poverty presented in a matter-of-fact voice. If you want a hopeful story with plot resolution, look elsewhere. This book doesn’t end, it just stops.
I’m afraid modern urbanites will think these vignettes of a multi-generational tribe of hillbillies in rural Maine are exaggerated… but believe me, they are spot on. These are my people. My dad “got out”.
This was the perfect antidote to my last Oates' read. Chute makes her characteres believable and, for the most part, sympathetic. Even the worst of them is understandable, even if repellent. Her depiction of the effects of grinding poverty is excellent. One gets the feeling that Chute has met and lived with these people, rather than looked at them as rather nasty fodder for her books. I'd recommend this to anyone over the age of 16 or so. Wickedly funny in parts.
This book was a revelation when I read it in my first book club shortly after it was written. Lo these many years later, Chute's voice remains clear in my mind. A glimpse at a world alive in America....and that few of us see or understand. This is as relevant and interesting today as it was years ago.
I have lived almost 3 decades, the entirety of my life, in the great state of Maine. I love Maine. My mother (almost 6 decades, most of her entire life in Maine) recommended this book to me. It was not what I expected. I would rate the first half of the book a 2 and I was forcing myself to see it through. The second half was better and caught my interest some. 3 stars is generous.
My fear is that people will read this and think everyone from Maine is an unintelligent, inbred redneck. Large populations of Mainers live in the southern part of the state (about 2/3rds of the population lives in the bottom 1/3 of the state, south of Augusta) which has been know to be more progressive, modern, urban and hipster. Don't get me wrong, you can still find plenty of people in Kennebunk, ME dressed head to toe in Carhartt with shotguns in the back of their pickups. But not everyone in Maine lives in a shanty and eats squirrel.
When I discussed the book afterwards with my mother, she put thing into perspective for me. This book is so far from how I grew up. I was incredibly fortunate and never struggled for anything. Both my parents came from more modest upbringings and I will never be able to thank them enough for how hard they worked so my brother and I could have more than they did when they were kids. I told my mom that this book was exacerbating a stereotype that I thought was grossly overused. She told me that this book reminded her a lot of how she grew up (she implicitly stated except for the inbreeding part) and she knew a lot of families like this. While this is not necessary the Maine I know and certainly not Maine as a whole, this book reflects certain true parts and aspects of Maine.
A couple takeaways that I enjoyed:
* The author incorporated the unique language that is used in Maine. It is a very unique dialect. She uses phrases and words not only in the dialogue between characters but in the entire TEXT of the book. Ayuh, Mistah, settin out on the porch and the Bean men with all them whiskahhhhhssss. I love it. If you're not from Maine you might not get it.
* One thing that I noticed was that no one in this book had anything. Everyone was broke and just trying to survive. Struggle was everyone's reality. That being said, no one complained and they shared. No one had ANYTHING but everyone shared EVERYTHING. To me, that type of selfless generosity and commitment to family IS Maine.
My friend Carlie (Hi Carlie!), recommended this book way back when I started this blog not long after she recommended The Hunger Games and I picked up a copy back in December 2012. I don’t know why it took so long for me to get around to it, but it did. I should’ve known better based on how much I enjoyed The Hunger Games trilogy andThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, another of her discoveries.
This book really should be mentioned in the same breath of books like The Color Purple and Bastard Out of Carolina. Maybe it is and I’m not aware of it, but if it isn’t I’m not sure why. It was published in 1985 right in between the Color and Carolina and it’s just as harrowing, real and disturbing as either of those. (It’s also compared to Faulkner, but I can’t speak to that as I’ve never read him.)
A friend told me why this book was important and I have read a lot of reviews since finishing it, grasping, it seems, to understand what I may have not understood. But I am finally resigned to the central fact that I just did not enjoy this book. I did not find it interesting, enlightening, or funny. I did not see it as an adequate representation of the "voiceless" as I have been told it is. I did not find the writing to be terribly well-crafted, and the tiny chapters drove me crazy.
If I had to compare it to another book, I would to As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. This is also a book about the rural poor and synthesizes literature with colloquialism and a voice as voiced. But Faulkner does it in a way that you are with one foot out of the pool, knowing that the author is pulling the strings, guiding you, manipulating you even, as you are enveloped in his novel.
But I was not convinced by Chute and suspect that I have been duped, that the criticism in support of the importance of this book is also mislead, and that poor writing and execution was somehow excused.
Chute's depiction of the working-class leaves much to be desired. And I often wondered as I read the book what her true motives were in depicting people as not only uneducated and ignorant but also lacking in any depth or intelligence. Her characters have no regard for their own children's welfare as if they cannot learn anything. None of them read. None of them can ever figure anything out. They are all living in the dark ages. Bonny Loo knows literally nothing but attends school. Chute makes a mockery of the girl's dreams to be a scientist by having her collect "specimens" and then never understanding what happens to the "specimens" (ie, in the fridge). Chute's treatment of Roberta Bean is especially appalling. I was so often offended by her lack of respect for these people, the humor fell flat. The genius in the book, Earlene's father Lee, is so far from genius it's not cute. There are people who never earn much money but are smart, sophisticated, inventive, creative, can read and have table manners! These people are nothing like the working class I know and love in Detroit Michigan.
This is a horror novel. Attack of the hissing babies. No, really, it’s a horror story about things that can happen when you are poor in America.
Like gum disease when you are just a kid, and penny-colored teeth when you get older, and then no teeth at all.
It’s a renegade, complicated book about class in America. If you are poor and do not have health insurance, you can have an eye operation performed in your very own bedroom by the family patriarch or you can go to jail for decent health care. You can eat squirrel or get food stamps, or starve.
The characters and situations are riveting, like a car accident that you can’t stop staring at. It’s not pretty...except maybe the Christmas lights that stay up blinking all year.
The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute (Ticknor & Fields 1985) (Fiction). This tale was referenced in a recent book called White Trash: The 400 Year Untold Story of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg (Viking 2016). That volume noted that The Beans of Egypt, Maine and Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison were late-twentieth-century depictions of poor white families in the literary tradition of William Faulkner. I read them both to see. As to author Carolyn Chute's The Beans of Egypt, Maine, I was taken with her eye for visual detail (no pun intended). I was less impressed with her characterizations of the eponymous Bean family. They are poor, I got that, and wretched poverty influenced the whole of their collective existence. Poor though they were, I just did not find the Bean family to be..….interesting. Pitiful, certainly, but interesting? Pfft. The Beans could be put right out of their generational misery by a large dose of long-overdue social services: food stamps, Section Eight Housing, free health care, and Dependency and Neglect referrals to family court / juvenile court concerning the children. And then we could read something else. My rating: 7/10, finished 4/14/18.
My friends and I read this when it was first published back in the Mezozoic Era, and, boy, did we all enjoy the hilarious, black humor depiction of those trailer trash dinosaurs we all lived across the road from. . .
But I had no idea what was going to happen to published literature over the course of the next thirty years, so it didn't occur to me to read it simply to find out how well-written it was.
This time I do, so it did. And, wow, for the first two-thirds of the novel was I in love with Carolyn Chute.
Wacky Earlene Pomerleau lives across the road (not even a road, just a right-of-way) from a trailer with a door like the lid of a tin can that's packed to the gills with Beans. Bean kids, Bean babies, Bean mothers and aunts, and old Pa Bean, with his rascally adult sons driving skid steers and logging trucks, and a veritable plethora of teen Beans. They're all as wide as they are tall, with thick black hair and broad noses, and their unflappable ability to live day-to-day exceeds practicality to the extent of an almost mystical resonance. This is Tortilla Flat for Nor'easterners who vividly remember their school days.
Sadly, it appears Chute's novel ran out of steam before either she or her agent/editor did, because the last part of the story degenerates past a valiant attempt to create a mirror between modern trailer trash and Biblical patriarchs and right into a climax you can see a mile off.
While all I want to know is what Earlene did with the blue cake the Bean girls gave her when she was hiding out in the full-sized armchair in the hole the Bean kids dug underneath their front yard.