As with other books of challenging subject matter, reading The Beans of Egypt, Maine is not a relaxing experience. Carolyn Chute’s characters are sometimes difficult to like, and the depth of the poverty the story embraces is often overwhelmingly distressing. It is not a world most readers have experienced: a world of extremely poor, low-economic-class whites, and the struggles of their hand-to-mouth existence.
Part of the difficulty in reading this collection of stories about the Bean family is in placing oneself empathetically in the characters’ roles. They are somewhat stereotypical hillbillies, a la the Clampetts, steeped in their rural culture, with a vocabulary and perspective all their own. For that reason, and the illiteracy, abusive relationships and incestual overtones, it definitely is an uncomfortable book to encounter.
It may be that reading unpleasant books is good for the spirit and psyche. However, the characters in this book have had horrendous lives, and the cycle is repeating itself in these pages. The young and impressionable Beal Bean sees and mimics the traits and behaviors of his Uncle Reuben, including the spousal violence and rage. I found myself wondering, also, why the name Reuben is one of “those names” that seem to be given to novel writers’ poor whites. Remembering the novel
Cold Comfort Farm, (written in 1932 by Stella Gibbons), it is easy to see how these kinds of characterizations may have a following throughout time. In fact, Gibbons’ strange brothers are named Seth and Reuben, which is a droll sidebar to my query about names. Compassion and sympathy may be roused by such moving tales, but the concept of such poverty and such dire living circumstances are probably beyond the ken of most readers.
Carolyn Chute, most remarkably, did live this life, making the book in some ways more autobiographical, perhaps, than fictional. Pregnant as a teenager, a grandmother by the age of 37, she decided to use writing to give birth to a different life for herself. She has stated that, “This book was “involuntarily researched...” as she lived the life of anger and anguish, poverty and humiliation. Her efforts to break out of the cycle of poverty and use her writing to open the eyes of others to such American deprivation are admirable. The writing is beautiful, with words flowing in the Maine vernacular from Chute’s pen.
The book is worthy of reading to open the mind’s eye to conditions in this country that are dismal and in need of remedy. Yet more than that, it is a book that would benefit from discussion in reader’s groups, libraries and even online. For after reading such difficult material, and in forcing ourselves to face the uncomfortable aspects of Carolyn Chute’s characters, we need an outlet to talk and analyze our reactions, and bring us to the reality of the circumstances that Chute knows all too well. Only then will the impact of such fiction be felt, and utilized in the way that truly befits the readers and their place in practicing curative steps for societal ills.