***WARNING: Contains spoilers for The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver***

In the sequel to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, we catch up with a slightly more mature and settled Taylor, who is living with her musician boyfriend Jax and her adopted daughter Turtle, now six. But of course, things can’t stay calm and secure for long. As in the last book, the main conflict arises from an outside threat to Taylor’s motherhood. A young and idealistic Cherokee lawyer sees Taylor and Turtle interviewed on television and begins a crusade to ascertain whether Turtle’s adoption was legal, and to track down her family.

Though Taylor and Turtle are still the central characters around whom the story revolves, this book is actually more about the peripheral characters. The story of each – Taylor’s mother, her boyfriend, and some new characters whose connection isn’t immediately apparent – is shared in turn, and we circle closer back to Taylor and Turtle with each subsequent story. We also get a few glimpses inside Turtle’s head in this book, which shows us just how deep the scars from her early life are, and how much she struggles to keep her darkness at bay.

The Bean Trees wasn’t exactly a happy book – when we meet Turtle it’s clear she has been badly abused – but the story is nonetheless imbued with a sense of whimsy and hope that buoys it even when we’re seeing the worst side of the world. This book definitely had some beautiful moments and hopeful outcomes, but overall I found it to be more realistic and dark. There are times when we see Taylor nearly broken in a way she never was as a younger woman. While in the first book she was riding twists of fate outside of her control and just doing the best she could to stay upright, in this book she has both more agency and less. She has decided that Turtle is her family,and has accepted full responsibility for her, so their relationship is something she has now chosen. But the weight of that responsibility hangs heavy, and for the first time we see Taylor running from, rather than towards, her future.

This book addresses some of the problematic elements in the first book – primarily how Turtle will retain some sense of identity when so far removed from her cultural and familial roots, and whether she should have been so definitively removed from them in the first place. She had been abused, and the immediate concern in The Bean Trees was her safety, leaving her cultural identity low on the list. But that is the central focus of this book, which asks important questions about her future. How can her bond with Taylor be balanced with what she could gain from a connection with her Cherokee roots? Can Taylor give her a strong enough sense of self to withstand the cruelty of a society that will cast her in a harmful stereotype? Can Taylor even understand the challenges Turtle will face or explain to her where she comes from? Is there anyone in Turtle’s family deserving of a chance to know her? And, more importantly, does Turtle deserve to know them? These are vital questions, and ones that weren’t addressed in the first book.

I couldn’t pick a favourite between these two books, because I found them both satisfying in slightly different ways. I’m glad I read these back to back, because I think that’s the best way to read them. Either book taken alone is beautifully written and full of characters who will become as real to you as if they were telling you their stories face-to-face. But while the first one misses meaningful exploration of the cultural and legal implications of Taylor and Turtle’s situation, the second book misses the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sense of adventure that makes the first seem almost magical at times. There are still issues with cultural interplay and representation, and I’m not sure whether the Cherokee culture is accurately portrayed or if the legal decisions are realistic. But from a storytelling perspective, I loved the emotional impact these stories had and the relationships I got to watch grow and unfold between characters I came to care deeply about. If you’re a fan of character-driven fiction that examines the ties that make and break family, you definitely don’t want to miss out on these books. They’re firmly placed in my list of favourites.

When six-year-old Turtle Greer witnesses a freak accident at the Hoover Dam, her insistence on what she has seen and her mother’s belief in her lead to a man’s dramatic rescue. But Turtle’s moment of celebrity draws her into a conflict of historic proportions. The crisis quickly envelops not only Turtle her mother, Taylor, but everyone else who touches their lives in a complex web connecting their future with their past.

Pigs in Heaven travels the roads from rural Kentucky and the urban Southwest to Heaven, Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation as it draws the reader into a world of heartbreak and redeeming love, testing the boundaries of family and the many separate truths about the ties that bind.Goodreads

Book Title: Pigs In Heaven
Author: Barbara Kingsolver
Series: Yes – Greer Family #2
Edition: Paperback
Published By: Harper Perennial
Released: May 7, 2013 (originally released 1993)
Genre: Fiction, Diverse, Family, Character-Driven
Pages: 384
Date Read: May 17-20, 2017
Rating: 8/10

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