On the surface, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, is a story of two poverty-stricken families trying to get by the best they can. Earlene Pomerleau has been brought up by her father and is heavily influenced by her god-fearing grandmother. Earlene, who is essentially motherless, spends much of her childhood alone.
Across the right of way lives Roberta Bean who, although unmarried, is almost always pregnant. She is constantly surrounded by a gaggle of her "babies" as she works in her garden or tends to her chores. The Bean men, who are known to drink too much and to have bad tempers, work as loggers. Rueben is the meanest of the bunch, and Beal may be the kindest.
These families are what are known as the working poor. They have jobs, but many don't have electricity, indoor plumbing, or access to healthcare. Their houses are falling apart, their cars are rusty, their clothes are dirty, and most can barely read.
Chute introduces us to a life we may not want to face. How can there be people who are forced to live like the Beans in the United States of late twentieth century? But in exposing us to this rural and poor world, Chute also shows us the individuals who live within those run-down shacks, and we see that we actually have much in common with the Beans. We try to help our families, we try to feed our children, and we do what we have to find some love and safety.
The Beans of Egypt, Maine, is written almost as if it were a series of interlinked short stories. We advance through time in spurts rather than in a slow progression. The story is told alternately from Earlene's perspective and from an anonymous observer and focuses on Earlene and Beal. The characters and their world become very real, and I would not be surprised to run into a Bean someday in Maine.
The book does suffer from one bothersome flaw, however. As I understand it, Chute reworked the novel after it had already been published. I read the second, or so-called finished, version. At the end of the novel we find an author's note that explains why she rewrote the book. That would be okay, except she then goes on to tell us the proper interpretation of several scenes. I found this to be somewhat annoying. As a reader, I should be left alone to interpret the story in whatever manner I want to. Furthermore, if Chute was unsure that she was getting her point across, she should have reworked those scenes when the book was republished rather than explain them in the backmatter.
The novel is not action driven, and it reminds the reader of the more unsavory parts of life in America. But if you like a character study and want to learn more about people who may be different from you, then I recommend the novel. I have continued to think about the characters and the setting. You will likely be too curious to skip the author's note, but don't say I didn't warn you. I also advise you to avoid reading the publisher summary of the novel, because it contains several major spoilers.
Carolyn Chute does not have a website. For more insight into that choice, see the Wikipedia article about the author. Chute wrote two other novels that are set in Egypt, Maine. If you have reviewed this book, let me know, and I'll add a link to your blog.
Published by Grove Press
Challenges: A-Z Title, Well-Seasoned Reader, New to Me Author, 999, 100+