The Beans of Egypt, Maine
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~
You probably wouldn’t want to live next door to the Bean family. There are a lot of Bean woman, a lot of Bean men, and a lot of Bean children. The Beans conceive children (sometimes with other family members) as carelessly as they raise them, and they are, to put it charitably, redneck trash. There are a lot of other adjectives that might also be applied to them: dirty, poor, ignorant, feckless, troublesome, contentious and scary.
Earlene Pomerleau lives with her tiny father, Lee Pomerleau, across the road from the turquoise-blue Bean trailer that is strung year-round with Christmas lights. As a child, she is alternately repelled and fascinated by the Beans. Her father and her Scripture-spouting grandmother warn her to stay away from the Beans, but she mixes with them every chance she gets.
The head Bean is Rubie (Reuben) Bean. He is large and crude, with a full, black beard. He is also illiterate. He doesn’t have a very good record with wives or with women in general. One of his wives, the one named Marie, says to a visitor: Did I tell you my ex-husband used to beat the shit out of me?
Rubie Bean is fertile and sexual. He has lots of children, maybe some that he doesn’t even know about. One of his sons is Beal Bean. He figures prominently in the story. He is the image of his father, Rubie Bean. He also has a way with women and is the father of many children, including offspring with his aunt.
When Earlene is a young woman, she has a fight with her father when he washes her mouth out with shampoo and runs away from home, where she consequently ends up spending the night with Beal Bean. He impregnates her on that night and she ends up marrying him, much to the chagrin of her father and grandmother. Several months later, she has a daughter whom she names Bonnie Loo.
Earlene’s life with Beal Bean is not an easy one. He is frequently out of work, gets into fights regularly, and is an all-round hell-raiser. Earlene, for some reason we don’t quite understand, is deeply in love with him. He will only ever be trouble for her. As long as she is married to him, she will never rise out of her redneck-trash status.
Carolyn Chute’s 1985 novel, The Beans of Egypt Maine, is a colorful and compelling novel with fascinating characters—funny and memorable reading. It is an important addition to the sub-genre of American literature known as “redneck-trash” literature. Other titles in this sub-genre include The Death of Sweet Mister and Tomato Red by Danial Woodrell and Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell. For my money, people on the lower end of the socio-economic scale make for much more interesting reading than the PHDs with their angst-ridden marriages and left-leaning politics.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp