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‘The Beans of Egypt, Maine’ a spectacular, quirky read

Carolyn Chute’s blockbuster novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine was a New York Times best-seller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection. It is about the impoverished townspeople of fictitious Egypt, Maine, told with total honesty and brutal detail. The author herself lived in poverty so it is a way of life that she knows firsthand.

The main character, Earlene Pomerleau, grows up across from the Bean family, whose sheer numbers dominate the town. She eventually marries Beal Bean at an early age, a super fertile “mountain man” who has children by different women all over Egypt. He is violent, uncouth and is obsessed with sex. He beard carries the remnants of food from many meals. He reeks of body odor, has a pus-filled eye and fills the marital bed with sand and dirt from his unwashed work clothes when he lies down to sleep at night.

We see life in Egypt through Earlene’s young eyes and what a scenario it is! Its resident men father multiple children, often out of wedlock, usually drunk, frequently absent, often unemployed. They stink, as there usually isn’t running water in the shacks they call home, and there rarely is electricity.

Its women are constantly pregnant, five or more children the norm, with everyone wearing shabby hand-me-downs passed from generation to generation. Houses are mere drafty shacks with shower curtains for bedroom partitions instead of doors or walls. Several family members, adults and children, sleep in one room at night. Vehicles – rusted and parked in mud or ice-encrusted driveways in the brutal Maine winters – have gas tanks that are often empty or close to it. Skeletons of broken appliances and cars litter the front and backyards.

I was enthralled from the first sentence. Chute’s writing is conversational, darkly humorous and incredibly graphic, but love and a compassionate spirit shine through. Even though the children are unkempt, underweight and often have rotten teeth and gums, they are genuinely loved and cared for by their poor mothers with the limited resources available to them.

Hard to put down, this is one book I hated to see end – a spectacular yet quirky read.

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