“The Bean Trees” is a novel by the American author Barbara Kingsolver that was published in 1988. The novel was Kingsolver’s first and was generally well-reviewed by critics. As a feminist and an advocate for the rights of immigrants, Kingsolver wrote the book to reflect many of these deeply-held beliefs.
The protagonist of the novel, a woman named Taylor Greer, leaves her hometown in Kentucky and decides to travel west until she used car breaks down. While stopping in Cherokee Nation lands in Oklahoma, Taylor meets a strange woman in a diner who insists that she take her baby. Taylor initially denies her but the woman leaves with no further explanation and Taylor brings the child back to her hotel. While bathing the child, Taylor discovers that the baby is a girl and that she has been sexually and physically abused. She decides to care for the girl after that and nicknames her Turtle.
Taylor moves to Tucson, Arizona and settles with a young, single mother named Lou Ann whose husband has recently left. The novel follows the experiences of the two women and of two Guatemalan immigrants who live across the street.
“The Bean Trees” is narrated by a young woman from a poor family living in Pittman County, Kentucky in the 1980’s. The young woman, Marietta Greer begins the story by saying that although her name is Marietta, her mother has always called her Missy. Missy recounts that she has been afraid of inflating tires ever since she witnessed a tractor tire explode and send a friend father’s flying over the top of the Standard Oil sign. Missy says that she and the friend, Newt Hardbine, look very much alike and both have poor families. It is practically a tradition in the town for one young person from every generation to be the one to move out of town or ‘get away’ and no one in town could predict if it would be her or Newt who would ‘get away’ this time.
However, although Missy was not a star student in high school, she did continue attending while Newt dropped out to work on his father’s tobacco farm. He later impregnated a girl from school and married her. Missy made up her mind early to avoid teen pregnancy and began working at the local hospital. While working there one day, Newt and his wife, Jolene was brought in. Jolene was bleeding from a bullet wound and Newt was dead. The narrative implies that after years of abuse from his father, Newt was so psychologically damaged that he shot his wife and himself. After this, Missy decides to leave Pittman County after saving up to buy a used Volkswagen. Before she leaves, her mother makes sure that she is capable of caring for the car and changing the tires.
Missy decides that she will drive the car until the gas runs out and then change her name to whatever town she ends up in and start a new life. Eventually, she makes it to Taylorville and calls herself Taylor from then on. She vows to drive her car west until it dies and set up a new life in whatever town she lands in. However, the car dies on the Great Plains of Oklahoma and Taylor finds the vast, open area too depressing to call home.
Taylor breaks down in Cherokee Nation land. Luckily, she has been told by her mother that they have ‘Head Rights’ or, enough Cherokee blood that they are allowed to live on Cherokee reservations if they choose.
Taylor decides to stay the night in the town and goes to a diner to have dinner. While there she writes a postcard to her mother. Also in the diner are a Native American man, a white cowboy who jokes rudely and loudly and a frightened-looking Native woman with a baby in her arms.
When Taylor leaves the diner she is followed by the woman and handed the baby. The woman tells her to take the baby. She warns Taylor not to go back in the diner and insinuates that some harm will come to her if she does. Confused, Taylor tells the woman that she cannot take the baby as she does not have a birth certificate for it. The woman explains that the baby belongs to her deceased sister and that no one knows or cares that it is alive. The woman then walks away, leaving Taylor with the baby. Taylor cannot tell if the child is a boy or a girl until she arrives at a hotel and gives it a bath. While bathing the child, Taylor discovers that it is a girl and that it has been physically and sexually abused.
Taylor writes a letter to her mother saying that she has found her ‘Head Rights’ and that they are coming with her.
In chapter two, the narrative voice changes to an anonymous narrator who introduces us the character of Lou Ann Ruiz, a former Kentuckian now living in Tucson, Arizona. Lou Ann is pregnant and has just been left by her husband, Angel. Lou Ann thinks back to the day that her husband left her. It was Halloween and she has been to the doctor to check up on her pregnancy. She took the bus home and enjoyed the fact that she was being allowed so much personal space by strangers since she was pregnant. She gets off of the bus and begins walking, passing ‘Jesus Is Lord Used Tires’ a used tire store with a large painted mural of Jesus outside.
When she got home, she realized that Angel had left her and was mostly surprised by the things he had chosen to take with him. She realizes that he only took novelty items and nothing practical and feels that this tells her more about him than their five years of marriage did. Lou Ann goes to bed and discovers that her feet are so swollen that she cannot get her shoes off. She cries herself to sleep.
Chapter three switches back to Taylor’s narrative. Though she has no money, Taylor manages to stay through Christmas at the hotel in Oklahoma by helping out the kind woman who owns it with chores and earning her keep. She has nicknamed the baby Turtle because of it’s firm grip. Taylor and Turtle leave Oklahoma after New Year’s and arrive in Arizona where Taylor decides to stay.
Taylor pulls off the road when she realizes that she has two flat tires and finds Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. Taylor meets the woman who runs the store, Mattie and though Mattie is kind, Taylor discovers that she cannot afford to buy new tires for her car. Mattie feels bad about this and invites Taylor and Turtle inside for coffee. Mattie explains to Taylor that her late husband, a devoted Christian, opened the store. Taylor tells Mattie that she cannot pay for her tires and Mattie suggests that she work for her for a while. Taylor tells her that she has experience in: “housecleaning, x-rays, urine tests, and red blood counts. And picking bugs off bean vines”. This delights Mattie as she has several bean vines that were given to her. Taylor and Turtle move into the Hotel Republic because it is withing walking distance of the tire store.
Taylor enjoys Tucson as it is a bustling city that is very different from where she has lived previously. She quickly becomes friends with a waitress at a place called Burger Derby.
The novel switches back to Lou Ann’s narrative. Lou Ann’s mother and grandmother have come to visit to see her new baby, Dwayne Ray and Angel has temporarily moved back in to keep up appearances in front of them. Granny Logan, Lou Ann’s grandmother, brings her an old coke bottle filled with cloudy water. Granny Logan tells her it is water from the Tug Fork River, where Lou Ann was baptized as a baby. Granny Logan tells Lou Ann to baptize Dwayne Ray with the water. Soon, Lou Ann’s mother and grandmother leave and she briefly imagines going back to Kentucky with them but realizes that they will most likely bicker at each other the whole way back.
After they leave, Lou Ann nurses Dwayne Ray when Angel returns to gather his things and move back out. Angel sees the bottle of Tug Fork River water and asks what it is. When he is told he pours it down the sink.
Taylor works at the Burger Derby for a short time before a quarrel with her boss gets her fired. She begins looking for a cheap place to live. She finds two ads in the paper that appeal to her, the latter of which reads: “New mom needs company. Own room, low rent, promise I won’t bother you. Kids okay”. The first add turns out to be a woman named Fei who lives in a collective with two other people La-Isha and Timothy. Unfortunately, Taylor finds them to be too hippie-ish and is uncomfortable with the restraints of living with the non-caffeine using, soy-milk collective.
The second house is Lou Ann’s which is located right across the street from Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. Taylor and Lou Ann bond immediately. They realize that they are both from Kentucky and within ten minutes they are laughing together and drinking Pepsi. Taylor tells Lou Ann how she came to be Turtle’s guardian. Lou Ann is eager for Taylor to move in but confesses that she feels that she and Turtle are too intelligent and empowered for her and Dwayne Ray, who mostly scrape by. Taylor tells Lou Ann that she is: “just a plain hillbilly from East Jesus Nowhere with this adopted child that everybody keeps telling me is dumb as a box of rocks”. This speech delights Lou Ann who is happy that Taylor seems to speak the same way she does. She agrees to let Taylor move in immediately.
Though she still has a fear of inflating tires, Taylor agrees to work for Maddie at the tire shop. Maddie explains to Taylor that tire explosions are relative to their size and that car tires do not explode in the same way that tractor tires do. As part of the deal of her new job, Maddie gives Taylor two new tires for her car. Lou Ann babysits Turtle while Taylor works all day. Maddie tells Taylor that she considers her house somewhat of a sanctuary for anyone who needs it. She currently lives with several Spanish-speaking people. The people come and go and are usually brought and later taken elsewhere by a priest named Father William.
Taylor goes shopping for a book for Turtle as she never had one as a child, and finds a Valentine’s day card for her mother. Lou Ann suggests that Taylor give Turtle a real name and shops for a book of baby names in order to find one.
One day when Taylor is in a bad mood, she becomes frustrated that she and Lou Ann are beginning to act like an old married couple, or in her words: “Like Blondie and Dagwood” and invited Lou Ann to have a drink with her. Lou Ann confesses that she does not like drinking as she is always worried that she’s going to get drunk and do something embarrassing. She tells Taylor that she once got drunk with Angel and a few friends and went stargazing. The next day, Angel asked her if she remembered the meteor shower that they had seen the night before and she admitted that she didn’t remember any of it. She worries that Angel may have left her over this embarrassment. Taylor asks her if she ever considered that there was no meteor shower and that Angel fabricated it to make her feel bad about herself. Lou Ann realizes that she may be right and that she never even considered that possibility.
Taylor tells Lou Ann that she has a philosophy about men that she picked up from a manual about installing a toilet: “Parts are included for all installations, but no installation requires all of the parts”. Taylor says that she does not believe that a man exists who could use all of the parts of her personality. This makes Lou Ann riotous with laughter.
Though it is March, it is warm in Arizona and Lou Ann suggests that she and Taylor invite Maddie on a picnic with the children. Maddie also brings along a Guatemalan husband and wife that are living with her named Estevan and Esperanza. Esperanza seems oddly hypnotized by Turtle and Estevan tells Taylor that the baby looks like a child they knew back home. Lou Ann, who is a worrier by nature, tells Taylor not to swim after eating, but Taylor reassures her that it will be fine and does so anyway.
On the way back home, the group has to stop the car suddenly to avoid hitting a family of quails crossing the road and Turtle does a somersault off of the car seat. Luckily, this only makes the baby laugh and Taylor thinks that she must be doing alright as a mother if the child’s first noise is a laugh. Soon, Turtle says her first word, ‘Bean’ when she and Taylor are helping Maddie in the garden.
Maddie is scheduled to appear on the news, and the friends all gather to watch her. Taylor is surprised to see that Maddie talks about human rights and the concept of asylum in the United States for immigrants. Two elderly neighbors, Mrs. Parsons and Edna Poppy are visiting as well and they make disparaging comments about immigrants in front of Estevan and Esperanza.
Taylor soon discovers that her mother is remarrying and feels disillusioned by the idea. Lou Ann says that she should feel good that her mother is enjoying her later years. Lou Ann discovers that Angel stopped by her house while she was at work and confesses to Taylor that she would probably let him move back in if he asked. Taylor tries to apologize to Estevan for the elderly neighbor’s comments and he brushes it off. The two compliment each other’s speech as she thinks his English is impeccable and he likes her Kentucky accent.
Taylor takes Turtle for a doctor’s check-up and discovers that because of the babies history of abuse she has failed to grow correctly. She is actually three years old but undersized. The doctor assures Taylor that this condition is reversible with proper care. Lou Ann tells Taylor that Angel only came back because he wanted to tell her that he was leaving town to join a rodeo. Taylor is relieved and the two argue. During the argument, Taylor refers to the month of April and Turtle looks up sharply. From this, the two women gather that Turtle’s real name is actually April.
Esperanza attempts to commit suicide by overdosing on aspirin. Mattie takes her to the hospital while Taylor stays with Estevan to keep him company. The two get to talking and Taylor realizes that she is attracted to Estevan. Estevan talks about the horrors that he and his wife faced back in Guatemala and confesses that they had a daughter named Ismene who was taken by the corrupt government during a raid.
Taylor and Estevan eventually fall asleep on the couch together but when Taylor wakes she feels guilty for Esperanza and kisses Estevan’s hand before going to her own bed. After Esperanza returns home, Taylor visits her and apologizes for the loss of her daughter. She tells Esperanza that she hopes that she will not give up hope for a better life and Esperanza begins to cry.
Lou Ann tells Taylor that her tendency to worry began shortly before Dwayne Ray was born. She says that she had a dream which she saw as prophetic that said that he would not live to see the year 2000. Since then she has been worried that something is going to happen to him. Taylor tells her that her worrying makes her a good mother.
Angel writes to Lou Ann and tells her that he misses her and that he wants her and the baby to come and live with him. Taylor worries that Lou Ann will take him up on this as well as that Esperanza and Estevan are going to be found out and deported. She knows that their government will assassinate them if they return to their home country and they cannot seek asylum in the United States without any documentation of this.
One day when she returns home Lou Ann is frantic. She says that something has happened to Turtle while she was being watched by Mrs. Parsons in the park. A man attacked them and Mrs. Parsons, being elderly and blind, could not defend herself or the baby. Taylor is alarmed to see that Turtle’s eyes are as blank as they were when she first found her in Oklahoma. The police are called and a medical examiner finds no evidence of molestation but does find some bruises on Turtle’s shoulder. Lou Ann is angered by this and wants to find the man that did it but Taylor is in shock and strangely despondent. Because of the incident, the police discover that Taylor has no legal claim on Turtle. A social worker tells Taylor that Turtle is technically a ward of the state. Lou Ann instructs Taylor to fight to get some claim over the child but Taylor is so depressed that she has already given up.
Taylor speaks to Maddie about the subject and with renewed confidence, talks to the social worker about the laws regarding child custody in Oklahoma. The social worker gives Taylor a number to call in Oklahoma and Taylor decides to drive back to where she found Turtle to look for the girl’s relatives. By coincidence, Maddie has found a new sanctuary for Esperanza and Estevan in Oklahoma and asks Taylor to bring them with her on her trip. This is a dangerous trip, as Taylor may be caught transporting illegal immigrants over state lines. During a routine immigration check on the border of New Mexico, Taylor freezes when she asked who Turtle belongs to and Estevan pretends that Turtle is he and his wife’s daughter. Esperanza entertains Turtle in the backseat on the drive and begins calling her Ismene which makes Taylor worry that she is bonding too much with the child.Back in Oklahoma, the group stay at the inn where Taylor first stayed with Turtle and discover that the nice woman who worked there has since died.
Back in Oklahoma, the group stays at the inn where Taylor first stayed with Turtle and discover that the nice woman who worked there has since died. In an effort to find Turtle’s relatives, the group travel to the seat of the Cherokee Nations in the Ozark Mountains. They are mostly unsuccessful, but Turtle shouts: “Mama!” when driving by a cemetery and this revelation leads Taylor to discover that Turtle’s biological mother is dead. She tells the girl that she wants to keep her and raise her and thinks that Turtle understands. She asks Esperanza and Estevan to pose as Turtle’s parents and go with her to a lawyers office to sign papers saying that Taylor can adopt Turtle. Esperanza begins to cry during the process and Taylor realizes that the memory of her own child is upsetting the woman. But Esperanza tells them that she had to give up her child and that she may be able to have more when she and her husband get more settled.
The couple sign a document giving Turtle up for adoption to Taylor. After this, Taylor drives them to the church where the Reverend and his wife are going to shelter them. Taylor is saddened to see them go, and especially sad to say goodbye to Estevan as she feels she was in love with him. He kisses her before he leaves and afterward, Taylor calls her mother from a pay phone and tells her that she has lost her love. Her mother comforts her and Taylor tells her that she has adopted a child.
Taylor talks to Turtle later and Turtle manages to tell her that she wants to see Lou Ann by calling her: “Ma Woo-Ahn”. Taylor tells her that she only has one Ma and that is her. She tells her that her name is now April Turtle Greer.
Taylor calls Lou Ann and asks her if she is leaving to live with Angel. Lou Ann insists that she isn’t and says that she is dating a new man. But she adds that Taylor and Turtle are her families and she intends to keep living with them. Lou Ann is relieved to hear that Taylor has adopted Turtle. Taylor and Turtle leave Oklahoma to head back to Tucson.
Taylor Greer – the main character of the novel. Taylor is a gutsy and outgoing woman who takes charge of her life by leaving her hometown and intending to settle where ever her car breaks down. Taylor’s quirky and fun voice is the backbone of the novel. She sees and explains things in a wholly original fashion, expressing her amazement at the customs and landscape of the American southwest. Taylor only settles in Tucson because it strikes her as outlandish and different from anything she has known before. Taylor contends with poverty and surprise motherhood with her wit intact.
Although she is never necessarily naive, over the course of the novel Taylor learns more and more about the trials that other people are facing and, in particular about the trials of Estevan and Esperanza as well as the abuse that Turtle suffered. Taylor has a very kind heart and sympathizes with the struggles of her loved ones and begins caring for societies cast-offs almost without thought. Unlike many more traditional female heroines, Taylor’s story does not revolve around finding a man but instead focuses on the women in her life.
Lou Ann – Taylor’s roommate and eventual best friend. Lou Ann is a worrisome new mother who fears for the safety of her child after what she feels was a premonition several months before his birth. Lou Ann is, in some ways more feminine and womanly than Taylor. Even after her husband leaves her, she wishes that he would come back and expresses a belief that love should last forever. However, Lou Ann does have a bit of a spine and does move to Tucson and stay there despite the fact that her female relatives are against it and wish her to come home. During the novel, Lou Ann undergoes a change from a traditionally dependent housewife into a strong, capable single mother. By the end she and Taylor make their own family with the children.
Estevan – the Guatemalan man who brings his wife to America and stays with Maddie for a few months to avoid being arrested as an illegal immigrant. Estevan is the only male character of consequence in the book and the only one who has any real growth. Estevan’s calm personality and kindness represent the opposite ideal to the traditionally chauvinistic American male. As a good man, he provides a counter to the other, more predatory and villainous men in the book, such as Turtle’s abuser and Angel. Perhaps this is because as a man of color and an illegal immigrant, he understands better the disadvantaged plight of women. He has seen destruction and been persecuted because of who he is. Estevan and Taylor form a relationship which, although it almost develops into something more on Taylor’s part, stays platonic. However, Estevan clearly considers Taylor a dear friend and confesses to her the story of the day when his daughter was taken and how it has affected his wife.
Turtle – Taylor’s adopted daughter. A small girl that was given up by an aunt to Taylor outside of a diner. Turtle is underdeveloped both mentally and physically because of a history of sexual and physical abuse. Taylor nicknames the girl Turtle because of the strong grip that she exhibits. As the novel moves forward, Turtle, reassured that Taylor will care for her properly, begins to become increasingly talkative and catches up with her growth.
Maddie – a woman who’s the owner of Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. She was a mother figure to the book characters. Maddie is perhaps the most surprising character in the novel as at first seems to be a reserved, religious woman but is later revealed to be a heroic, intelligent, advocate for immigrant civil rights. Maddie is very supportive of Taylor but does not push her to demonstrate any acts of heroism, instead taking a softer approach. Maddie’s advocacy for immigrants obviously extends outside of the scope of the novel and is surprising to her friends when it is revealed.
Barbara Kingsolver Biography
Barbara Kingsolver was born on April 8th, 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland. Her father, a doctor, moved the family to the rural town of Carlisle, Kentucky when she was just a girl. For a short time when she was a child, Kingsolver lived with her family in the Democratic Republic of the Congo while her parents did public health work there.
Kingsolver attended DePauw University in Indiana and began her lifelong activism there with protests against the Vietnam War. She graduated in 1977 with a Bachelor’s degree in Science and lived in France for a year before eventually settling in Tucson, Arizona. In the mid-1980’s, Kingsolver began her writing career as a science writer for the University of Arizona which then led to some work for the Tucson Weekly newspaper. She soon submitted a short story to another local newspaper and won a contest. This began her career in fiction.
In 1985, Kingsolver married Joseph Hoffmann and two years later gave birth to a daughter named Camille. Kingsolver’s breakout novel, “The Bean Trees” was published in 1988 and quickly followed a few years later with a sequel called, ‘Pigs in Heaven’ (1993).
In 1990, dissatisfied with America’s involvement in the first Gulf war, Kingsolver moved with her daughter to the Canary Islands. After returning to America two years later, she separated from her husband and married another man named Steve Hopp with whom she had a daughter named Lily. In 1998, Kingsolver’s most well-known novel, “The Poisonwood Bible” was released and saw immediate success. The novel was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Prize of South Africa.
In the year 2000, Kingsolver created a prize to support authors who have as yet unpublished works that reflect social justice issues. The prize is called “The Bellwether Prize” and is awarded in even-numbered years. That same year she was awarded the “National Humanities Medal” by then-president Bill Clinton. Kingsolver has since published 3 more novels, “Prodigal Summer” (2000), “The Lacuna” (2009) and, her most recent novel, “Flight Behavior”, (2012).
In 2004, Kingsolver and her family moved to Washington County, Virginia where they currently live.