Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The Bean Trees is the story of a spirited young woman who leaves her rural Kentucky home to head west and ends up forming a nontraditional family. Her new family works largely because of the simple goodwill of those involved and because of their mutual need to survive through difficult personal times. Shortly after Marietta Greer (who changes her name to Taylor once she gets on the road) sets out from Kentucky, she acquires an abused child, whom she takes in at first almost begrudgingly, but with increasing warmth and good humor. She settles in Tucson, Arizona, where she develops a friendship and creates a home with another single mother and her son, learning cooperation and responsibility in the process.
When Taylor leaves her mother and her rural Kentucky home, she is seeking only adventure. Taylor has lived a rather uneventful life. She grew up without a father, and there were few opportunities for her. Her mother worked as a cleaning lady in rich people’s homes. During high school, Taylor got a job as a lab assistant at the local hospital, but several years after high school, that, too, seemed to be a dead end. When she managed to save up enough money to buy a car, she bought a 1955 Volkswagen and headed west in an open, adventuresome mood.
Having never been out of Kentucky before, she has no real destination and determines to travel until her car gives out. She is not, however, prepared for what lies in store. Stopping at a small roadside restaurant in Oklahoma for something to eat, Taylor is surprised when a woman insistently pushes a baby through the open window of her car, then gets into a truck. Only when Taylor unwraps the baby at a motel many miles later does she learn anything at all about the child. The baby is a girl, and Taylor sees evidence that the baby has been abused. Even though in her work at the hospital she had seen a corpse and a woman with a gunshot wound, Taylor is so astonished by the bruises on the baby that she doubles up in pain on the bathroom floor.
The Indian child appears to Taylor to be slightly more than a year old. She does not speak, nor does she walk. What she does do is cling to Taylor or to anything she can get her hands on. For this reason, Taylor calls her...
(The entire section is 920 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, is the initiation story of twenty-three-year-old Marietta (Taylor) Greer, who drives west from Kentucky, finding a new name and a child and ultimately making a life in Tucson, Arizona. In a plot structured on the hero’s journey of separation, initiation, and reintegration, Taylor Greer achieves her adult identity by accepting and making a home for the three-year-old child, Turtle, who was given to her by a frightened Cherokee woman.
Taylor answers a newspaper ad for a housemate and meets Lou Ann Ruiz. Lou Ann and Taylor are both from Kentucky, and their similar accents and diction spark a friendship. Lou Ann—a single parent whose husband has abandoned her and their infant son, Dwayne Ray—and Taylor portray fearful and confident motherhood. Lou Ann represents fearful motherhood and self-conscious, self-critical femininity. She sees the world as fraught with sharp objects threatening her infant and small round objects that could block his windpipe. She also bewails her bad appearance: “I look like I’ve been drug through hell backwards.” The truth of Lou Ann’s portrait is borne out in Kingsolver’s recollection of a hometown book signing where “more than one of my old schoolmates had sidled up and whispered: That Lou Ann character, the insecure one? I know you based her on me.’” Taylor realizes she and Lou Ann “were like some family on a TV commercial, with names like Myrtle...
(The entire section is 500 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Missy Greer has grown up in Kentucky. She does not consider herself smart, but she knows that she needs to get out of Kentucky before she gets pregnant and suffers a life of poverty. She buys a 1955 Volkswagen and takes off for the West. She also takes a new name, Taylor.
As Taylor drives west, her car breaks down in the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. While the car is being fixed, she goes to a bar to get something to eat. As she is leaving the bar, a Cherokee woman places a baby girl in her car and, before leaving, tells Taylor to take the girl. At a motel that evening, Taylor sees that the girl is badly bruised over most of her body. Taylor names her Turtle.
Taylor leaves the motel and begins her drive, headed toward Tucson, Arizona. She stops in a hail storm and finds she has two flat tires. Now at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires in Tucson, she meets the owner, Mattie, who is kind to her and Turtle. A priest shows up while Mattie is getting juice for Turtle. He leaves with what looks like American Indians in his car. Mattie shows Taylor the purple bean plants behind the tire shop.
Lou Ann Ruiz is another woman from Kentucky. She lives in Tucson and is married to Angel, who leaves her when Lou Ann is pregnant. Lou Ann soon gives birth to a boy and names him Dwayne Ray.
Answering a classified ad in the local newspaper, Taylor meets and then moves in with Lou Ann, who lives across the street from Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. The two of them become friends immediately. Taylor gets a job working with Mattie. She is learning a lot but fears exploding tires. She has been haunted by tires ever since, as a child, she saw a friend’s father get blown to the top of a sign by an overfilled tractor tire. Mattie helps Taylor get over her fears.
Taylor, Lou Ann, Mattie, the kids, and a couple from Guatemala (Estevan, an English teacher, and his wife, Esperanza) go on a picnic by a creek. Esperanza seems to be thinking about some child she once knew when she first sees Turtle. As the picnickers start driving back, Estevan stops quickly for several quail crossing the road. As Taylor slams on the breaks as well, she hears a voice from the back seat. The voice belongs to Turtle, who is laughing. Taylor hears Turtle’s voice for the first time. Later, as they are out in Mattie’s garden, Turtle says her first word: bean.
Two elderly neighbors, Edna and Virgie Mae, visit Mattie’s house and bring a portable television so they can all see Mattie being interviewed. It takes a while to get the television to work, so they see only the last part of the interview. Mattie is talking about illegal immigrants, although she does not use that term. Estevan and Esperanza are at Mattie’s house, too. They introduce themselves to Edna and Virgie Mae as Steven and Hope. The older women are upset about illegal immigrants in the United States. Taylor learns that Mattie has Central American refugees living in a room above the tire shop.
Estevan comes over one night and tells Taylor that Esperanza has tried to kill herself. Mattie has taken her to a hospital that does not demand identity papers. He tells Taylor that Turtle reminds...
(The entire section is 1296 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Bean Trees begins with Missie Greer’s first-person account of her youth in rural Kentucky, including how she developed a fear of exploding tires after a man overfilled one and was blown to the top of a gas-station sign. Kingsolver’s wry storytelling style in this humorous opening scene sets the novel’s tone.
Missie has grown up noticing that many small-town girls experience early motherhood. Her own mother has given her a strong sense of self-sufficiency, and, as soon as she can, Missie buys a run-down Volkswagen and leaves in search of opportunity and adventure. Missie decides that when she runs out of gas, she will choose a new name to replace the despised “Missie.” In Taylorville, Illinois, she becomes Taylor Greer. Her car breaks down in Oklahoma, where a desperate Cherokee woman shoves a bundled-up child into the car, saying, “Take this baby.”
Taylor names the child Turtle because of the way in which she grabs and holds on to anything within reach. Turtle fuels a pivotal subplot concerning child abuse and survival. Endearing Turtle develops slowly and has setbacks, but her accomplishments give the novel spirit and hope. When Turtle notices that the wisteria blossoms in the neighborhood park have turned to seed pods, she names the bush a “bean tree.” The park, a place where neighbors gather to give and recieve help, foregrounds a favorite Kingsolver theme.
Taylor and Turtle arrive in Tucson,...
(The entire section is 401 words.)