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 Turtle, like the mud turtle she had studied in her high-school science class.
After working through the Christmas holidays at the motel, Taylor is ready to continue on. By the time she arrives in Tucson, Arizona, she has two flat tires and not enough money for new ones. She likes Tucson, however, so the city seems to Taylor like a good place to settle down until she can earn a little money. By chance, Taylor gets her car into a small tire-repair establishment called Jesus Is Christ Used Tires. A widow named Mattie befriends Taylor and ultimately offers Taylor a job.
To find a place to live, Taylor answers an advertisement in the newspaper. Lou Ann Ruiz, who has advertised for a housemate, is also from Kentucky, and the two young women strike up an immediate friendship. Lou Ann is looking for someone to share expenses because her husband had left her while she was pregnant with their first child. She has a little money from his disability insurance, and occasionally he sends her a check. She and Taylor work out fairly good living arrangements: Lou Ann stays home with her baby, Dwayne Ray, and Turtle, and Taylor works for the tire business nearby.
Much of the interest of The Bean Trees involves the growing relationship between Lou Ann and Taylor. Although they are very different in personality and outlook and are thrown together by circumstances and need, they discover strength in each other; they are complementary personalities. Slowly and unconsciously, the group becomes a family, committed to one another and compassionate about one another’s weaknesses.
Taylor’s relationship with Mattie also develops into a friendship that opens the door to a wider world. Mattie is involved in the sanctuary movement, helping Central American refugees flee their native lands. Through Mattie, Taylor meets Estevan and Esperanza, and gradually she learns of hardship and sacrifice that go beyond anything she had ever seen in Kentucky.
After a trip to a local physician, Taylor learns that Turtle’s abuse was even worse than she had surmised; the child has suffered many broken bones. X-rays also show that Turtle is probably about three years old, considerably older than she acts or appears. The physician diagnoses Turtle’s condition as failure to thrive, although it is clear that Turtle is developing in the home environment Taylor has provided for her.
When the state becomes aware that Taylor has no legal claim to Turtle, Taylor begins to think she has to do something to keep Turtle. She decides to make a return visit to Oklahoma to try to find Turtle’s relatives and get them to appoint her Turtle’s legal guardian. She also volunteers to transport Estevan and Esperanza to a church in Oklahoma, because their situation is becoming precarious in Tucson.
In a trip that is both scary and funny, the Guatemalans and Taylor and Turtle succeed in accomplishing a legal adoption for Turtle and finding another safe haven for Estevan and Esperanza. They also learn about love, loss, respect, and the true meaning of “family.”