Study Guide

The Bean Trees

by Barbara Kingsolver

The Bean Trees Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.”

The Bean Trees Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations 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 and Fred,” stereotypes of husband and wife. The two talk through their situation over beer, tortilla chips, pimento-cheese slices, and sardines in mustard, sharing secrets, becoming friends, and eventually working out a schedule to share housework.

Taylor finds work at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, a business with an upstairs apartment that also serves as a sanctuary for Central American refugees. Despite its incongruous name, the tire store is a place where Taylor faces her fear: She has a strong childhood memory of seeing an exploding tractor tire throw a man high into the air. All the characters in this novel face fears, as represented most dramatically by Turtle and the refugee couple Esperanza and Estevan. Taylor volunteers to drive the couple to another hiding place in Oklahoma, and seek legal adoption of Turtle. The couple helps Taylor by pretending to be Turtle’s biological parents, signing adoption papers in a lawyer’s office.

Naming is a significant motif in the novel. Taylor’s given name, Marietta, is the name of the Georgia town in which she was born. When Taylor drives away from Pittman County Kentucky, she decides that her name will be determined by wherever her car runs out of gas: “I kept my fingers crossed through Sidney, Sadorus, Cerro Gordo, Decatur, and Blue Mound, and coasted into Taylorville on the fumes.” Taylor names Turtle to match the strength of her grip: Turtle holds on like a snapping turtle. The naming process combines choice and circumstance, power and powerlessness in an apt reflection of Kingsolver’s themes.

The Bean Trees Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 Esperanza of Ismane, their daughter, who was taken by Guatemalan authorities who wanted Estevan to give up the names of other members of the teacher’s union. Ismane, he believes, has probably been given to a government official. Estevan talks of torture in his home land. Taylor tells him a little about growing up as a poor kid (a Nutter) in Kentucky. Nutters are social outcasts. The two fall asleep together on the sofa.

Taylor and Lou Ann take the kids out to a park with wisteria trees, which are seeding. Turtle, who still thinks of most everything in terms of vegetables, calls them “bean trees.”

Taylor visits Esperanza, who turns out to be okay after her suicide attempt. Taylor has never been upstairs at Mattie’s house. There she finds striking artwork—especially pictures by children that feature guns and blood. In a one-sided conversation with Esperanza, Taylor tells her how much Estevan loves her and how much she hopes that Esperanza will not lose either hope or patience. It now appears that Estevan and Esperanza must move from Tucson before they are caught and deported to Guatemala, where they face imprisonment and possible death. Taylor is horrified that such a thing could happen. She does not want to believe that the world could be so unjust.

Taylor, Mattie, Estevan, and Esperanza go out to the hills above town to celebrate New Year’s Day—July 12 this year—the day that the first rain of summer falls. Taylor realizes that she is in love with Estevan, even knowing that he is unavailable.

When she gets home, Taylor finds that Turtle has gone back to a vegetative state. A man had grabbed her in the park and had been fought off by Edna. Taylor is devastated and talks about how horrible it is that people pick on the weak—meaning not just Turtle, but Mattie’s refugees as well. Soon, Turtle starts talking again, and the two of them meet with a social worker. The social worker notices that Taylor has no legal rights to guardianship of Turtle. She says that the government will soon take Turtle away. Later, the worker tells Taylor what sort of papers she will need to keep Turtle, and she refers her to a lawyer in Oklahoma City.

Despite Mattie’s reservations, Taylor makes plans to go to Oklahoma to take Estevan and Esperanza to a safe house and to get custody papers signed by Turtle’s parents. Their first hurdle is getting through an immigration checkpoint, and they do. Taylor wonders how someone can call another person “illegal.” When they get to Oklahoma, Taylor cannot find anything about Turtle’s parents. She does not know what to do. They all go out and spend a day and night at the Lake of the Cherokee, where Taylor and Estevan get increasingly close, and Esperanza and Turtle do the same. While the adults eat at a picnic table, Turtle takes her doll and buries it. Taylor then realizes that Turtle’s mother is dead.

Taylor comes up with a plan, and Estevan and Esperanza say they will help, even though it might be dangerous for them. They go to the lawyer’s office in Oklahoma City. There they play an amazing game in which Estevan and Esperanza (as Steve and Hope) act as if they are Turtle’s parents and say they want to give her to Taylor. Taylor is overwhelmed by the good acting of Estevan and Esperanza and grateful for their willingness to take such a risk. Taylor gets Estevan and Esperanza to the safe house. Taylor has an intimate moment with Estevan before he leaves. He says that “in a world as wrong as this one, all we can do is make things as right as we can.”

Taylor and Turtle cannot leave Oklahoma until all the papers are finalized. As they wait, they go to the library and find a book about plants. They find out that wisteria is a legume and that all beans are supported by rhizobia, microscopic bugs that live around the roots of the plant. Taylor tells Turtle that the invisible network of support is needed for humans, too. Taylor gets the papers and heads back to her family in Arizona—as Turtle’s legal mother.

The Bean Trees Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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, Arizona, with a flat tire. Kingsolver’s move to Tucson as a young adult gives her descriptions of the city and the desert landscape the believable freshness of discovery. When Taylor gets her flat tire fixed, she meets Mattie, who runs the Jesus Is Lord Used Tire Shop. Taylor needs a place to live and meets a roommate when she answers the house-to-share advertisement placed by Lou Ann Ruiz. Her first job, in a fast-food restaurant, lasts only until the strong-minded Taylor loses her patience with her boss. Mattie then offers her a job repairing tires.

Taylor learns that she is well suited to motherhood, and Lou Ann learns that she is not a helpless loser. Mattie’s tire shop doubles as a sanctuary house for political refugees from Central America. Through Mattie, Taylor learns about the pain and difficulty endured by such people. By story’s end, readers and Taylor have come to grips with the dynamics of custody battles and poverty.

The Bean Trees Summary

The heroine of The Bean Trees, Marietta (otherwise known as Miss Marietta, Missy, and Taylor Greer) is determined to avoid becoming a...

(The entire section is 931 words.)