Taylor Greer, the main character, enlists the warm wishes of the reader immediately through her open, honest narration. She quickly lets the reader into her middle-American background. With her rural Kentucky regionalisms and dialect, she is open and sincere. She has a good sense of humor and can laugh at herself as well as at others and at the comedy of human life. As both the narrator and the main character, she carries the story of growing into responsibility and love. She learns her own ignorance and political naïveté, and while her goodheartedness and compassion for others cannot protect her from pain, they reinforce her moral fiber, which gives her the courage to do right. She did not seek the responsibility of a child, but she accepts what fate seems to throw in her path.
Turtle, the child, is seen gradually to emerge from the cocoon of silence and withdrawal with which she surrounds herself, presumably as a result of the abuse she has suffered. She is the catalyst for Taylor’s discovery of responsibility, commitment, and love.
Lou Ann Ruiz is at first only Taylor’s housemate, but gradually the two develop a relationship that is strong, supportive, and mutually beneficial. Lou Ann constantly belittles herself—about her appearance, her capabilities, and her potential. Yet despite desertion by her husband, she slowly gains some self-confidence and is able to take a job in a salsa factory. Obsessed with the safety of her baby, Dwayne Ray, she nevertheless understands that even the best of mothers cannot protect her child from all the world’s sources of harm, a fact she points out to Taylor when Turtle is accosted by a stranger. Lou Ann helps Taylor to understand her responsibility for Turtle, encouraging her to take steps to avoid Turtle’s being taken as a ward of the State of Arizona. Like Taylor, she speaks in a Kentucky dialect that is wholesome, warm, and rich. Although Lou Ann notices that similarity almost immediately, it takes both Lou Ann and Taylor some time to acknowledge the even deeper sources of compatibility between them.
Estevan, a Central American who has come into the United States illegally, is a well-educated, sensitive man whose life accidentally intersects with Taylor’s. Through Estevan, Taylor learns about political atrocities elsewhere and about physical and emotional torture that might cause one to flee one’s country. Estevan recognizes Taylor’s naïveté and only gradually, over time, tells her of his past. Despite his loneliness, he remains faithful to his wife, even though he must perceive that Taylor has fallen in love with him.
Esperanza, Estevan’s wife, is much more withdrawn than her husband. In the hope of getting Estevan and Esperanza’s cooperation in naming the members of their teacher’s union, political enemies kidnapped their only child, Ismene. Esperanza has difficulty coping with this loss, and at one point takes aspirin in a suicide attempt. During the trip to Oklahoma, she becomes very attached to Turtle, and Turtle to her. Only when she voluntarily poses as Turtle’s real mother and signs legal papers giving up custody to Taylor does she seem finally to work through her grief over the loss of Ismene.