The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, set the standard for her works that follow. In the novel, Kingsolver addresses three main themes: parenthood, friendship, and social injustice.
The parenthood theme centers on the experiences of Taylor and Turtle and Lou Ann and Dwayne Ray. Both Taylor and Lou Ann are single moms struggling with raising a child in a world where there is no support for them. Taylor had grown up trying at all costs not to become a mother, only to have that responsibility thrust upon her in Oklahoma. Lou Ann is abandoned by her husband just before she gives birth, and suddenly is on her own. Neither young woman knows what to do with her new responsibilities. It is a dilemma that haunts both of them, and their working through and coming to terms with the dilemma are central to the novel.
The theme of friendship includes the stories of many relationships, all with different innuendos. The most prevalent friendship is that between Taylor and Lou Ann. Still, all of the main characters are intertwined in one way or another. Taylor and Estevan have a complicated relationship. She loves him and wants him, but her respect for Esperanza keeps her from acting upon that desire. Mattie becomes somewhat of a maternal figure to everyone.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the novel explores the problems of Central American refugees in the 1980’s as they flee from tyranny and look for asylum in the United States. However, no asylum is offered, and despite the terrors they have endured, they are not wanted in the United States.
Estevan and Esperanza come from Guatemala. At the time of the novel, the country was controlled by a military dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt, who committed acts of genocide, among other acts of violence and torture. Thousands of people were killed, more were arrested, and more than four hundred villages were destroyed. This is the type of society from which the refugees in The Bean Trees are fleeing.