Study Guide

The Bean Trees

by Barbara Kingsolver

The Bean Trees Analysis

The Bean Trees (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

ph_0111202382-Kingsolver.jpgBarbara Kingsolver Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Opening mid-anecdote, with the direct voice and assured eye for humorously specific details that have become a hallmark of the new generation of local color writers, The Bean Trees makes an immediate impact. One slows down to savor the rich invention and pointed observations and to appreciate the narrator’s spunky, down-to-earth self-awareness. Better yet, before long one comes to appreciate that this first novel by Barbara Kingsolver has a project more ambitious—and ultimately more compelling—than simply to create bits of life that would fit neatly into semiconnected short stories. The characters grow, change, and are worth caring about. The themes—introduced without preaching—are both important and resonant. By book’s end, one is full of admiration for the careful construction which brings together assorted threads and leads the plot to a breathtaking and touching conclusion.

The first-person narrator, Marietta Greer, was reared fatherless and poor in Kentucky. She plugs away in high school when the other girls are dropping out pregnant. “This is not to say that I was unfamiliar with the back seat of a Chevrolet,” she reports, but those experiences had not “inspired me to get hogtied to a future as a tobacco farmer’s wife.” After five years of doing laboratory work in a county hospital, she buys an old Volkswagen and heads west with two plans: She will take a new name wherever the gas tank runs dry, and when the car itself gives out she will stop to settle while she still has a grubstake. She is not, however, the passive fatalist that these decisions might seem to imply. After a close call in Homer, Illinois, she coasts into Taylorville on momentum and gasoline fumes and becomes Taylor Greer, but the rocker arm goes in the middle of a treeless piece of Oklahoma owned by the Cherokees. Despite her possible claim to “head rights” in the Cherokee nation (Taylor’s mother had a grandfather who was full-blooded), she uses half of her remaining money to get the car fixed so she can go on.

In the dark outside a roadside café, an Indian woman thrusts a child into the car and insists that Taylor take it. “If I wanted a baby, I would have stayed in Kentucky,” Taylor says, but the woman climbs into a truck and disappears. The child is a girl, abused, undersized, silent, and slow. Taylor calls her Turtle. She presses on into Arizona, where her money and her tires are finally exhausted, and comes to a halt at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires in a run-down neighborhood of Tucson.

Alternating chapters in the early part of the book introduce another Kentucky woman, Lou Ann Ruiz, who had married a rodeo rider, gone west with him, and been abandoned just before the birth of their son. Taylor connects with her while answering ads for housing to share and takes a job at the used-tire shop. It is run by Mattie, a forthright, competent, gray-haired mechanic who needs a helper so that she can take unannounced trips from time to time. Upstairs are silent, brown-skinned visitors who come and go in the night.

With these materials in place, the story passes permanently to Taylor’s first-person narration and to working out a plot of discovery, strength, and tenderness. Taylor and Lou Ann are two ordinary working women with small children, scraping by through the practical sharing of space and responsibilities and working out ways to get along with each other. When Taylor first hears Mattie mention the word “sanctuary,” she thinks only of the places for birds that are pictured on the road maps published by various state tourist bureaus.

The most refreshing quality of Kingsolver’s characters is their genius for taking the right actions instead of examining their feelings or conducting intellectual arguments. The novel is grounded in an awareness of the range of issues that are women’s issues and demonstrates the profoundly woman-centered nature of much working-class life. When Lou Ann’s Kentucky relatives visit, women fill the house in a way that men cannot. Marginal and relatively uneducated women take significant actions because they are in touch with practical reality.

This is not to say that Kingsolver herself is unaware of feminist theory. The author’s intellectual understanding fuels concrete examples of issues such as the importance of naming. Taylor Greer’s original name of Marietta is distinctively female and (secondarily) regional. In Kentucky, her friends called her Missy, a name inspired by her first childish attempt to break out of the class into which she was born. At three she had demanded that her mother call her “Miss Marietta,” as she “had to call all the people including children in the houses where she worked Miss this or Mister that.” This early passage lays the groundwork for understanding Taylor’s adult decision to rename herself and makes clear the significance of replacing the infantilizing “Missy” and the localizing, female “Marietta” with the neutral “Taylor.” The transmutation of names, indeed, becomes a thread—now humorous, now touching—that weaves throughout the story.

The book’s artful construction supplies many such threads: Kingsolver’s apparently effortless style sets up a background that is virtually unnoticed until suddenly convergences and revelations occur. Turtle’s fascination with planting seeds in the garden extends also to toy trucks and dollies—and each time the action reappears it accumulates resonance and extends meaning. Kingsolver is also splendid with the scene, the look of vegetation, the feel of earth, the smell of rain in the desert. The snappy tone of Taylor Greer’s narrative voice supplies instantly recognizable characterizations; Newt Hardbine, for example, was “one of the big boys who had failed every grade at least once and so was practically going on twenty in the sixth grade, sitting in the back and flicking little wads of chewed paper into my hair.”

The only really dislikable people in The Bean Trees are self-involved, like the potential housemates who are “into” sensitivity, nutrition, and self-expression. With women whose common ground is reality and survival, however, Taylor makes instant connection. Sandi at the Burger Derby tips her off about thrift shops and the mall where a child can be left all day in the supervised playroom as long as the mother pretends to be shopping. At an Oklahoma motel, Mrs. Hoge urges Taylor to stay and earn money during the Christmas season. The two elderly women who live next door to Lou Ann baby-sit Turtle (and, in their own relationship, provide a fascinating and poignant surprise). Even the social worker with high-heeled pumps and a big desk finds a way to provide out-of-channels help when the state of Arizona threatens to put Turtle into foster care or a children’s home.

The threat to Turtle also brings out unexpected determination in Lou Ann. Although the two Kentucky women become instant friends—as well as housemates—in the relief of hearing each other’s “down home” voices in Tucson, their natures are sharply different. Taylor’s spunk and self-assertion are the gift of a mother who gave her unconditional love and praise, taught her to ask for what she wants, and had a ready supply of observations, drawn from her work as a cleaning woman, to prick inflated images of the rich or self-important. Lou Ann, on the other hand, was reared in the shadow of fundamentalist religion and by a mother unable to rule in her own house. She is afraid of almost everything, collects stories of unexpected disasters, is obsessed with the idea that she is ugly and that if she speaks her mind she will drive her friends away, and has an overly developed sense of responsibility that makes her feel guilty for even thinking about anything that would make someone else unhappy. When events that seem truly out of control nudge Taylor toward depression, however, Lou Ann responds with strength and determination that prove infectious.

The plot, like the characters, engages specific individual actions that speak to larger issues. Despite the poverty of her childhood, Taylor’s strength and self-confidence have protected her from recognizing the extent to which people can be helpless and victimized. As Estevan says to her, Americans “believe that if something terrible happens to someone, they must have deserved it.” She is jolted by finding evidence of the abuse that Turtle suffered and numbed when she learns about the political realities of Central America—and the complicity of the United States government that supports repressive regimes and refuses asylum to endangered refugees.

Kingsolver does not preach; there are no embedded lectures or passages of political rhetoric. Yet she has created a novel full of old-fashioned meaning. Taylor Greer encounters political realities by seeing what has happened to real people, and she does what is required for both practical and moral survival. The threads of the plot are resolved convincingly with a breathtaking climax that is—all at the same time—comical, surprising, moving, and ultimately gratifying.

The Bean Trees Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Bean Trees interweaves the stories of several women, all living in Tucson, Arizona, who create successful and fulfilling lives for themselves without male partners. Although these main characters are all white, working-class women, they interact with a larger, more diverse Tucson community of Hispanics, American Indians, Central American refugees, and Chinese immigrants. Political and social issues such as the treatment of illegal aliens and the struggles of single working mothers inform the novel’s plot and its characters’ actions, but the narrative never becomes solely ideological in its focus. Rather, it shows the everyday difficulties and triumphs of women who succeed by working together to overcome the challenges facing them.

The majority of the novel is told from the point of view of Taylor Greer, one of the many outsiders in the novel who comes to Tucson accidentally. Although Taylor arrives in Arizona with little money and no friends, she soon becomes part of a community of mutually supportive people, most of whom are women. Taylor moves in with Lou Ann Ruiz, another single mother struggling to make ends meet, and the two share the rent, child care, and other domestic responsibilities. Their neighbors, Virgie Mae Parsons and Edna Poppy, are two elderly women who live together and take care of each other, as well as helping Taylor and Lou Ann. Mattie, the successful owner of Jesus Is Lord Used Tires and a committed political activist, is widowed but has created a wide network of friends and volunteers in the sanctuary movement for Central American refugees. Next door to Mattie’s tire shop is Lee Sing’s market, which is run by a Chinese woman who cares for her “ancient” mother; they provide yet another example of an intergenerational women’s community. Family is both biological and socially constructed; Taylor’s and Lou Ann’s mothers are both featured, as is Lou Ann’s mother-in-law.

When Taylor gets a job working for Mattie at the tire store, she also becomes involved in the sanctuary movement. Taylor becomes especially close to Estevan and Esperanza, learning firsthand from Estevan about the horrors of Guatemala’s repressive government. At first naïve about the political situations of Central American countries, Taylor soon becomes a participant in the sanctuary movement, proving her commitment by transporting Estevan and Esperanza (an illegal action) to a safe house in Oklahoma at the close of the novel.

Taylor’s primary attachment in the novel is to Turtle, a child whom she initially knows as little about as she does the role of mother. Completely unprepared for motherhood, Taylor learns from Lou Ann and Mattie—and by trial and error—how to take care of Turtle, who becomes so important to Taylor that she legally adopts her. Taylor is only one of several mothers in the novel. Lou Ann, although overprotective and constantly worrying, is also a very caring mother to her son, Dwayne Ray, and a second parent to Turtle as well. In fact, Turtle has so many women taking care of her that she calls them all by their names and “ma”—for example, “Ma Woo-Ahn” for Lou Ann and “Ma Poppy” for Edna Poppy. Knowing that Estevan and Esperanza lost their daughter makes Taylor even more thankful for Turtle, who in turn becomes a surrogate child for the couple. The novel ends with Taylor taking Estevan and Esperanza to their new life in Oklahoma, where she also formally adopts Turtle. The two will return to Tucson and to their “family” there, now also a legal family themselves.

The Bean Trees Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Bean Trees was Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, but the themes on which she focuses—single motherhood, working women, United States policies in Central America and toward its refugees, American Indian communities—recur in her subsequent novels Animal Dreams (1990) and Pigs in Heaven (1993); the latter is a sequel to The Bean Trees and details Taylor’s interaction with the Cherokee Nation, which views her adoption of Turtle as illegal. Kingsolver’s concern for ordinary people—not celebrities, but real people performing acts of everyday heroism—informs all of her writings; her nonfiction work Holding the Line (1989) deals with women’s roles in a copper mining strike in Clifton, Arizona.

Kingsolver fits into the tradition of Southern writers; she has noted that Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor were authors whom she enjoyed reading as a child; later influences include Doris Lessing, Ursula K. Le Guin, and William Faulkner. In her focus on the lives of working-class people and relationships, her novels resemble those of Bobbie Ann Mason, but Kingsolver’s settings are in the Southwest, not the Southeast.

The Bean Trees is one of many recent novels which detail female friendships and the powerful bonds between and among women; Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977), and Alice Adams’ Superior Women (1984) are a few early examples of this kind of fiction. Kingsolver’s work can be seen as different from these other novels, however, in its focus on working-class, non-college-educated women and in its inclusion of a racially diverse cast of characters.

The Bean Trees has been considered an autobiographical work; like Taylor, Kingsolver was born and reared in Kentucky and moved to Arizona as a young adult. Likewise, Taylor’s political involvement with the sanctuary movement parallels Kingsolver’s own commitment to aiding Central American refugees. Kingsolver wrote the novel while pregnant with her first child and suffering from acute insomnia; before The Bean Trees, she had written mostly technical, scientific pieces and political pamphlets.

In its lyrical style and the unique voice of its narrator, in its complex interweaving of several plot lines and many different kinds of characters, The Bean Trees succeeds as a novel that incorporates political activism with social realism into a work of fiction populated with ordinary, likable characters performing extraordinary acts.

The Bean Trees Historical Context

Human Rights Struggles in Guatemala
Widespread violence and political upheaval marked a 36-year period in Guatemala that spanned...

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The Bean Trees Literary Style

Point of View
Up until chapter five of The Bean Trees, the narrative point of view is split between a first-person...

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The Bean Trees Literary Techniques

Taylor provides first-person narration in all but two chapters of The Bean Trees. The two exceptions are chapters two and four, which...

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The Bean Trees Ideas for Group Discussions

In The Bean Trees Kingsolver focuses on a young woman, Taylor Greer, who develops a strong social conscience through her experiences...

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The Bean Trees Social Concerns

Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees is a story of a young woman who leaves home to seek her place in the world and ends up with...

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The Bean Trees Topics for Further Study

Research 1980s U.S. immigration policies for Central American refugees. In what kinds of situations were refugees granted asylum in the...

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The Bean Trees Literary Precedents

Kingsolver has stated that, as a college student, she was greatly influenced by the work of Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer, among others....

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The Bean Trees Related Titles

In 1993, Kingsolver published Pigs in Heaven, a sequel to The Bean Trees. The book was written in response to reactions by...

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The Bean Trees Adaptations

The Bean Trees is available in an unabridged audiotape version for Recorded Books, read by C. J. Critt.

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The Bean Trees Media Adaptations

The Bean Trees was recorded on tape, read by C. J. Critt, in 1994. Available from Recorded Books.

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The Bean Trees What Do I Read Next?

Pigs in Heaven (1994) is Kingsolver's sequel to The Bean Trees and follows Taylor and Turtle as they struggle against an...

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The Bean Trees Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Jack Butler, "She Hung the Moon and Plugged in All the Stars," in The New York Times Book Review, April 10,1988,...

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The Bean Trees Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Butler, Jack. “She Hung the Moon and Plugged in All the Stars.” The New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988, 15. A good essay that praises Kingsolver’s style, pointing out her success in both dialogue and description. Butler also notes that language is one of the subthemes of the novel, linking Lou Ann and Taylor through their Kentucky dialect, Estevan through his work as an English teacher, and Turtle as a child learning to speak. Butler points out, however, that the novel seems to lose “immediacy” near its end, with the characters becoming almost too good and the plot perhaps overly contrived.

FitzGerald, Karen. “A Major New Talent.” Ms. 17 (April, 1988): 28. In this appreciative review, FitzGerald puts Kingsolver in the context of contemporary feminists writing about friendship. In Kingsolver’s fiction, however, as opposed to the nonfiction of other feminists, a reader comes to feel the power of women’s relationships and their ability to provide a haven in which the women can blossom.

Freitag, Michael. “Writing to Pay the Rent.” The New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988, 15.

Lyall, Sarah. “Termites Are Interesting but Books Sell Better.” The New York Times, September 1, 1993, C1. A lengthy, informal profile of Kingsolver.

Mossman, Robert. Review of The Bean Trees. English Journal 79 (October, 1990): 85.

Perry, Donna. Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Randall, Margaret. “Human Comedy.” Women’s Review of Books 5 (May, 1988): 1. Randall’s review of The Bean Trees offers great praise for the novel. She frames the discussion of her review around the issue of invasion: both in terms of Turtle’s sexual abuse (the invasion of a child’s body) and the invasion of Central America by United States forces.

Schwarzbaum, Lisa. “Bound for (More) Glory.” Entertainment Weekly (May 1, 1998): 58. A highly favorable tenth anniversary review that praises Kingsolver’s novel for its memorable characters and recommends it be taught in high schools.

See, Lisa. “Barbara Kingsolver.” Publishers Weekly 237 (August 31, 1990): 46-47. See conducted interviews with Barbara Kingsolver, and this article provides very useful background and biographical information. She also covers some of Kingsolver’s other work, including Holding the Line (1989), Homeland and Other Stories (1989), and Animal Dreams (1990).