Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 920 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues 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...
(The entire section is 500 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1296 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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,...
(The entire section is 401 words.)
The heroine of The Bean Trees, Marietta (otherwise known as Miss Marietta, Missy, and Taylor Greer) is determined to avoid becoming a pregnant teen. Her early years in Eastern Kentucky have been heavily influenced by her perception that Pittman County is "behind the nation in practically every way you can think of, except the rate of teenage pregnancies." She has also been influenced by her supportive mother, and by her work with "blood and pee" in a hospital lab.
After saving enough money to buy a '55 Volkswagon bug, Taylor drives away from Pittman County. She renames herself Taylor Greer when she runs out of gas in Taylorville. Then she acquires an unwanted and abused Cherokee baby girl outside a bar in Oklahoma. She names the baby Turtle, for her habit of "holding on."
Taylor stops at the Broken Arrow motel, where she works as a maid through the Christmas holidays. The work is uninspiring; she says that "the only thing to remind you you weren't dead was the constant bickering between [motel employees] old Mrs. Hoge and Irene."
Taylor adapts to life as a mother and maid, while the novel shifts its focus to Lou Ann Ruiz, another Eastern Kentucky emigre whose husband, Angel, has left her seven months pregnant. Although Angel generally ridicules and rejects Lou Ann, he also shows unexpected kindness by returning home to help Lou Ann keep up appearances when her mother and grandmother visit.
(The entire section is 931 words.)