What happens in The Bean Trees?

In The Bean Trees, Marietta leaves her home in Kentucky and moves to Tucson, Arizona. On the way to Tucson, she's forced to become the guardian of an abused child whom she names Turtle. Marietta attempts to build a new life in Tucson, but when the authorities realize she isn't Turtle's legal guardian, she's forced to return to Oklahoma and search for Turtle's birth parents.

  • Marietta works as a lab assistant in Kentucky in order to save up money for a car. After she leaves, she changes her name to Taylor and heads west.

  • In Oklahoma, a woman forces a child into Taylor's car. Taylor discovers that the child has been abused and begrudgingly cares for it. Eventually, she comes to love the child, giving it the name Turtle.

  • Taylor and Turtle settle in Tucson, where they room with Lou Ann, a fellow Kentuckian. When the authorities discover that Taylor has no legal claim to Turtle, Taylor is forced to travel back to Oklahoma. In the end, she adopts Turtle.

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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...

(The entire section is 2,351 words.)