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 friendship. Lou Ann is looking for someone to share expenses because her husband had left her while she was pregnant with their first child. She has a little money from his disability insurance, and occasionally he sends her a check. She and Taylor work out fairly good living arrangements: Lou Ann stays home with her baby, Dwayne Ray, and Turtle, and Taylor works for the tire business nearby.
Much of the interest of The Bean Trees involves the growing relationship between Lou Ann and Taylor. Although they are very different in personality and outlook and are thrown together by circumstances and need, they discover strength in each other; they are complementary personalities. Slowly and unconsciously, the group becomes a family, committed to one another and compassionate about one another’s weaknesses.
Taylor’s relationship with Mattie also develops into a friendship that opens the door to a wider world. Mattie is involved in the sanctuary movement, helping Central American refugees flee their native lands. Through Mattie, Taylor meets Estevan and Esperanza, and gradually she learns of hardship and sacrifice that go beyond anything she had ever seen in Kentucky.
After a trip to a local physician, Taylor learns that Turtle’s abuse was even worse than she had surmised; the child has suffered many broken bones. X-rays also show that Turtle is probably about three years old, considerably older than she acts or appears. The physician diagnoses Turtle’s condition as failure to thrive, although it is clear that Turtle is developing in the home environment Taylor has provided for her.
When the state becomes aware that Taylor has no legal claim to Turtle, Taylor begins to think she has to do something to keep Turtle. She decides to make a return visit to Oklahoma to try to find Turtle’s relatives and get them to appoint her Turtle’s legal guardian. She also volunteers to transport Estevan and Esperanza to a church in Oklahoma, because their situation is becoming precarious in Tucson.
In a trip that is both scary and funny, the Guatemalans and Taylor and Turtle succeed in accomplishing a legal adoption for Turtle and finding another safe haven for Estevan and Esperanza. They also learn about love, loss, respect, and the true meaning of “family.”
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 and Fred,” stereotypes of husband and wife. The two talk through their situation over beer, tortilla chips, pimento-cheese slices, and sardines in mustard, sharing secrets, becoming friends, and eventually working out a schedule to share housework.
Taylor finds work at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, a business with an upstairs apartment that also serves as a sanctuary for Central American refugees. Despite its incongruous name, the tire store is a place where Taylor faces her fear: She has a strong childhood memory of seeing an exploding tractor tire throw a man high into the air. All the characters in this novel face fears, as represented most dramatically by Turtle and the refugee couple Esperanza and Estevan. Taylor volunteers to drive the couple to another hiding place in Oklahoma, and seek legal adoption of Turtle. The couple helps Taylor by pretending to be Turtle’s biological parents, signing adoption papers in a lawyer’s office.
Naming is a significant motif in the novel. Taylor’s given name, Marietta, is the name of the Georgia town in which she was born. When Taylor drives away from Pittman County Kentucky, she decides that her name will be determined by wherever her car runs out of gas: “I kept my fingers crossed through Sidney, Sadorus, Cerro Gordo, Decatur, and Blue Mound, and coasted into Taylorville on the fumes.” Taylor names Turtle to match the strength of her grip: Turtle holds on like a snapping turtle. The naming process combines choice and circumstance, power and powerlessness in an apt reflection of Kingsolver’s themes.