Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539
Taylor Greer, the main character, enlists the warm wishes of the reader immediately through her open, honest narration. She quickly lets the reader into her middle-American background. With her rural Kentucky regionalisms and dialect, she is open and sincere. She has a good sense of humor and can laugh at herself as well as at others and at the comedy of human life. As both the narrator and the main character, she carries the story of growing into responsibility and love. She learns her own ignorance and political naïveté, and while her goodheartedness and compassion for others cannot protect her from pain, they reinforce her moral fiber, which gives her the courage to do right. She did not seek the responsibility of a child, but she accepts what fate seems to throw in her path.
Turtle, the child, is seen gradually to emerge from the cocoon of silence and withdrawal with which she surrounds herself, presumably as a result of the abuse she has suffered. She is the catalyst for Taylor’s discovery of responsibility, commitment, and love.
Lou Ann Ruiz is at first only Taylor’s housemate, but gradually the two develop a relationship that is strong, supportive, and mutually beneficial. Lou Ann constantly belittles herself—about her appearance, her capabilities, and her potential. Yet despite desertion by her husband, she slowly gains some self-confidence and is able to take a job in a salsa factory. Obsessed with the safety of her baby, Dwayne Ray, she nevertheless understands that even the best of mothers cannot protect her child from all the world’s sources of harm, a fact she points out to Taylor when Turtle is accosted by a stranger. Lou Ann helps Taylor to understand her responsibility for Turtle, encouraging her to take steps to avoid Turtle’s being taken as a ward of the State of Arizona. Like Taylor, she speaks in a Kentucky dialect that is wholesome, warm, and rich. Although Lou Ann notices that similarity almost immediately, it takes both Lou Ann and Taylor some time to acknowledge the even deeper sources of compatibility between them.
Estevan, a Central American who has come into the United States illegally, is a well-educated, sensitive man whose life accidentally intersects with Taylor’s. Through Estevan, Taylor learns about political atrocities elsewhere and about physical and emotional torture that might cause one to flee one’s country. Estevan recognizes Taylor’s naïveté and only gradually, over time, tells her of his past. Despite his loneliness, he remains faithful to his wife, even though he must perceive that Taylor has fallen in love with him.
Esperanza, Estevan’s wife, is much more withdrawn than her husband. In the hope of getting Estevan and Esperanza’s cooperation in naming the members of their teacher’s union, political enemies kidnapped their only child, Ismene. Esperanza has difficulty coping with this loss, and at one point takes aspirin in a suicide attempt. During the trip to Oklahoma, she becomes very attached to Turtle, and Turtle to her. Only when she voluntarily poses as Turtle’s real mother and signs legal papers giving up custody to Taylor does she seem finally to work through her grief over the loss of Ismene.
Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 541
Taylor Greer, the protagonist and narrator. Born and reared in rural Pittman, Kentucky, she vows not to get pregnant and live the rest of her life in Pittman. After graduating from high school and working for five years in a hospital lab, she buys an old Volkswagen and drives west. She acquires an abandoned Native American child, whom she names Turtle, in Oklahoma. Taylor and Turtle end up in Tucson, Arizona, where Taylor struggles to rear a child by herself and earn a living. She becomes involved in the sanctuary movement for Central American refugees. Tough-minded and resilient, Taylor meets these challenges with humor, optimism, and courage.
Turtle Greer, Taylor’s adopted Native American daughter. When Taylor leaves Kentucky to drive west, a young Native American woman leaves the two-year-old Turtle in Taylor’s car. Turtle has been severely abused and does not begin to speak until six months after her arrival in Tucson. Taylor knows nothing about Turtle’s parents or her background.
Lou Ann Ruiz
Lou Ann Ruiz (née Logan), who also is originally from Kentucky. She lives in Tucson with her infant son Dwayne Ray. After her husband, Angel Ruiz, leaves her, she advertises for a roommate, and Taylor and Turtle move in with her. Lou Ann is more traditionally domestic—and more pessimistic—than Taylor, but she provides Taylor with friendship and support, and Taylor works to bolster Lou Ann’s self-esteem.
Mattie, the widowed proprietor of Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. She is both an accomplished mechanic and an important figure in Tucson’s underground sanctuary movement. When Taylor and Turtle first come to town, Mattie helps them, including later giving Taylor a job at the tire shop. She becomes a role model for Taylor, teaching her about both motherhood and political activism.
Estevan (ay-STAY-vahn), formerly an English teacher in his native Guatemala, is now a refugee living in Tucson with his wife, Esperanza. He works at a Chinese restaurant as a dishwasher. Estevan and Taylor are attracted to one another, but they develop only a close friendship.
Esperanza (ay-spay-RAHN-zah), Estevan’s wife. She does not speak much English. Both she and Estevan were active in a teacher’s union in Guatemala, and the anti-union government forces abducted their daughter, Ismene, in an attempt to get them to reveal the names of other union members. the loss of their daughter has deeply affected them both; Esperanza has attempted suicide several times.
Virgie Mae Parsons
Virgie Mae Parsons, who lives next door to Taylor and Lou Ann. She is an elderly woman who lives with her companion, Edna Poppy. Opinionated and bigoted, Mrs. Parsons often helps Taylor and Lou Ann with child care while the younger women are at work.
Edna Poppy, Virgie Mae Parsons’ housemate. She is also elderly, and blind. Much more sweet-tempered and good-natured than Mrs. Parsons, Edna also helps take care of Turtle and Dwayne Ray.
Alice Jean Stamper Greer
Alice Jean Stamper Greer, Taylor’s mother, who still lives in Kentucky. Her first husband left before Taylor was born, and Alice reared Taylor by herself, supporting them by cleaning other people’s houses. She has always been proud and supportive of Taylor.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537
One of Kingsolver's greatest gifts as a novelist is characterization, and this skill is already firmly in place in The Bean Trees, her first novel. Though characters in her later novels show more depth and are more likely to be a complex mix of positive and negative traits, each and every person who appears in The Bean Trees is a unique individual with his or her own quirks and habits, with a history and a story to tell.
Taylor is a somewhat idealized character, but this is in keeping with the tradition of the quest narrative: a virtuous innocent thrust out into the world. Though raised poor by a single mother, Taylor possesses a great deal of self-confidence and courage. We can see that Taylor's mother helped form Taylor's feelings of self-worth, because in all of their interactions, her mother is positive, loving, and proud. Taylor has a strong, but undeveloped, sense of social justice, which by the end of the novel has turned into social activism. One of Taylor's most appealing traits is her humor. Her Kentucky-flavored narration shows the positive way she faces the world, and in her dialogue we see how she uses "smart remarks" both to diffuse difficult situations and to deflect emotions.
Despite their similar backgrounds, Lou Ann Ruiz is very different from Taylor. Lacking self-esteem, she constantly makes negative comments about her own appearance and is continually cutting her hair to find a style she will be satisfied with. She is also overly concerned with potential danger, and worries excessively about hazards that might befall her son, inside or outside the house. Her confidence slowly improves throughout the book, as she learns from Taylor's positive approach to life. She also gains self-worth from her success working at the Red Hot Mama salsa factory.
Estevan is also quite idealized: handsome, intelligent, well educated; he can speak perfect, unaccented English if he chooses. A schoolteacher at home in Guatemala, he is forced to work menial jobs illegally because he is an undocumented alien in the United States. Though his daughter, Ismene, has been kidnapped and her state of well-being is unknown, he shows little outward emotion regarding this tragedy, and in fact usually appears cheerful and good-humored. He is patient and loyal to his wife, Esperanza, who is so devastated by the loss of Ismene that she attempts suicide several times. Though he shares a mutual attraction with Taylor, he remains loyal to his wife while being kind and emotionally available to Taylor. In return, Taylor provides him with comfort, support, and ultimately, freedom.
Esperanza is a sharp contrast to her husband. Quiet and depressed, she speaks little English and thus seems less assimilated into American culture than Estevan, who can easily "pass" as a Native American. The loss of her daughter is made more painful by the presence of Turtle, who resembles Ismene. Eventually, Esperanza is able to work through her pain by using Turtle as a surrogate daughter on the trip to Oklahoma, and then symbolically saying goodbye to Ismene by posing as Turtle's natural mother and signing the adoption papers. She achieves closure by experiencing the emotional stages necessary to part with the daughter she will probably never see again.
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