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.
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.