The Bean Trees

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Opening mid-anecdote, with the direct voice and assured eye for humorously specific details that have become a hallmark of the new generation of local color writers, The Bean Trees makes an immediate impact. One slows down to savor the rich invention and pointed observations and to appreciate the narrator’s spunky, down-to-earth self-awareness. Better yet, before long one comes to appreciate that this first novel by Barbara Kingsolver has a project more ambitious—and ultimately more compelling—than simply to create bits of life that would fit neatly into semiconnected short stories. The characters grow, change, and are worth caring about. The themes—introduced without preaching—are both important and resonant. By book’s end, one is full of admiration for the careful construction which brings together assorted threads and leads the plot to a breathtaking and touching conclusion.

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The first-person narrator, Marietta Greer, was reared fatherless and poor in Kentucky. She plugs away in high school when the other girls are dropping out pregnant. “This is not to say that I was unfamiliar with the back seat of a Chevrolet,” she reports, but those experiences had not “inspired me to get hogtied to a future as a tobacco farmer’s wife.” After five years of doing laboratory work in a county hospital, she buys an old Volkswagen and heads west with two plans: She will take a new name wherever the gas tank runs dry, and when the car itself gives out she will stop to settle while she still has a grubstake. She is not, however, the passive fatalist that these decisions might seem to imply. After a close call in Homer, Illinois, she coasts into Taylorville on momentum and gasoline fumes and becomes Taylor Greer, but the rocker arm goes in the middle of a treeless piece of Oklahoma owned by the Cherokees. Despite her possible claim to “head rights” in the Cherokee nation (Taylor’s mother had a grandfather who was full-blooded), she uses half of her remaining money to get the car fixed so she can go on.

In the dark outside a roadside café, an Indian woman thrusts a child into the car and insists that Taylor take it. “If I wanted a baby, I would have stayed in Kentucky,” Taylor says, but the woman climbs into a truck and disappears. The child is a girl, abused, undersized, silent, and slow. Taylor calls her Turtle. She presses on into Arizona, where her money and her tires are finally exhausted, and comes to a halt at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires in a run-down neighborhood of Tucson.

Alternating chapters in the early part of the book introduce another Kentucky woman, Lou Ann Ruiz, who had married a rodeo rider, gone west with him, and been abandoned just before the birth of their son. Taylor connects with her while answering ads for housing to share and takes a job at the used-tire shop. It is run by Mattie, a forthright, competent, gray-haired mechanic who needs a helper so that she can take unannounced trips from time to time. Upstairs are silent, brown-skinned visitors who come and go in the night.

With these materials in place, the story passes permanently to Taylor’s first-person narration and to working out a plot of discovery, strength, and tenderness. Taylor and Lou Ann are two ordinary working women with small children, scraping by through the practical sharing of space and responsibilities and working out ways to get along with each other. When Taylor first hears Mattie mention the word “sanctuary,” she thinks only of the places for birds that are pictured on the road maps published by various state tourist bureaus.

The most refreshing quality of Kingsolver’s characters is their genius for taking the right actions instead of examining their feelings or conducting intellectual arguments. The novel is grounded in an awareness of the range of issues that are women’s issues and demonstrates the profoundly woman-centered nature of much working-class life. When Lou Ann’s Kentucky relatives visit, women fill the house in a way that men cannot. Marginal and relatively uneducated women take significant actions because they are in touch with practical reality.

This is not to say that Kingsolver herself is unaware of feminist theory. The author’s intellectual understanding fuels concrete examples of issues such as the importance of naming. Taylor Greer’s original name of Marietta is distinctively female and (secondarily) regional. In Kentucky, her friends called her Missy, a name inspired by her first childish attempt to break out of the class into which she was born. At three she had demanded that her mother call her “Miss Marietta,” as she “had to call all the people including children in the houses where she worked Miss this or Mister that.” This early passage lays the groundwork for understanding Taylor’s adult decision to rename herself and makes clear the significance of replacing the infantilizing “Missy” and the localizing, female “Marietta” with the neutral “Taylor.” The transmutation of names, indeed, becomes a thread—now humorous, now touching—that weaves throughout the story.

The book’s artful construction supplies many such threads: Kingsolver’s apparently effortless style sets up a background that is virtually unnoticed until suddenly convergences and revelations occur. Turtle’s fascination with planting seeds in the garden extends also to toy trucks and dollies—and each time the action reappears it accumulates resonance and extends meaning. Kingsolver is also splendid with the scene, the look of vegetation, the feel of earth, the smell of rain in the desert. The snappy tone of Taylor Greer’s narrative voice supplies instantly recognizable characterizations; Newt Hardbine, for example, was “one of the big boys who had failed every grade at least once and so was practically going on twenty in the sixth grade, sitting in the back and flicking little wads of chewed paper into my hair.”

The only really dislikable people in The Bean Trees are self-involved, like the potential housemates who are “into” sensitivity, nutrition, and self-expression. With women whose common ground is reality and survival, however, Taylor makes instant connection. Sandi at the Burger Derby tips her off about thrift shops and the mall where a child can be left all day in the supervised playroom as long as the mother pretends to be shopping. At an Oklahoma motel, Mrs. Hoge urges Taylor to stay and earn money during the Christmas season. The two elderly women who live next door to Lou Ann baby-sit Turtle (and, in their own relationship, provide a fascinating and poignant surprise). Even the social worker with high-heeled pumps and a big desk finds a way to provide out-of-channels help when the state of Arizona threatens to put Turtle into foster care or a children’s home.

The threat to Turtle also brings out unexpected determination in Lou Ann. Although the two Kentucky women become instant friends—as well as housemates—in the relief of hearing each other’s “down home” voices in Tucson, their natures are sharply different. Taylor’s spunk and self-assertion are the gift of a mother who gave her unconditional love and praise, taught her to ask for what she wants, and had a ready supply of observations, drawn from her work as a cleaning woman, to prick inflated images of the rich or self-important. Lou Ann, on the other hand, was reared in the shadow of fundamentalist religion and by a mother unable to rule in her own house. She is afraid of almost everything, collects stories of unexpected disasters, is obsessed with the idea that she is ugly and that if she speaks her mind she will drive her friends away, and has an overly developed sense of responsibility that makes her feel guilty for even thinking about anything that would make someone else unhappy. When events that seem truly out of control nudge Taylor toward depression, however, Lou Ann responds with strength and determination that prove infectious.

The plot, like the characters, engages specific individual actions that speak to larger issues. Despite the poverty of her childhood, Taylor’s strength and self-confidence have protected her from recognizing the extent to which people can be helpless and victimized. As Estevan says to her, Americans “believe that if something terrible happens to someone, they must have deserved it.” She is jolted by finding evidence of the abuse that Turtle suffered and numbed when she learns about the political realities of Central America—and the complicity of the United States government that supports repressive regimes and refuses asylum to endangered refugees.

Kingsolver does not preach; there are no embedded lectures or passages of political rhetoric. Yet she has created a novel full of old-fashioned meaning. Taylor Greer encounters political realities by seeing what has happened to real people, and she does what is required for both practical and moral survival. The threads of the plot are resolved convincingly with a breathtaking climax that is—all at the same time—comical, surprising, moving, and ultimately gratifying.

Form and Content

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The Bean Trees interweaves the stories of several women, all living in Tucson, Arizona, who create successful and fulfilling lives for themselves without male partners. Although these main characters are all white, working-class women, they interact with a larger, more diverse Tucson community of Hispanics, American Indians, Central American refugees, and Chinese immigrants. Political and social issues such as the treatment of illegal aliens and the struggles of single working mothers inform the novel’s plot and its characters’ actions, but the narrative never becomes solely ideological in its focus. Rather, it shows the everyday difficulties and triumphs of women who succeed by working together to overcome the challenges facing them.

The majority of the novel is told from the point of view of Taylor Greer, one of the many outsiders in the novel who comes to Tucson accidentally. Although Taylor arrives in Arizona with little money and no friends, she soon becomes part of a community of mutually supportive people, most of whom are women. Taylor moves in with Lou Ann Ruiz, another single mother struggling to make ends meet, and the two share the rent, child care, and other domestic responsibilities. Their neighbors, Virgie Mae Parsons and Edna Poppy, are two elderly women who live together and take care of each other, as well as helping Taylor and Lou Ann. Mattie, the successful owner of Jesus Is Lord Used Tires and a committed political activist, is widowed but has created a wide network of friends and volunteers in the sanctuary movement for Central American refugees. Next door to Mattie’s tire shop is Lee Sing’s market, which is run by a Chinese woman who cares for her “ancient” mother; they provide yet another example of an intergenerational women’s community. Family is both biological and socially constructed; Taylor’s and Lou Ann’s mothers are both featured, as is Lou Ann’s mother-in-law.

When Taylor gets a job working for Mattie at the tire store, she also becomes involved in the sanctuary movement. Taylor becomes especially close to Estevan and Esperanza, learning firsthand from Estevan about the horrors of Guatemala’s repressive government. At first naïve about the political situations of Central American countries, Taylor soon becomes a participant in the sanctuary movement, proving her commitment by transporting Estevan and Esperanza (an illegal action) to a safe house in Oklahoma at the close of the novel.

Taylor’s primary attachment in the novel is to Turtle, a child whom she initially knows as little about as she does the role of mother. Completely unprepared for motherhood, Taylor learns from Lou Ann and Mattie—and by trial and error—how to take care of Turtle, who becomes so important to Taylor that she legally adopts her. Taylor is only one of several mothers in the novel. Lou Ann, although overprotective and constantly worrying, is also a very caring mother to her son, Dwayne Ray, and a second parent to Turtle as well. In fact, Turtle has so many women taking care of her that she calls them all by their names and “ma”—for example, “Ma Woo-Ahn” for Lou Ann and “Ma Poppy” for Edna Poppy. Knowing that Estevan and Esperanza lost their daughter makes Taylor even more thankful for Turtle, who in turn becomes a surrogate child for the couple. The novel ends with Taylor taking Estevan and Esperanza to their new life in Oklahoma, where she also formally adopts Turtle. The two will return to Tucson and to their “family” there, now also a legal family themselves.


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The Bean Trees was Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, but the themes on which she focuses—single motherhood, working women, United States policies in Central America and toward its refugees, American Indian communities—recur in her subsequent novels Animal Dreams (1990) and Pigs in Heaven (1993); the latter is a sequel to The Bean Trees and details Taylor’s interaction with the Cherokee Nation, which views her adoption of Turtle as illegal. Kingsolver’s concern for ordinary people—not celebrities, but real people performing acts of everyday heroism—informs all of her writings; her nonfiction work Holding the Line (1989) deals with women’s roles in a copper mining strike in Clifton, Arizona.

Kingsolver fits into the tradition of Southern writers; she has noted that Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor were authors whom she enjoyed reading as a child; later influences include Doris Lessing, Ursula K. Le Guin, and William Faulkner. In her focus on the lives of working-class people and relationships, her novels resemble those of Bobbie Ann Mason, but Kingsolver’s settings are in the Southwest, not the Southeast.

The Bean Trees is one of many recent novels which detail female friendships and the powerful bonds between and among women; Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977), and Alice Adams’ Superior Women (1984) are a few early examples of this kind of fiction. Kingsolver’s work can be seen as different from these other novels, however, in its focus on working-class, non-college-educated women and in its inclusion of a racially diverse cast of characters.

The Bean Trees has been considered an autobiographical work; like Taylor, Kingsolver was born and reared in Kentucky and moved to Arizona as a young adult. Likewise, Taylor’s political involvement with the sanctuary movement parallels Kingsolver’s own commitment to aiding Central American refugees. Kingsolver wrote the novel while pregnant with her first child and suffering from acute insomnia; before The Bean Trees, she had written mostly technical, scientific pieces and political pamphlets.

In its lyrical style and the unique voice of its narrator, in its complex interweaving of several plot lines and many different kinds of characters, The Bean Trees succeeds as a novel that incorporates political activism with social realism into a work of fiction populated with ordinary, likable characters performing extraordinary acts.

Historical Context

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Human Rights Struggles in Guatemala
Widespread violence and political upheaval marked a 36-year period in Guatemala that spanned the 1960s through the mid-1990s. During this period, Guatemalans lived in fear and oppression as opposing forces both tore apart the government and terrorized its citizens. Anti-government left-wing guerrilla groups systematically attacked the Guatemalan government on many fronts, assassinating leaders and denouncing the series of governments that rapidly succeeded one another. In reaction to the guerrillas, extreme right-wing groups tortured and killed tens of thousands of citizens—among them teachers, doctors, peasants, students—that they believed were in league with the leftist groups. Many of those tortured and killed in the conflict were Mayans, a people native to the region, and thousands of those persecuted fled the country as refugees, seeking safety in countries like the United States.

Conservatism in the 1980s
Taylor's statement after Turtle is molested in the park that "nobody feels sorry for anybody anymore....Not even the President. It's like it's become unpatriotic," addresses the fallout of the 1980s mood of conservatism in the United States. During the Reagan era—the two consecutive terms of the hugely popular conservative president—some conservative groups used words like "patriotism" and "traditional family values" in ways that excluded people and encouraged intolerance. When conservatives celebrated "family values," some critics asserted that they were referring to values culled from a nostalgic, unrealistic view of family life as it supposedly was in the past. Many right-wing conservatives blamed families that did not fit into this stereotype—such as single-parent or blended families—for a host of social ills. Some Christian fundamentalists, believing that what is written in the Bible should guide daily life, condemned any group—homosexuals, liberals, feminists, divorced individuals—that seemed incompatible with their Biblical interpretation. The 1986 Immigration Control and Reform Act included an amnesty program for illegal U.S. immigrants, yet some people seemed to confuse anti-immigrant sentiment with patriotism. Immigrants were often blamed for taking away jobs from "real" Americans.

Division Between Rich and Poor
In 1980s America, the rich got richer while the poor got poorer, and the middle class struggled to hang on. In essence, economic changes were creating a two-tiered society. By the mid-1980s. Wall Street saw the start of the most successful bull market in American history, creating more wealth for investors. Many of those who benefited spent their money showily on expensive cars, designer clothing, and real estate. Yuppies—young urban professionals—emerged in the early 1980s. At the other end of the spectrum, homelessness in the United States rose by about 25 percent a year in the 1980s, due in part to cuts in government spending for low-income housing and mental health services. The price of health care rocketed out of the reach of low-income and many middle-income Americans, and the infant mortality rate in America's inner cities neared and even surpassed those of Third World countries. Drugs and violence tore apart low-income urban neighborhoods, and residents of these neighborhoods saw their educational and employment opportunities shrink.

Child Abuse and Native Americans
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1974 led to a dramatic increase in reporting of child abuse cases. The number of cases reported in 1988 was four times the number reported in 1980, and in 1989 alone, 2.4 million cases were reported. In 1990. hearings before the 101st Congress led to passage of the Indian Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. Congress passed this act after learning how underreported incidents were of child abuse on Indian reservations. The main purpose of the act was to provide Federal enforcement of reporting of child abuse incidents on Indian lands, as well as mental health support and treatment programs for Native American children who had been victimized.

Literary Style

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Point of View
Up until chapter five of The Bean Trees, the narrative point of view is split between a first-person narrator and a third-person narrator. In the chapters dealing with Taylor Greer, Taylor tells her own story, but the chapters that focus on Lou Ann Ruiz are narrated in the third person. After Lou Ann and Taylor meet in chapter five, Taylor's point of view takes over and the third-person narrative disappears. Taylor's first-person narration fleshes out her character and puts her at the center of the novel. The third-person narrative in Lou Ann's chapters has limited omniscience, which means that the narrator is able to see into the minds of only some of the characters. In these chapters, the narrative reveals Lou Ann's feelings and motivations, although there is some distance between Lou Ann and the reader. When the two narrative points of view merge in chapter five, a sense of harmony is created, as the chapter's title suggests. Taylor and Lou Ann's decision to make a home together becomes reflected in the unified point of view.

Taylor's narrative voice is part of her characterization and the vision of the novel. Her speech is natural, colorful, and often humorous. She describes herself to Lou Ann at their first meeting as "a plain hillbilly from East Jesus Nowhere with this adopted child that everyone keeps on telling me is as dumb as a box of rocks." But Taylor is more than "a plain hillbilly." She is "the one to get away" from her hometown: she flees her familiar surroundings and settles in a new world because she perceives that her options are limited at home. Taylor is bright, articulate, and honest; thus she is able to come to understand and speak for the refugees and lonely souls she encounters in Tucson. As the narrator, her sensitivity to the other characters and openness to new experiences allow Taylor to learn and mature, and the story she tells is really more about her than about the community she helps to create.

The arid landscape of Arizona, the setting for The Bean Trees, is strange and often exotic to Taylor and Lou Ann, who are far away, both geographically and psychologically, from their Kentucky homes. The women often find Arizona beautiful, but they are transplants, and Taylor tells Estevan that sometimes she "feels like...a foreigner too...Half the time I have no idea what's going on around me here." Estevan and Esperanza, as refugees, are also strangers here. As he explains his Guatemalan past to Taylor, Estevan admits, "I don't even know anymore which home I miss. Which level of home." In a way Taylor and Lou Ann are also refugees, fighting to survive. When Lou Ann's mother and grandmother from Kentucky visit her, their reactions to the hot January weather and lack of rain—to them, bizarre weather for January—reflect their belief that Lou Ann has changed since she moved to Arizona. Granny Logan complains, "I don't see how a body could like no place where it don't rain. Law, I'm parched," and Lou Ann replies, "You get used to it," reinforcing Granny's sense that her granddaughter is not the same person she was in Kentucky. The dryness of the Southwestern landscape and the Arizona earth's seeming hostility to growing things serve as a back-drop to the personal struggles of the characters to put down roots and prosper in this new place.

The main symbols throughout the novel concern the improbable growth of things in the dry desert of Arizona. Taylor notices and appreciates the world of flourishing flowers and vegetables throughout the novel; she always seems amazed that anything can grow in the dry earth of this strange place. When Taylor's first spring in Tucson arrives, she is astonished: "You just couldn't imagine where all this life was coming from. It reminded me of that Bible story where somebody or other struck a rock and the water poured out. Only this was better, flowers out of bare dirt" The tenacious natural world symbolizes the difficult courage and tenacious nature of the characters, showing them that they, too, can put down roots and flourish in this dry land. Mattie's garden, part junkyard and part Eden, is an important representation of the persistence of living things. Taylor describes the garden as "a bright, wild wonderland of flowers and vegetables and auto parts. Heads of cabbage and lettuce sprouted out of old tires. An entire rusted-out Thunderbird, minus the wheels, had nasturtiums blooming out the windows." Mattie has made something beautiful and productive out of an ugly, dry landscape, and the characters who create a loving, sustaining community against this same landscape are part of that urge for life and caring. Turtle's interest in all growing things stands in stark contrast to her past abuse, which resulted in her having been a failure-to-thrive baby. She has a fascination with planting seeds and nurturing them to make them grow, and when she finally begins to talk all she says is the names of plants. Taylor discovers that wisteria vines—the bean trees that Turtle loves—"often thrive in poor soil" and are supported by "a whole invisible system" of "microscopic bugs that live ... on the roots." This system of bugs, called rhizobia, that help the wisteria by turning nitrogen gas from the soil into fertilizer for the plant, makes Taylor think of people. She tells Turtle, "The wisteria vines on their own would just barely get by ... but put them together with rhizobia and they make miracles."

Literary Techniques

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Taylor provides first-person narration in all but two chapters of The Bean Trees. The two exceptions are chapters two and four, which are third-person limited, and follow Lou Ann up to the point of her meeting Taylor. Once the two women agree to share a house, Taylor takes over the narration for the rest of the novel. The two chapters narrated by Lou Ann stick out in what is essentially Taylor's story, and seem to be there only to provide the reader with a secondary character's story. In later novels, such as Animal Dreams and especially The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver handles changing points of view more deftly.

Plotting is another strong point of Kingsolver's. She puts her characters in unique situations that seem believable, in part because her characters are so down-to-earth. Readers willingly follow them because they want to see how an ordinary person would behave in extraordinary circumstances. Rather than experiencing contrived coincidences, Kingsolver's characters seem to be intertwined with destiny. In The Bean Trees, Taylor ends up where she belongs, though it is through a series of random events. Kingsolver's plotting and rich characterization carry us along so that we don't notice the coincidences that shape the framework of the narrative.

Kingsolver also uses metaphorical language to enrich her narrative and depict her themes. Much of this metaphor takes the form of descriptions of nature and natural phenomena. As the interconnectedness of people and nature are always important themes in her work, this is especially appropriate because it arises naturally from the story rather than seeming imposed or pasted on. In addition to the wisteria/rhizobia metaphor described above, Kingsolver uses images of other plants, such as night-blooming cereus and Turtle's love of growing things, to represent themes of the story.

Social Concerns

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Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees is a story of a young woman who leaves home to seek her place in the world and ends up with something she doesn't expect. Thrust into motherhood when an abused Cherokee child is left in her care, Taylor Greer learns not only to accept and embrace her new role, but about the importance of family and community. As a result of her experiences, she develops a strong social conscience that allows her to take action to support what she feels is right.

The daughter of a poor single mother in Pittman, Kentucky, Marietta Greer feels that her options are limited. She does not want to end up a teenage mother like many other girls in her high school. A favorite teacher recognizes her potential and recommends Marietta for a job as a medical assistant. When she reaches her early twenties, she decides to leave Kentucky. She buys a broken-down Volkswagen and vows to drive west as far as her car will carry her. As a sign of a clean break with her past, Marietta changes her first name to Taylor, the name of the first town where she runs out of gas. As she travels on, Taylor is shocked by the flatness and seeming desolation of the Great Plains. It is during her journey that we first learn that Taylor and her mother have Cherokee blood. In the parking lot outside a bar in Oklahoma, a distraught Cherokee woman hands Taylor a bundle, which turns out to be a three-year-old girl, whom the woman urges Taylor to take, apparently for the child's own safety.

Stopping for the night, Taylor learns the child has been sexually abused. The girl does not speak, but because of her fierce grip Taylor begins calling her Turtle. Eventually, Taylor winds up in Tucson, Arizona, at a used-tire shop run by a woman named Mattie, who becomes something of a mother figure for Taylor. In addition to running her business, a strange occupation for a woman in Taylor's experience, Mattie also provides sanctuary for Central American refugees. After a brief stint at a fast-food restaurant, Taylor goes to work for Mattie.

Taylor answers an ad for a roommate and ends up sharing a house with Lou Ann Ruiz, a young woman whose husband, Angel, a rodeo rider, has just left her alone with their infant son. The two women bond immediately because both are from Kentucky, though Lou Ann lacks Taylor's confidence and self-esteem. Lou Ann's on-again, off-again relationship with Angel, and the plight of Estevan and Esperanza, two Guatemalan refugees staying with Mattie, comprise the chief subplots of the narrative.

Taylor is slow to accept herself as Turtle's mother, though she defends the girl against those who suggest she may be retarded. Taylor is proven correct when Turtle speaks her first word: bean. For some time thereafter, Turtle's only words are names of vegetables. Taylor also resists Lou Ann's domesticity, uncomfortable at this point with forming anything that could be called a "family."

Through Mattie, Taylor meets Estevan and Esperanza. Taylor is almost immediately attracted to Estevan. Esperanza, his wife, reacts strangely to Turtle. Following a suicide attempt by Esperanza, Taylor learns from Estevan that Turtle reminds Esperanza of their daughter, who was kidnapped by terrorists in Guatemala. Though the attraction between Taylor and Estevan seems mutual, neither acknowledges it verbally or acts upon it. Slowly, Taylor's circle of friends begins to feel more like a family.

After Turtle's incident in the park, she reverts temporarily to her silent state. Though a doctor confirms that she hasn't been physically harmed, the incident brings Turtle to the attention of social services, who learn Taylor is not her legal guardian. Taylor becomes depressed and defeated. She not only fears that she will lose Turtle, but also wonders if she is a fit mother. At the same time, through her acquaintance with the refugees, she has begun to learn about atrocities she never before imagined.

The turning point in the novel comes when Taylor decides to drive Estevan and Esperanza to a safe house in Oklahoma. At the same time, she plans to seek out Turtle's relatives so that she can adopt her legally. This shows her commitment not only to Turtle, but also to the political convictions she has begun to develop. Unable to locate anyone who knows anything about Turtle, Estevan and Esperanza, who are Mayan people and resemble Cherokees, agree to pose as Turtle's parents in order to help Taylor and sign the adoption papers. This action also serves as a form of closure for Esperanza—she is able to transfer her feelings for her daughter to Turtle and say goodbye.

Preparing to return to Tucson and her supportive circle of friends, Taylor learns that Lou Ann has finally accepted her divorce from Angel and is ready to move on in life. Taylor has learned that families are not necessarily those related by blood, but those people who support and sustain us through life's troubles.

The social issue dealt with most directly in The Bean Trees is the plight of Central American refugees, fleeing oppressive governments in their homelands, but forced to hide from the law in the United States. This issue is personalized through the story of Estevan and Esperanza, an intelligent, well educated married couple who become opponents of the Guatemalan government and lose their daughter and home as a result. Through her association with them, Taylor learns how difficult some people's lives are compared to her own, and begins to take a stand against injustices and to find a purpose for her own life.

Child abuse also comes into play in the book, but it is primarily used as a plot device, to get Turtle into Taylor's possession and then later to force the issue of Taylor's legal custody. The abuse discovered by Taylor is not described in detail, and there appear to be few long-term effects of the abuse on Turtle, apart from her temporary silence.

Several other issues are mentioned briefly in the book. They are, perhaps, what Kingsolver referred to when speaking of writing her first novel: "a catalogue of everything I believe in." As a result, Taylor is outraged by every social injustice she sees, whether it is the plight of the homeless, treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government, or the conditions at the salsa factory where Lou Ann works. Kingsolver never clearly establishes how Taylor developed such a sympathetic nature, though it is possibly also related to her feelings of being part of a social underclass while growing up in Kentucky.

Literary Precedents

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Kingsolver has stated that, as a college student, she was greatly influenced by the work of Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer, among others. Like several works by these writers, The Bean Trees also depicts the close relationship between the political and the personal. In telling the story of a young woman who becomes a social activist as she gains maturity, The Bean Trees evokes Lessing's "Children of Violence" series and Gordimer's A Sport of Nature. Kingsolver's humor and affinity for quirky characters and intricate plots also bear comparison to the work of John Irving, who in turn was influenced by Charles Dickens.


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The Bean Trees is available in an unabridged audiotape version for Recorded Books, read by C. J. Critt.

Media Adaptations

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The Bean Trees was recorded on tape, read by C. J. Critt, in 1994. Available from Recorded Books.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Jack Butler, "She Hung the Moon and Plugged in All the Stars," in The New York Times Book Review, April 10,1988, p. 15.

Karen FitzGerald, "A Major New Talent," in Ms., Vol. XVI, No. 10, April, 1988, p. 28.

Diane Manual, "A Roundup of First Novels about Coming of Age," in The Christian Science Monitor, April 22,1988, p. 20.

Michael Neill, "La Pasionana," in People Weekly, Vol 40, October 11, 1993, pp. 109-10.

Publishers Weekly, Vol 233, No 2, January 15, 1988, p. 78.

Margaret Randall, "Human Comedy," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. V, No 8, May, 1988, pp. 1, 3.

Maureen Ryan, "Barbara Kingsolver's Lowfat Fiction," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 18, Winter, 1995, pp. 77-82

For Further Study
Jack Butler, "She Hung the Moon and Plugged in All the Stars," in The New York Times Book Review, April 10,1988, p 15.
Butler admires Kingsolver's poetic style, but derides the novel for only permitting "upbeat" resolutions.

Brenda Daly, Authoring a Life, a Woman's Survival in and Through Literary Studies, State University of New York Press, 1998.
A collection of essays that utilize both personal narrative and feminist theory in order to explore the connection between feminine identity development and language arts studies.

David King Dunaway and Sara L. Spurgeon, "Barbara Kingsolver," in Writing the Southwest, edited by David King Dunaway and Sara L. Spurgeon, Plume, 1995, pp 93-107.
Dunaway and Spurgeon combine biography, interview and excerpts to give a relatively comprehensive introduction to Kingsolver and her work. Characterized as much as a writer as an activist, Kingsolver fits well in the American Southwest tradition.

Robin Epstein, "Barbara Kingsolver," in The Progressive, Vol 60, No. 2, February, 1996, pp 33, 35.
Kingsolver contends that she does not write her books "mainly for women," and discusses how her desire to change the world and how her concern for children, community, politics, and social justice motivate her to write fiction.

Karen FitzGerald, "A Major New Talent," in Ms., Vol 16, April, 1988, p. 28.
FitzGerald describes the novel as "vivid and engaging," and praises its exploration of women's friendship—which she links to a contemporary feminist ethic—concluding that the novel is an "entertaining and inspiring" first effort.

Greta Gaard, "Living Connections with Animals and Nature," in EcoFeminism: Women, Animals, Nature, edited by Greta Gaard, Temple UP, 1993, pp 1-12
Gaard discusses how Kingsolver's fiction and the work of other women writers deconstructs the tradition that links woman and nature, categories too often held below man and culture.

Karen M. and Philip H. Kelly, "Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees A New Classroom Classic," in English Journal, Vol. 86, No. 8, December, 1997, pp 61-3.
The authors maintain that The Bean Trees is an "eminently usable text for faculty and an engaging novel for students," and offer strategies for teaching the novel.

Kentucky Educational Television, "Barbara Kingsolver," in Contemporary Southern Writers, Annenberg CPB Multimedia Collection, 1996.
The film features interviews with Kingsolver and her friends, relatives, editors, and critics

Edward C Lynskey, "The Bean Trees," in Library Journal, Vol. 113, February 1,1988, p. 76.
Lynskey finds the novel "refreshingly upbeat," and speculates that subsequent Kingsolver novels will "probably generate more interest than this one."

Diane Manual, "A Roundup of First Novels About Coming of Age," in The Christian Science Monitor, April 22, 1988, p. 20.
Describes The Bean Trees as "refreshingly perceptive," and praises the novel for giving readers "a character to believe in and laugh with and admire."

Roger Matuz, editor, "Barbara Kingsolver," in Contemporary Literary Criticism Yearbook 1988, Vol. 55, Gale Research, 1988, pp 64-8.
Features excerpts from criticism on The Bean Trees.

"Briefly Noted," in New Yorker, April 4, 1998, pp 101-02.
The reviewer finds the parallel growth of Turtle and Taylor "predictable," but the novel as a whole enjoyable.

Donna Perry, "Barbara Kingsolver," in Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out, edited by Donna Perry, Rutgers UP, 1993, pp 143-69.
Perry questions Kingsolver on the circumstances of becoming a writer, and then the challenges of being one. Each of Kingsolver's books is discussed in detail, including her book of poems, Another Amer-ica/Otra America.

Margaret Randall, "Human Comedy," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol V, No. 8, May, 1988, pp. 1, 3.
Randall interprets the novel as a story about invasion, the resolution of which she finds "as believable as it is gratifying." She admires Kingsolver's "deep female consciousness," which she says feels like "bedrock when put up against some of the preachier, more explicitly feminist works."

Patti Capel Swartz, "'Saving Grace': Political and Environmental Issues and the Role of Connections in Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams," in Isle, Vol l, No 1, Spring, 1993, pp 65-79.
Swartz explores the way that characters' actions lead to personal growth in Kingsolver's "subversive" fiction, and compares Kingsolver to writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Tillie Olsen, and others who call for social change.

Lisa Schwarzbaum, "Bound for (More) Glory," in Entertainment Weekly, No. 429, May 1, 1998, p. 58.
Schwarzbaum reflects on the popularity of The Bean Trees, now out in a 10th-anniversary edition.

Meredith Sue Willis, "Barbara Kingsolver, Moving On," in Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review, Vol. 22, No 1, Fall, 1994, pp 78-86.
Willis discusses how the Appalachian traditions of restlessness and a hatred of oppression are influences in Kingsolver's work.


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Butler, Jack. “She Hung the Moon and Plugged in All the Stars.” The New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988, 15. A good essay that praises Kingsolver’s style, pointing out her success in both dialogue and description. Butler also notes that language is one of the subthemes of the novel, linking Lou Ann and Taylor through their Kentucky dialect, Estevan through his work as an English teacher, and Turtle as a child learning to speak. Butler points out, however, that the novel seems to lose “immediacy” near its end, with the characters becoming almost too good and the plot perhaps overly contrived.

FitzGerald, Karen. “A Major New Talent.” Ms. 17 (April, 1988): 28. In this appreciative review, FitzGerald puts Kingsolver in the context of contemporary feminists writing about friendship. In Kingsolver’s fiction, however, as opposed to the nonfiction of other feminists, a reader comes to feel the power of women’s relationships and their ability to provide a haven in which the women can blossom.

Freitag, Michael. “Writing to Pay the Rent.” The New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988, 15.

Lyall, Sarah. “Termites Are Interesting but Books Sell Better.” The New York Times, September 1, 1993, C1. A lengthy, informal profile of Kingsolver.

Mossman, Robert. Review of The Bean Trees. English Journal 79 (October, 1990): 85.

Perry, Donna. Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Randall, Margaret. “Human Comedy.” Women’s Review of Books 5 (May, 1988): 1. Randall’s review of The Bean Trees offers great praise for the novel. She frames the discussion of her review around the issue of invasion: both in terms of Turtle’s sexual abuse (the invasion of a child’s body) and the invasion of Central America by United States forces.

Schwarzbaum, Lisa. “Bound for (More) Glory.” Entertainment Weekly (May 1, 1998): 58. A highly favorable tenth anniversary review that praises Kingsolver’s novel for its memorable characters and recommends it be taught in high schools.

See, Lisa. “Barbara Kingsolver.” Publishers Weekly 237 (August 31, 1990): 46-47. See conducted interviews with Barbara Kingsolver, and this article provides very useful background and biographical information. She also covers some of Kingsolver’s other work, including Holding the Line (1989), Homeland and Other Stories (1989), and Animal Dreams (1990).

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