The Bean Trees

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The Bean Trees
First edition
Author Barbara Kingsolver
Country United States
Language English
Genre Dramatic Fiction
Publisher Harper & Row
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback) and audio-CD
Pages 232
ISBN 0-06-015863-8
OCLC 16900347
813/.54 19
LC Class PS3561.I496 B44 1988
Followed by Pigs in Heaven

The Bean Trees, first published in 1988, is the first book written by Barbara Kingsolver, followed by a sequel Pigs in Heaven. The protagonist of the novel, Taylor Greer, a native of Kentucky, finds herself in Oklahoma near Cherokee territory. The novel begins with a woman leaving an American Indian infant with Taylor. The remainder of the novel traces the experiences of Taylor and the child, whom Taylor has named Turtle. Covering Turtle's early childhood, the story includes a colorful cast of characters: Lou Ann, her roommate; Esperanza and Estevan, a Guatemalan couple; and Mattie, the owner of "Jesus Is Lord Used Tires". The novel also makes reference to the issue of Native American parental rights.


The Bean Trees opens in rural Kentucky. Taylor goes on to tell the story of how she is scared of taking in a new baby girl named turtle. Not knowing she was kidnapped or abused,but knowing that she was going to be a big responsibility. Taylor was the one to escape small-town life. She did so by avoiding pregnancy, getting a job working at the hospital, and saving up enough money to buy herself an old Volkswagen bug. About five years after high school graduation, she decides to go on a journey to see what life has to offer her. Her car breaks down in the middle of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. As she sits in her car, getting ready to leave, a woman approaches and puts a baby in the front seat of Taylor’s car, telling her to take it. She tells Taylor she is the sister of the child’s mother and that the baby was born in a Plymouth car. The woman leaves with no further explanation. Taylor is bewildered, but drives off with the child. They go to a hotel, and while bathing the baby, Taylor discovers that the baby, a girl, has been abused and sexually molested. She names the baby Turtle because the girl's tendency to grasp objects and people resembles that of a turtle.

Eventually, Taylor and Turtle make it to Tucson, Arizona. When Taylor’s two back tires blow out, she goes to Jesus Is Lord Used Tires to try and get some more. There she meets the owner, a kind, wise woman named Mattie. Mattie takes to Turtle right away. Taylor moves into a Tucson hotel with Turtle and finds a job working at a restaurant known as the Burger Derby.

The narrative switches to the story of Lou Ann Ruiz, another Kentuckian living in Tucson. Lou Ann has been abandoned by her husband, Angel. On January 1, she gives birth to a son, Dwayne Ray. Lou Ann’s mother and grandmother (known simply as Granny Logan) come west to visit the baby, and Granny Logan brings water from the Tug Fork River in Kentucky, which she suggests should be used to baptize the baby. When Angel comes home to gather up some of his things, he pours the water down the drain.

Meanwhile, Taylor has started her new job, but she quits six days later. She begins to look for a place to live, and finds a room for rent listed in the paper. The room turns out to belong to Lou Ann. The two women become fast friends, and Taylor takes the room. Without work, Taylor is left with no option but to take a job working for Mattie at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. One day Taylor meets two of Mattie’s friends, Estevan and Esperanza, a married couple from Guatemala. Soon, it is evident that they are illegal aliens living with other illegal aliens in Mattie’s home above the tire shop.

A month or so later, Taylor takes Turtle to see a doctor and finds that Turtle’s growth has been stunted because she was abused sexually. Turtle is not a baby, as her size indicates, but a three-year-old. That same day, Angel tells Lou Ann that he is leaving her for good.

Mattie’s friend Esperanza attempts suicide. When Estevan comes to tell Taylor this news, he ends up divulging the story of their past. He tells her that he and Esperanza had to leave behind a child in Guatemala. The government wanted the names of union members from Estevan and Esperanza and took their daughter, Ismene, as a way of forcing them to tell. Choosing to save seventeen lives instead of trying to get their daughter back, the couple fled their country. Estevan spends the night on Taylor’s couch. Taylor realizes she is falling in love with him.

After a few weeks, Lou Ann gets a job at a salsa factory, supporting herself in the absence of her husband. No sooner does she start her new job than Angel sends a package with presents for Lou Ann and Dwayne Ray, and a letter asking her to come live with him in Montana, or, if she does not want to do that, to let him come back and live with her in Tucson. After consideration, Lou Ann refuses to take him back.

On the night of the first summer rain, Mattie takes Esperanza, Estevan, and Taylor into the desert to see the natural world come to life. Turtle is left with her baby-sitter, a blind woman named Edna Poppy. Edna and Turtle go to the park, and because of her disability, Edna does not notice when a prowler approaches Turtle. Taylor returns and hears as much of the story as Edna can tell: Edna heard struggling and swung in the direction of the attacker with her cane. She hit him and then felt Turtle tugging on the hem of her skirt. Turtle does not seem hurt, but she has stopped speaking and has the same vacuous look in her eyes that she had when Taylor first saw her. Turtle’s trauma and the difficulties of Estevan and Esperanza make Taylor depressed. To make matters worse, the police investigation into the attack on Turtle reveals that Taylor has no legal claim on Turtle. Taylor will be forced to give her to a state ward or find a way around the law. The social worker in Tucson gives Taylor the name of a legal advisor in Oklahoma, where the laws are different. Mattie becomes worried about Estevan and Esperanza’s safety. A recent crackdown on illegal immigration will force them to find a new home and a way of getting there. Taylor decides she will transport Estevan and Esperanza to another sanctuary for illegal immigrants in Oklahoma. While there, she will look for Turtle’s relatives and see if they will consent to a legal adoption. Once in Oklahoma, Taylor returns to the bar where she received Turtle but finds that it has changed owners. There are no signs of the people she met there seven months before. Taylor, Esperanza, and Estevan decide to go to the Lake o’ the Cherokees. During that time, Taylor concocts a plan to convince the authorities in Oklahoma that Estevan and Esperanza are Turtle’s biological parents.

Once in the office of Mr. Armistead, the legal authority in Oklahoma, Esperanza and Estevan pretend to be Turtle’s biological parents. Esperanza sobs real tears at the prospect of giving up Turtle, and Taylor realizes that Esperanza is grieving the loss of her own daughter, who looked so much like Turtle. Taylor and Turtle drop off Esperanza and Estevan at their new home, a church in Oklahoma. Taylor says a tearful goodbye to Estevan. Taylor then calls her mother, who comforts her. Taylor and Turtle head back to Tucson, a place that both of them now call home.

The book conveys multiple symbolic meanings about shared motherhood, life and death, and beauty. The underlying themes not always recognized include those about mockery toward the judicial system, the flawed coping strategies of current day issues, and the strength of friendship.

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