Characters: Taylor Greer - The protagonist of the novel, Taylor also narrates much of the story. She is a strong, gutsy woman, and her voice is both sassy and kind. Born and raised in rural Kentucky, she leaves to escape a small life in her hometown. Like her mother, she is proud of her Cherokee blood.
Turtle - The child given to Taylor in the middle of the Cherokee nation. She gets her name from her clinginess, which reminds Taylor of the mud turtles in Kentucky. She is so quiet and unengaged that many believe her to be dumb or retarded. This silence, however, is due to Turtle’s history: although she is only three years old, Turtle has already been physically and sexually abused. Although Taylor has spent her life avoiding pregnancy, she keeps Turtle with her.
Lou Ann Ruiz - A Kentuckian woman who settled in Tucson with her baby, Dwayne Ray. Her husband, Angel, has just walked out on her when the story begins, and Taylor and Turtle move in with her. She worries about the terrible accidents and horror stories she hears about, fearing for the safety of herself and her baby. More sensitive and more provincial than Taylor, she is nonetheless a survivor.
Mattie - The owner of Jesus Is Lord Used Tires and a mother figure for Taylor. She is wise and kind. She allows illegal immigrants to stay in her home, operating a kind of sanctuary. Her garden of beautiful vegetables and car parts is an inspiration for Turtle, whose first word is bean and who loves all kinds of vegetables.
Estevan - A Guatemalan refugee, he worked as an English teacher in Guatemala before he and his wife fled to the United States. He speaks beautiful English, and his kind ways inspire romantic feelings in Taylor. He lives in Mattie’s building with his wife, Esperanza. He enlightens Taylor about the corruption of Central American governments.
Esperanza - Estevan’s wife. Her grave demeanor is a reflection of her sorrowful past. Turtle’s presence touches her because Turtle reminds her of the daughter she had to leave behind.
Ismene - Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter, whom they left in Guatemala. She represents both the horror of political corruption and the desperation that can necessitate the abandonment of children.
Angel Ruiz - Lou Ann’s husband, he is a Mexican man whom Lou Ann met when he worked in the rodeo in Kentucky. Angel’s prosthetic leg—the result of a pickup truck accident—wounds his pride terribly and makes him unhappy.
Alice Greer - Taylor’s mother, who lives in Kentucky. In Chapter One, Taylor says that her mother expects the best from her daughter and thinks that whatever Taylor does is wonderful. An encouraging, kind mother, she is the only part of Taylor’s hometown that Taylor misses when she leaves.
Dwayne Ray - Lou Ann’s son. He was born on New Year’s Day.
Newt Hardbine - A classmate of Taylor’s. He drops out before graduation to help his family on its farm and dies before Taylor leaves Pittman County. He represents what could have been Taylor’s fate had she not had a wonderful mother and the determination to leave town.
Mrs. Virgie Parsons - Lou Ann’s grumpy neighbor, who sometimes baby-sits for the children. She makes insensitive remarks about immigrants.
Edna Poppy - The blind woman who lives with Mrs. Parsons. She is much warmer than her roommate.
Cynthia - The social worker who comes over after Turtle’s run-in with a miscreant in the park. Her prim attitude annoys Taylor, but her intentions are good.
Mr. Jonas Wilford Armistead - The legal authority in Oklahoma City who oversees Turtle’s adoption. An old white man, he treats Esperanza and Estevan like ignorant foreigners.
Granny Logan - Lou Ann’s grandmother. She is provincial and harbors many prejudices about Angel’s nationality. She hates the arid climate in Tucson and brings Lou Ann water from the Tug Fork River in Kentucky so that she may baptize Dwayne Ray properly.
Ivy - Lou Ann’s mother. She fights perpetually with Granny Logan, her mother-in-law. Like Granny Logan, she is provincial and has no interest in seeing Arizona.
Mrs. Hoge and Irene - The mother and daughter, respectively, who run the Broken Arrow Motor Lodge, where they let Turtle and Taylor stay free of charge on their trip west.
Father William - The priest who works with Mattie, transporting illegal immigrants to and from her house.
Lee-Sing - The woman who owns the grocery store and Laundromat next door to Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. Her mother brought the original bean seeds from China, the descendents of which now grow in Mattie’s yard.
The Shared Burden of Womanhood:
The topic of gender is explored in two general ways in the novel. First, the novel shows the success of a nearly exclusively female world. Taylor lives in a small community of women who for the most part live their lives independently of men. The women in this community strengthen one another. Once she begins to share her life with Taylor, Lou Ann stops disregarding her appearance, finds a job, and forgets her irresponsible husband. Taylor, the once-invulnerable spirit, finds the energy to fight for Turtle only after weeks of Lou Ann’s prodding and a long talk with Mattie. The women are remarkably loyal to one another. When she sees Esperanza’s tearful catharsis, Taylor realizes that if Esperanza asked for Turtle, Taylor would give Turtle to her. Esperanza’s loyalty to Taylor is equally strong, for although Turtle is one of the only things that gives Esperanza joy, Esperanza does not ask Taylor to give up Turtle.
Second, the novel portrays gender inequality as a societal phenomenon instead of as a series of individual grievances. When Taylor first sees Turtle’s body, she says that the burden of being born a woman had already affected the little girl. This comment immediately suggests that Kingsolver does not mean for us to think of Turtle as an individual but as representative of women in general, all of whom face difficulties because of their gender. Women suffer because they are women. Men touch and prod Lou Ann when she takes the bus, and the strip joint with its lewd paintings offends her. Esperanza seems to have had fewer educational and occupational opportunities in Guatemala that her husband did. While Estevan can speak perfect English, she is isolated in her depression, unable to express her grief fluently.
The Plight of Illegal Immigrants:
Kingsolver makes it clear that she sympathizes with the plight of illegal immigrants. Mattie, one of the most beloved characters in the novel, transports and protects illegal aliens. The immigrants Estevan and Esperanza are depicted sympathetically, and Taylor’s horror at their past life changes the way she sees the world. Kingsolver depicts those who denigrate immigrants not as evil, but as ignorant or misguided. Virgie Parsons’s views represent politically conservative ideas about immigration and nationalism. Although her remarks seem insensitive to Taylor, Virgie is not depicted as an evil person, but instead as one who has latched on to a political ideology without considering its moral implications.
Kingsolver also breaks down the us-versus-them rhetoric that often surrounds immigration issues by likening Taylor to Esperanza and Estevan. She levels the hierarchy that values an American citizen over a Guatemalan immigrant by depicting Taylor and the married couple as refugees. Taylor not only describes herself as an alien in Tucson, she finds that she is an outsider in the Cherokee nation, where Esperanza and Estevan feel at home.
Respect for the Environment:
The novel expresses a concern for the environment not by focusing on the potential destruction of the environment, but by focusing on the beauty of the land. The novel also suggests that Native American heritage and respect for the environment go hand in hand. Chapter Twelve dramatizes the intimate relationship between the land and indigenous peoples when Taylor, Esperanza, Estevan, and Mattie reenact the celebration of the first rainfall; we learn that as a child, Taylor loved to climb trees, behavior her mother ascribed to Taylor’s Cherokee inclination get high up in a tree to find God; Taylor’s sudden need to see Lake o’ the Cherokees has to do with her Cherokee blood; and Turtle has a natural love for the earth. Finally, the way that Turtle and other displaced people are symbolized by birds makes a statement about the vulnerability that Native people share with nature: both birds and displaced people will be hunted down if they cannot find a sanctuary.
Symbols: Beans and Bean Trees:
“Bean,” Turtle’s first word, symbolizes the promise that, like a dried-up seed that grows, a mistreated woman may thrive if given enough care. The bean trees, another name for the wisteria vine that Turtle spots in Dog Doo Park, symbolize transformation, a spot of life in the midst of barrenness. The bean trees have a symbiotic relationship with bugs called rhizobia, which move up and down the wisteria vine’s roots and provide a network that transfers nutrients. This mutual aid symbolizes the help and love human beings give one another. The bean trees, like people, only thrive with a network of support.
Ismene symbolizes all abandoned children, and the grief of all mothers forced to abandon them. Since we never meet her in the narrative and only hear about what she means to her parents, to Taylor, and to Turtle, Ismene is nothing but a symbol in the novel. She exists as Turtle’s dark twin, the embodiment of what could have happened to the abandoned Turtle had not Taylor rescued her. Ismene reveals Kingsolver’s commitment to writing as a means of social change, for Kingsolver portrays Ismene as representative of the pain inflicted by political corruption.
Most often, birds are metaphorically associated with Turtle, the abandoned child with strong survival instincts. As Turtle’s life changes, so do the birds that symbolize her. Taylor makes her first sound, a quiet laugh, when the car she is in stops to allow a mother quail and her babies to pass. Turtle is beginning to feel safe in the small family composed of herself and Taylor, and so the birds that elicit a happy sound from her are a mother quail and her chicks. Later, Taylor takes Turtle to the doctor and discovers the gravity of the abuse Turtle has suffered. As she makes this discovery, she sees a bird outside the doctor’s window. The bird has made its nest in a cactus. Like the bird in the cactus, Turtle’s life persists in spite of her painful surroundings. After Turtle encounters the prowler, a sparrow gets caught in Lou Ann’s house, and the bird’s fear suggests Turtle’s own fright and confusion. The sparrow’s survival suggests that Turtle will survive.
Traditionally, American society has defined “family” as “nuclear family”—a father, a mother, and children living together. The biological mother is often viewed as the natural caregiver, and the father is viewed as the provider. How does this novel ask us to rethink our definition of family and how does it suggest alternative role models in place of or in addition to the biological mother?
Questions of legality surface many times in this novel. How does the novel regard the law? If the law cannot act as an authority, what dictates right and wrong in its place?
Compare the experiences of Esperanza and Estevan, who are of the Mayan people, to the experiences of Turtle, and the Cherokee people in general.
Think of the bird imagery in this novel. What do the birds symbolize? How are different kinds of birds used to represent different ideas?
The Bean Trees is a novel about refugees. Identify the characters in the novel who have left or been driven from their homelands. What differentiates their experiences, and what commonalities bind them together?
The test will consist of character matching, multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions.