The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 1
The protagonist grew up in rural Kentucky. Her name is Marietta, but everyone calls her Missy because when she was three she insisted upon being called “Miss,” just like the rich children for whom her mother worked. However, she does not keep this name long, adopting the name of Taylor when she leaves Kentucky.
She explains that she decided not to get pregnant and to finish school because she does not want to be tied down in Kentucky. She gets a job in the local hospital and saves up enough money to buy an old car. In this car, she escapes a life where the town low-life family, the Hardbines, is a symbol of the desperation a life in rural Kentucky could become.
In Oklahoma on the Cherokee Nation, an Amerindian woman gives her a toddler and asks her to take care of it. Taylor finds a motel willing to put her up for free and bathes the child. She discovers that it is a girl who has been horribly abused and molested. Now she realizes why the woman wanted to find a safe home for the child and that she is destined to take care of it.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 2
Lou Ann Ruiz comes from Kentucky and lives in Tucson, Arizona. Her husband, Angel, got into an accident three years ago and lost one leg. While Lou Ann was never bothered by this, Angel changed after the accident. Now, she is seven months pregnant, and she knows their marriage has fallen apart.
Angel leaves Lou Ann on Halloween. He takes many things he thinks of as his. She is left alone and unable to reach down to take off her shoes. She goes to sleep in her pantyhose and shoes and cries.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 3
Taylor stays at the motel for a few weeks, earning some money. She gives the child the name Turtle till she can figure out her real name. The child does not speak and seems developmentally delayed, but Taylor believes she simply has her own way of doing things. After the New Year, the two head onto the road again.
Due to a hailstorm, Taylor ends up getting off the highway in Tucson, where she gets two flat tires. This causes her to meet Mattie, the proprietor of Jesus is Lord Used Tires. Mattie’s late husband gave the business its peculiar name. She is kind to Taylor and Turtle. Taylor cannot afford to replace the tires.She looks for a job but wonders what she will do with Turtle while she is working.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 4
Lou Ann has the baby on January 1. Her mother and grandmother come to visit for two weeks. Angel moves back in so that the women will not know they are getting a divorce. Lou Ann’s mother, Ivy, is always in a fight with her grandmother, Granny Logan. They have lived together since Ivy married. Lou Ann talks to her mother about that, as she is so far away from her family.
After the women get on the bus to go back to Kentucky, Lou Ann stops to buy vegetables from Bobby Bingo, who sells them out of his truck. When she gets home, she nurses Dwayne Ray. When Angel gets home, he packs up his shaving supplies to leave.
Chapter 1-4 Analysis
The first four chapters set up the women’s personalities. Taylor is tough. She sets her mind to something and then accomplishes it through pure grit. She does not get pregnant or drop out of high school because she decided not to. She does believe in fate, knowing that fate brought her to Turtle. However, she also believes that a person can make a bit of her own fate. So, although she wants to let fate decide her new name by simply taking the name of the place where she runs out of gas, she makes her car go a little longer till she gets to a place with a nice name.
Lou Ann, on the other hand, just waits for things to happen to her. She “expected that a divorce would just develop, like a pregnancy” (26). She does not fight the things that happen to her, instead avoiding conflict as much as possible. She agrees to baptize the baby Catholic because the Catholic grandmother lives nearby and could put up more of a fight. However, she does have her own kind of strength She loves with fervor, and when Angel was injured, she doubled her devotion to him. It is only when he pulls away from her that she loses that feeling.
Both women are down on their luck. Both have children who are dependent upon them. And both need the kind of help that only other women can provide. That is why Mattie’s friendship is such a relief to Taylor and why Lou Ann feels empty when her mother and grandmother leave.
It is also important to note that Taylor’s chapters are in first person, while Lou Ann’s are in third person. Thus, while Lou Ann is an important character, this is Taylor’s story.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 5
Taylor takes a job at Burger Derby, where she is friendly with a girl named Sandi. They both leave their children at the free daycare at the mall, which Taylor knows is not a good place for Turtle. After six days, Taylor gets in a fight with the manager, “this little twerp who believed that the responsibility of running a burger joint put you a heartbeat away from Emperor of the Universe” (70). She loses her job.
She decides to look for a roommate with who she can move in. The first place she goes is a soy milk cooperative, where “A house requirement is that each person spend at least seven hours a week straining curd” (74). The second house is Lou Ann’s. The two women get along wonderfully, finding that they have a lot in common. Taylor agrees to move in, along with Turtle.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 6
Despite her deep fear of exploding tires, Taylor takes a job at Jesus is Lord Used Tires. It is a good arrangement. Sometimes, she brings Turtle to work with her, sometimes Lou Ann watches both children. The only thing that bothers Taylor is that she and Lou Ann are acting like an old married couple with each other. But, she talks this over with Lou Ann and they both feel better.
Turtle still does not speak or do much other than grab onto things. Lou Ann worries about this, thinking perhaps it is because they have not figured out her name. Taylor, however, thinks Turtle is just doing things her own way. She buys a book for Turtle that has lots of vegetables in it because it reminds her of Mattie’s vegetable garden.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 7
Through Mattie, Taylor meets two Guatemalan refugees, Estevan and his wife, Esperanza. They go on a picnic expedition together. Esperanza, who is very small and fragile, is very taken aback when she first sees Turtle. Estevan says that Turtle reminds his wife of a child they knew in Guatemala. Although Estevan was an English teacher in Guatemala, in the United States he washes dishes at a Chinese restaurant.
Meanwhile, Turtle begins to emerge from her protective shell. She starts to speak. However, all of her words are vegetables. Nonetheless, this emerging personality is quite welcome to Taylor.
Taylor and Lou Ann work out an arrangement that is more like roommates and less like a married couple. They also have Estevan and Esperanza over for dinner on the night Mattie is on television news. In addition, their neighbors, Edna Poppy and Virgie May Parsons come over. On television, Mattie talks about the plight of people fleeing violent regimes. Mrs. Parsons expresses her bigoted view that people should remain in their own countries, but Edna smoothes it over. Estevan tells a story about how people in heaven help each other.
Chapter 5-7 Analysis
Taylor is beginning to make a community and a life for herself. Mattie is a strong woman, but it is increasingly clear she has something to hide. A priest brings South American families to live with her for brief periods of time, and she tells Taylor her house is a sanctuary. It seems that these people are illegal immigrants fleeing dangerous situations.
Turtle is aptly named because she was indeed hiding in a protective shell. Someone had tried to hurt her and she withdrew. Now, however, she seems to feel safe, and she is slowly emerging. She laughs and begins to talk. Love gives her her life back.
That is the case with the women in this book. Each was hurting or missing something. But, when they come together and support each other, they start to form a community. Neither Taylor nor Lou Ann would be able to raise her child on her own, but together they form a partnership. Mattie has a lot of love to give, but she also needs help around the store, which Taylor can provide. The women have a common desire to help out one another.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 8
Mattie goes away for several days at a time, leaving Taylor in charge of the store. When she returns, she has people with her. A young, red-haired doctor comes to take care of them because sometimes they have cigarette burns.
Taylor takes Turtle to the doctor. She has a hard time getting in, however, because she has no background information on Turtle. She gets away with explaining she is her foster mother, but she is told to bring paperwork next time. The doctor finds that Turtle is actually three years old but that she suffered failure to thrive because of the abuse. Now, she is thriving, but she will always have the healed fractures inside her.
Angel comes back to tell Lou Ann he is leaving town and filing for divorce. Lou Ann is distraught. However, she and Taylor end up laughing and having a good time together instead of dwelling on the divorce.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 9
Estevan comes to see Taylor. He tells her that Esperanza tried to commit suicide. Taylor is surprised, but Estevan tells her why his wife wants to end her life. They were both part of a teacher’s union in Guatemala, which was forbidden. So, they were tortured. Moreover, their daughter, Ismene, was abducted by the police who wanted to use her to get the couple to reveal the identities of people in the union. Knowing she would be adopted by another family but not harmed, they chose to let their daughter go rather than risk the lives of seventeen people.
Taylor also reveals something about her past. In her town in Kentucky, there were three groups: the town kids, the hoodlums, and the poor kids who were called “Nutters.” This was because they harvested walnuts to earn money to buy school clothes, but then they had hands stained black, so everyone knew they were poor.
Chapter 8-9 Analysis
These two chapters contrast the benefits of having someone who loves you with the devastation that human beings can inflict upon one another. Turtle was horribly mistreated, but once she has love she blossoms, like the tree in Dog Doo Park that seems dead but then blooms in the spring. Estevan and Esperanza treated other human beings well, protecting seventeen lives, but they are now haunted by the loss of their daughter.
Both chapters also have examples of the trouble that can come from the attraction between a man and a woman. Angel has destroyed Lou Ann’s self-esteem. Her love for him is unhealthy because she is dependent upon him and willing to put up with his coldness. Meanwhile, Taylor and Estevan have feelings for each other, as evidenced by their ending upholding each other. However, Taylor does the honorable thing and leaves to go to bed because it could be very hurtful to Esperanza. The contrast of these two demonstrates that, while attraction can be problematic, it can be handled in a healthy way by people who care about others.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 10
Taylor runs into Edna Poppy at the store without Virgie, who is sick at home. For the first time, she discovers that Edna is blind. She and Virgie are so mutually dependent that Taylor never even noticed that the woman could not see.
Taylor also goes up to visit Esperanza. She does not have much to say to her, but she does say how sorry she is. She asks Esperanza to retain hope and tells her how much Estevan loves her.
Lou Ann is looking for a job. Although she still denigrates herself, she is taking the initiative and trying to find work because she knows that Angel’s checks are going to stop coming soon.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 11
Lou Ann gets a job at Red Hot Mama’s salsa factory. She is very enthusiastic about the job and gets promoted to manager in three weeks. The job gives her a great deal more self-confidence. During the few hours both she and Taylor are at work, Edna Poppy and Virgie Parsons watch the children.
Then, Angel sends a package and says he misses her. He wants to reconcile and asks her to come to Montana, where he is living in a yurt. Lou Ann does not know what to do, as she does not want to leave her job behind.
Estevan and Esperanza’s legal situation is tenuous. Mattie’s house is no longer safe for them, and they have to be moved someplace further north. Everyone is on edge.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 12
On the first day of rain, Mattie takes Taylor, Estevan, and Esperanza out into the desert to smell the rain. It is wonderful, but when they return, Taylor finds Turtle again in a catatonic state. Edna had taken her to the park and a man had tried to hurt her, but Edna swung at him even though she could not see him.
When the police arrive, there is no evidence Turtle has been molested again. Nonetheless, she does not talk. Taylor is despondent. She feels it is her fault and she cannot protect Turtle from all the bad in the world. She wishes she could, but there are so many people out there trying to hurt others. She does not go to Turtle to comfort her, leaving that to Lou Ann.
Chapter 10-12 Analysis
Taylor has always been strong and gutsy. She encourages Esperanza to have hope because “some people never have anybody to lose, and I think that’s got to be so much worse” than losing someone (156). Now, when Turtle is threatened by the evil in the world, Taylor realizes how vulnerable she is because she loves someone so much. This is the first bad thing to really get her down, and it is able to knock her down because she cares about someone. Although she loved her mother, here she is trying to protect this child and that concern makes her feel the danger all around her. It is like she says to Lou Ann, “The flip side of worrying too much is just not caring” (163). She and Lou Ann worry because they love the children.
Despite all the evil in the world, the love of a group of people can help. Kingsolver brings up many living things that thrive in the desert where life seems barren. “Mattie said all the things that looked dead were just dormant. As soon as the rains came they would sprout leaves and grow” (170). The turtle was like that; she seemed catatonic but she sprouted when she had love. Now, she is catatonic again from fear, but if the desert can keep coming back to life after it has been a harsh environment, so can Turtle.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 13
Turtle recovers from her assault, but she and Taylor are required to meet with a social worker because it was reported to the police. Turtle is herself again, but there is bad news. Now that their arrangement has come to the attention of the state authorities, they realize that Taylor has no legal claim to Turtle. At first, Taylor is despondent and Lou Ann tells her she needs to try to find a way around it. Then, Taylor meets with Cynthia, the social worker, and tries to figure out a plan.
Taylor decides to go to Oklahoma and try to find Turtle’s relatives. While she is going, she will take Esperanza and Estevan with her to a safer place. Mattie is concerned because it is illegal and dangerous, but Taylor insists on helping her friends.
On the night before they leave, Virgie May Parsons comes over and tells them to get the kids out of bed. A special plant, the night-blooming cereus, is blooming, which happens only one night a year. It is beautiful and they are all inspired by it.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 14
Although they are stopped by a routine immigration check, the group manages to get to Oklahoma with relatively little incident. The only difficult part for Taylor is watching how close Turtle and Esperanza seem. Turtle looks a lot like Esperanza, and seeing them together makes her sad.
When they get to the bar where Taylor was given Turtle, they are disappointed. It is under new ownership, and the girl working there has no idea who the people Taylor knew were. However, Taylor does learn that she is not really in the Cherokee Nation, that this ugly place is just the outskirts. They all decide to go to the Lake o’ the Cherokees in the Cherokee Nation to rest and to think of how to keep Turtle.
Chapter 13-14 Analysis
After Turtle’s assault, Lou Ann and Taylor seem to switch attitudes. Lou Ann has become more upbeat and confident now that she is working. Taylor’s influence is also helping her be stronger. Taylor, on the other hand, is vulnerable for the first time in her life. She is overwhelmed by how difficult the world is and wonders whether she is fit to try to raise a child in an unsafe world. However, she regains her strength and confidence with the help of her friends. Mattie tells her “You’re asking yourself, Can I give this child the best possible upbringing and keep her out of harm’s way her whole life long? The answer is no, you can’t. But nobody else can either” (187). The world may be unsafe and difficult, she assures Taylor, but the best thing people can do is try to be there for one another. Taylor regains some perspective and that is why she helps out Estevan and Esperanza. She realizes that the world can be an awful place but that she can make it better for some people.
The night-blooming cereus is an example of rare beauty that is ephemeral. If you cut the blooms, Edna assures Taylor, the scent disappears. It is best to appreciate the plant as it is, in its moment. This is like people. Rather than try to keep people as we want them to be, the best thing to do is to appreciate their beauty for as long as we have it. This lesson is important, as Taylor needs to understand that she cannot protect Turtle by keeping her locked away, like a flower in an icebox. She needs to allow Turtle to be herself in her own space.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 15
The Lake o’ the Cherokees is beautiful, and they rent a cottage for the night. Turtle had pointed out the window at a cemetery and said “Mama” during the drive. Now, again she says “Mama,” this time after burying her doll. Taylor talks to her, asking if she saw her own mother get buried. Turtle says she did, and Taylor explains that, although her mother could not stay with her, she must have loved her very much. Taylor says she will try to make sure she is always there with Turtle. Then, she asks Estevan and Esperanza for a favor.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 16
They go to the justice of the peace in Oklahoma so Taylor can adopt Turtle. Since white people cannot really tell the difference between a Mayan Indian and a Cherokee Indian, Estevan and Esperanza pretend to be Turtle’s parents. They say that they are unable to care for Turtle and want to give her up to Taylor to raise. Because they are illegal immigrants, Estevan and Esperanza are taking a great risk doing this, but they want to help. The lack of a birth certificate is not an issue because children born on tribal land often do not have birth certificates.
Esperanza has really created a strong bond with Turtle. She misses her own daughter, Ismene, and so she has latched on to Turtle. In the justice’s office, she claims to be saying goodbye to her daughter, and she cries and gets very upset. Her performance is convincing because this process is allowing her to say goodbye to Ismene, as well.
The Bean Trees Summary – Chapter 17
Taylor takes Esteban and Esperanza to the church that will be their sanctuary. She wakes up Turtle so she can say goodbye and understand that they left their friends in a good place. Taylor has a difficult time saying goodbye, too. Although she knows Esteban is not hers to have, saying goodbye is very difficult because she loves him.
Once they leave the church, Taylor calls her mother because she is heartbroken over Esteban. Then, she and Turtle talk about the fact that she is Turtle’s mother now. While they are waiting to pick up the adoption papers, she calls Lou Ann. Lou Ann has given up on Angel and started dating someone, but she and Taylor know that they are each other’s family now.
Chapter 15-17 Analysis
Taylor has come to realize that the world can be a pretty awful place. She cannot make it so that bad things don’t happen to people. But, she does realize that they have all helped each other make things better. It is unfair that anyone should try to take Turtle from her, but Esteban and Esperanza help her find a way to keep the child. It is awful that they lost their daughter, but by helping her they have a chance to say goodbye to their child. They have not made things perfect in the world. However, as Esteban tells her, “in a world as wrong as this one, all we can do is to make things as right as we can” (233). They make things more right by helping and loving each other.
Taylor has created a family for herself. This family is based on strong bonds between women. Only when Lou Ann has a fortifying relationship with Taylor can she build a healthy love life. This is part of why Taylor realizes Esteban is off limits, as she would not hurt another woman for the sake of a man. The families built in this book are non-traditional: Turtle comes to be Taylor’s in a strange and illegal way, Mattie’s family of refugees keeps coming and going, and Taylor and Lou Ann are not traditional parents, as they are not romantically involved. Nonetheless, families based on love and mutual support are like the rhizobia that helps the wisteria grow: everyone benefits from helping one another.