The Bean Trees

Barbara Kingsolver

The Bean Trees

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Bean Trees Summary

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Barbara Kingsolver’s debut novel, The Bean Trees (1988), noted for its skillful combination of the lyrical and the realistic, was a breakout success, launching her into the literary stratosphere.

The story opens as Taylor Greer explains why she does not like to fill tires with air, due to an accident she witnessed as a child in Kentucky, when she was still known by her given name, Marietta. She recounts her childhood, explaining that she managed to escape her small town, unlike most of her peers, because she avoided becoming pregnant and saved her money to buy a car, a well-used Volkswagen Beetle. Five years after graduating high school, she tells her mother goodbye and leaves town. She decides on a whim that she will drive until she runs out of gas and then change her name to wherever she finds herself. When this happens in Taylorville, she chooses her new name and stops for a bite to eat. Sitting in her car, an old Cherokee woman approaches, holding a baby. The woman puts the baby in Taylor’s car and tells her to take it.

Taylor does so, taking the baby to a hotel. Taylor names the girl Turtle because she clings with a strong, almost reptilian grip. She is disturbed to discover evidence that the girl was sexually and physically abused. Taylor takes Turtle with her, driving until two of her tires blow out in Tucson, Arizona. Taylor takes the car to Jesus is Lord Used Tires and meets the owner, Mattie, who is instantly drawn to Turtle. Taylor takes a hotel room and quickly finds a job at a local restaurant, the Burger Derby.

Lou Ann Ruiz, having also moved from Kentucky to Tucson, gives birth to a baby boy. The father, Angel, has abandoned her. Her mother and grandmother travel to see her, bringing with them water from Kentucky to be used in the baby’s baptism, but when Angel returns to collect his belongings, he pours the water down the drain.

Taylor quits her job and begins looking for a room to rent. She responds to an advertisement placed by Lou Ann and rents a room from her; the two women instantly bond. Taylor is offered a job by Mattie at Jesus is Lord Used Tires and accepts, having few other options. At work, she meets Estevan and Esperanza, two friends of Mattie’s who are clearly part of a group of illegal immigrants living above Mattie’s business.

Taylor brings Turtle to a doctor and is stunned to discover that Turtle is not a baby, but is actually three years old—her growth stunted by the abuse she endured. Meanwhile, Angel contacts Lou Ann to tell her that he is never coming back. Esperanza attempts suicide, and Estevan comes to Taylor to tell her the news. They are attracted to each other, and Estevan tells her his story: In Guatemala, the government wanted information about union organizers and kidnapped their baby Ismene in order to pressure them. They chose to save the lives of seventeen people by sacrificing Ismene and fled. Estevan sleeps on Taylor’s couch.
Lou Ann gets a job but receives a package from Angel telling her he has changed his mind and asking her to come with their son to live with him or to let him come home to Tucson. Lou Ann decides not to take Angel back.

Mattie takes her friends on a field trip into the desert, and Turtle is left with a blind woman, Edna, for the day. Edna takes Turtle to the park and has to fight off a strange man. When Taylor returns, she finds Turtle has reverted back to her terrified state after months of progress—and, worse, the police now know that she has no legal claim to Turtle, who will be taken away from her. She is advised to move to Oklahoma, where the laws are more favorable. Mattie has become very worried about Estevan and Esperanza because of a crackdown on illegal immigrants, so Taylor suggests they accompany her to Oklahoma.

In Oklahoma, Taylor returns to the bar where she was given Turtle but cannot find any information about the people who brought her. Taylor comes up with a plan to convince the authorities that Esperanza and Estevan are Turtle’s parents, and they go to the office of Mr. Armistead. Esperanza’s grief at losing Turtle is real because she is thinking about her own daughter. The ruse works, and Taylor is able to gain legal guardianship of Turtle. Esperanza and Estevan start a new life in Oklahoma, and Taylor returns to Tucson with Turtle to do the same, calling her mother on the way and being comforted by her.
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