Free Study Guide for The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver-BookNotes

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The Bean Trees begins as Marietta (Missy) Greer describes how Newt Hardbine’s father was blasted over the top of a Standard Oil sign by the explosion of an overfilled tractor tire. She describes Newt as an elementary school flunky whose life will amount to nothing much. She then describes herself as raised without a father but encouraged by her mother who would carry on about how special Missy was. Missy intended to amount to something.

In high school, though she was not unfamiliar with boys, Missy was one of the few girls who had made it to senior year without having to drop out due to pregnancy. It was then that Mr. Hughes Walter, with his blonde hair and tight jeans, became the science teacher. Every girl wanted an excuse just to speak to him. His wife, a nurse, asked him if he had someone in his classes that could work at the hospital. Missy was quite sure that she wouldn’t be chosen, but her mother convinced her that she was “plenty good enough” for the job and should tell Mr. Walter so. Missy got the job (she was the first to ask).

She had been working in the lab, filing papers, carrying human waste products and counting platelets under the microscope, less than a week when “hell busted loose”. Newt Hardbine and his wife Jolene were rolled into the hospital hurt and bloody. Jolene had been shot in the shoulder and Newt was dead. Feeling sympathetic, Missy listened to Jolene tell how Newt’s father beat him up, beat her up, and even hit their baby. Desperate, Newt shot himself and Jolene. This whole scene upset Missy to the point that she vomited twice and spent the remainder of the day counting the same platelets over and over, convinced that she would quit this job. However, by the time Missy finished telling her mother what happened, she decided she’d probably seen the worst of it and had no reason to quit. Once again, Missy’s mother, in her special way, made Missy feel, “like it was the moon I had just hung up in the sky and plugged in all the stars. Like I was that good.”

Missy kept the job at Pittman County Hospital for five and a half years. But all along, she had a plan to get away from there, away from Kentucky. With the money she’d saved after helping her mother with the rent and the bills, Missy bought herself a ’55 Volkswagen Bug with no windows, no back seat, and no starter. She explains how she had to push start it and how her mother made sure she could handle anything that might come along. Mama let the air out of the tires and stood there while Missy pumped them back up with a bicycle pump (all the while envisioning Newt’s daddy flying up in the air).

Missy left Pittman County making two promises to herself. The first promise was to get herself a new name. Wherever she ran out of gas she’d look for a sign. She kept this promise, ending up in Taylorville. Her new name would be Taylor Greer. The second promise was to drive west until her car broke down and wherever it stopped running, she would stay. As she drove, Missy (now Taylor) became depressed by the flat, hopeless nothingness of the Great Plains. She wouldn’t keep the second promise.

Her car gave out in Oklahoma in an area owned by the Cherokee Nation. She was amused because she had a great-grandpa who was Cherokee and her mother used to say that the Cherokee Nation was their “ace in the hole”, that they could live there if they ever ran out of luck. Taylor thought the treeless emptiness was no place where anyone would ever want to live. She’d have the car repaired and move on, giving up her “head rights” in the Cherokee Nation.

After her car was fixed by Bob Two Two, Taylor stopped to eat at a bar across from the garage in an attempt to use coffee and food as a means to stay awake and drive out of there. Inside, she wrote a postcard to her mother. “No offense, but the Cherokee Nation is crap.” She ordered a burger (because it cost less than $1) and observed the people in the bar: one Indian man with a fine face, a mean looking white man, and a frightened looking woman wrapped in a pink blanket. It was this woman who later came out to Taylor’s car and in desperation gave Taylor a baby, bundled in a blanket, claiming that it belonged to a dead sister. The woman explained that the baby had no papers and “nobody that matters”. It was born in a Plymouth. The woman then rode away in a pickup truck, leaving the baby in Taylor’s car.

Over-tiredness clouding her thinking, Taylor push-started her car and drove away having idle conversation with the bundle on her seat, wondering if it was a girl or a boy or if it was even alive. The smell of wetness answered the latter so Taylor looked for a place to stop. She found herself at the Broken Arrow Motor Lodge, which she chose because she spotted a gray haired woman in the office. She played on the woman’s sympathy for the child and offered to work in exchange for a room.

Inside the motel room, Taylor unwrapped the baby and wondered how she could get it back to its “rightful owner”. She discovered that the child was badly bruised and this horrified her to the point of nausea. The baby was a girl, a fact that had “already burdened her short life with a kind of misery I could not imagine”. Taylor bathed and cared for the child amazed at the way the little hands would grip things so tightly. When the baby was asleep, Taylor added a remark to the postcard she had written to her mother saying she had found her “head rights”.


The use of the first person narrative immediately sweeps the reader into an intimacy with Missy Greer’s humble but outspoken manner. She first compares herself physically and economically to Newt Hardbine. But then she describes her relationship with her mother and we see that she really is not cut from the “same mud” as Newt. Missy thinks and acts for herself. She, not Newt, will be The One to Get Away (chapter title).

The colloquial language sets the tone of the novel, which is illustrated in the first chapter. Life is not easy, but it has beauty and humor, and our resourceful heroine is a woman who could handle whatever comes her way. When she leaves Pittman County and changes her name, we sense that Taylor’s travels will cross boundaries of both geography and emotion. The appearance of the child punctuates Taylor’s struggle and refocuses the direction of the journey.

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