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

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It is March and unseasonably hot. Taylor, Turtle, Lou Ann, Dwayne Ray, Mattie and a couple from Guatemala City that Mattie had brought along are all picnicking at some hidden pools in the desert. It was Lou Ann’s idea to go there, a place she and Angel used to visit. After establishing in her desperate to please way that the place is acceptable to everyone else, Lou Ann explains how she and Angel had talked about getting married on horseback there, but couldn’t actually do it because of Angel’s mother’s objection.

The man from Guatemala City, who had been an English teacher, softly translates the conversation of the day to his wife. He is Estevan, his wife, Esperanza. They are both small, dark skinned, and have the strong handsome faces of Indians. Taylor finds Estevan unbelievably attractive, but sees Esperanza as shrunken and sad, still and quiet, like Turtle.

Esperanza had had a dramatic reaction when she first saw Turtle. She had fallen back against her seat drained of color. When Taylor asks Estevan if Esperanza is okay, he says that Turtle looks like a child they had known in Guatemala. Now, Esperanza spends the afternoon in her own world, often gazing at Turtle asleep in the shade. Taylor lovingly describes her sleeping child and how Turtle’s eyes dance beneath thin eyelids. “In sleep, it seemed, she was free to do all the things that during her waking life she could only watch.”

At dusk, as they head home, Estevan drives Mattie’s truck and Taylor, Lou Ann, and the children follow in Taylor’s push started car. Suddenly Estevan stops short and Taylor slams on the brakes to avoid rear-ending him. He had stopped for a quail and her babies running around in the road. In the back seat, there’s a thud and a sound from Turtle. Lou Ann checks and explains that the sound was a laugh. Turtle is clinging to Lou Ann and smiling. The laugh is Turtle’s first uttered sound. Taylor feels that this is significant and is relieved.

Taylor cannot, however, interpret the significance of Turtle’s first actual word. They are helping Mattie plant a vegetable garden. As Taylor tells Turtle which seeds will grow into which vegetables Mattie suggests it would be less confusing to show Turtle something that actually looks like what you eat. Taylor picks up a handful of beans and names them for Turtle. Turtle says, “Bean. Humbean.” Taylor is delighted, hugs Turtle and tells her child that she’s the smartest kid alive. From this point on, Turtle’s expanding vocabulary consists almost exclusively of the names of vegetables and fruits.

Lou Ann is feeling down on herself and cuts her hair every other day. Taylor’s compliments are not received well, eliciting responses such as advising Taylor to see an eye doctor. Lou Ann despises her own looks and verbalizes it so often that Taylor wishes the mirror could respond with self-esteem encouraging words. Lou Ann finishes complaining about her hair and her body and the two women prepare for guests that evening.

Esperanza, Estevan, and two neighbors, Edna Poppy and Virgie Mae Valentine Parsons, are coming over for dinner and to see Mattie on the 6:00 news. Since Angel had taken Lou Ann’s TV, the neighbor women were invited and asked to bring their portable TV. As Lou Ann and Taylor are getting ready, Lou Ann goes on about how she has been insecure since she was a little girl and that she would be petrified to be in TV.

Due to a miscommunication, the TV is late. In the meantime, Esperanza and Estevan arrive and once again Taylor is taken by Estevan’s charm. The neighbors finally arrive with the TV. Edna Poppy, dressed entirely in red, introduces herself to Taylor. Mrs. Parsons, dressed as if going to church, is not as friendly. Just in time, Taylor sets up the TV and they see Mattie and a man with a microphone discussing Guatemalans and Salvadorans running for their lives and being found dead. At this point, Taylor has no idea how Mattie would know about such things, but trusts that if Mattie says it is so, it is.

After the broadcast, Taylor starts to introduce Esperanza and Estevan. Estevan breaks in and introduces himself as Steven and his wife as Hope. Edna is polite and pleased to make their acquaintance. Mrs. Parsons, who assumes that Turtle belongs to the couple, proceeds to make derogatory comments about Turtle looking like a wild Indian. Taylor takes Turtle and stalks off into the kitchen to finish cooking the sweet and sour chicken. As they sit down to dinner, Estevan produces a package of disposable chopsticks as a “gift for the dishwasher” and explains that he likes them because he is the dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant. Edna politely declines to use them. Mrs. Parsons mutters about foolishness and disgrace and makes more comments, this time about Chinese people coming to America and taking up jobs. Taylor is angry and wants to scream out Estevan’s virtues and explain how he didn’t come here just to wash dishes. But Estevan is not angry. Instead, after watching Turtle’s futile attempts at eating with chopsticks that are longer than her arms, he tells a story about heaven and hell, people helping each other and people starving. His story, aimed at Mrs. Parsons, illustrates how cursing others gets one nowhere and helping others makes one happy.


This chapter sets the scene for many events to come. Estevan is married, but there is a hint of some kind of relationship developing between him and Taylor. The bond between Turtle and Taylor is growing as Turtle gains the ability to communicate verbally. Mattie’s TV appearance gives a clue as to who Esperanza and Estevan really are, but we don’t yet know how Taylor will be involved. Though Taylor is naïve about the circumstances of Esperanza and Estevan’s stay with Mattie, the reader intuits that the couple’s situation is dire. The significance of the present lies in a past that has not yet been uncovered.

Also in this chapter, Kingsolver once again makes reference to the powerful influence women have over people’s lives. This power is wielded in small ways, such as Angel’s mother squelching the desert wedding plans, and in global ways as illustrated by Mattie’s stand on our obligations with regard to human rights. The power of the feelings, opinions and community of women is a recurring theme throughout the novel.

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