Taylor begins the novel as Marietta “Missy” Greer. She has not had an easy life growing up in rural Kentucky, but she has a mother who is always proud of her. It is from her mother that she gets her clear-eyed, spirited outlook and her confidence. Unlike her peers, she makes it through high school without getting pregnant, and then promptly leaves Pittman.
Upon crossing the Pittman line, “missy” makes two promises to herself - one to change her name to the name of the first place she ran out of gas, the other, to settle down wherever her windowless, push start Volkswagen stopped running. Her name change, a symbol of her break with her past, was destiny, facilitated by a conscious decision to continue driving so as not to end up being named Homer, Cerro Gordo, Decatur, or some other cognomen distasteful to “Missy”. She coasts into Taylorville “on the fumes” and becomes Taylor Greer. The second promise, she does not keep. Her rocker arm breaks on the Great Plain in Oklahoma. Taylor finds the flat emptiness depressing and plans to move on. Though this stop does not provide Taylor with a new home, it does change her life in a powerful way - she is given a baby. After having successfully avoided having a baby in Kentucky, Taylor now finds herself uncomfortable and confused. True to her strong, resourceful nature, Taylor comes to terms with motherhood, but not without scratching her head in wonderment along the way.
Taylor feels an alliance with the helpless, abused child whom she names Turtle. This new responsibility focuses Taylor’s actions. Her decisions now must have meaning and direction as she attempts to care for and protect Turtle. All the while, however, Taylor gives clues that she is uncertain whether or not to keep the child that she has grown to love.
Her interactions with other characters provide Taylor with valuable lessons that help Taylor make the transition from fighting her way through life to being able to unriddle life’s challenges. Mattie helps Taylor develop a sense of independence. Lou Ann helps Taylor develop a sense of relationship. Estevan and Esperanza help Taylor develop a sense of perspective as she learns that her troubles are minor compared to theirs.
Though her relocation brings unexpected challenges, Taylor is wiser than her education or background might suggest. As she accepts and overcomes these challenges she fixes upon the essence of family in her new community.
Turtle is a physically, sexually and emotionally abused child who ends up in Taylor’s care. In terms of change, she is the most dynamic character in the novel. She grows from being a pitiable wet bundle wrapped in a blanket to a speaking, feeling, normal child.
Turtle’s past is revealed to the reader bit by bit through her experiences with Taylor. At the Broken Arrow, we learn of the abuse. At the doctor’s office we learn her age (close to 3 years). And at Lake o’ the Cherokees we learn that she has seen her dead mother buried. Her past has been unthinkable, yet she endures. The birds in the story represent to Taylor this ability to carry on despite Turtle’s difficult past. Turtle gains security and identity through Taylor.
Lou Ann Ruiz
The reader meets Lou Ann in two short chapters at the beginning of the novel (chapter 2 and chapter 4, which are not in Taylor’s first person narrative). She is feeling hopeless because of the imminent break up of her marriage. She knows that the problems stem from her husband, Angel, being unable to get over the loss of his leg. However she is unable to summon the strength to argue the fact that the amputation doesn’t change her perception of him at all. Being pregnant, close to the delivery of a baby she will end up having to raise by herself, adds to her struggle.
After the baby, Dwayne Ray, is born and Angel is gone, Lou Ann advertises for a roommate. This is how she meets Taylor. The two are from the same Kentucky background and become as sisters. With Taylor’s help, Lou Ann overcomes her negative self-image and the wounds from her relationship with Angel are able to heal. Though Lou Ann retains her over protectiveness of Dwayne Ray, her perception of herself becomes less oppressive and by the end of the novel she has adopted an “enjoy it while you’ve got it) attitude towards her relationships with other people. She is content with the family she has in Taylor and Turtle.
Mattie is a strong woman who nurtures others. As owner of Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, she gives Taylor a job. Almost immediately the reader senses the mother-daughter type bond between the two women. Mattie is similar to Taylor’s real mother in many ways. She boosts Taylor’s confidence and encourages her to make her own decisions. Mattie is the bolster for Taylor’s emerging independence. Mattie’s generous heart and encouragement are often what keep Taylor going.
Jesus Is Lord Used Tires doubles as a safe house for Central American refugees who come to Mattie for aid. Mattie draws help from anonymous people in the community. With Mattie’s help, the refugees become part of the neighborhood, but then they must move on. Mattie keeps remembrances of them. She never explains to Taylor just how miserable the refugees’ lives have been.
Estevan is an attractive, well-educated Guatemalan man. He is charming, well mannered and in tune with women’s feelings and ideas. When Taylor meets him she finds him unbelievably attractive and has no idea that he and his wife, Esperanza, are refugees in a desperate situation. It is not until the night of Esperanza’s attempted suicide that Taylor comes to know the circumstances that brought Estevan into her life.
Estevan and Taylor both know that a relationship between them is impossible. They settle for becoming dear friends. Taylor confides her feelings to the reader. Estevan maintains his characteristic composure. Only upon their tearful departure in the last chapter is so much as a sweet kiss exchanged.
Esperanza is the small, sad wife of Estevan. Though it is hinted right off that her sadness involves a child like Turtle, it is not until Estevan’s talk with Taylor, on the night of Esperanza’s attempted suicide, that the reader learns the extent of her sorrow. Estevan explains that Esperanza’s brother and two friends, members of a teacher’s union, had been killed in a raid. Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter, Ismene, was not killed, but was taken away to be held as bait to catch Estevan and Esperanza. In order to save the lives of seventeen other members of the teacher’s union, whose names Estevan and Esperanza knew, the couple had to leave their daughter and flee Guatemala. Estevan also spoke of torture and other horrors that had been part of Esperanza’s life.
Later, when Estevan and Esperanza pose as Turtle’s parents to facilitate Taylor’s gaining legal custody, Esperanza falls into the role of mother as if Turtle were Ismene. When she gives the child to Taylor, Esperanza’s pain is purged, as if she has found a safe place for her own daughter.
It is through this broken woman, shrunken with sadness, that we glimpse the author’s political convictions. As Esperanza’s story is revealed, Kingsolver’s disapproval of domestic and international politics with regard to the treatment of refugees is clear.
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Cassie, D. L.. "TheBestNotes on The Bean Trees".
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