Summary and Analysis
Kingsolver introduces the two major characters in the novel by writing Chapters 1 through 4 in alternating points of view. chapters 1 and 3 (and the rest of the novel) are written in the first person. Taylor Greer, the spirited protagonist of the novel, tells the story from her perspective as she experiences and understands it. chapters 2 and 4 are written in limited third person point of view — we see the character through the author’s eyes rather than through the character’s. in these two chapters, Kingsolver provides information as seen and understood by Lou Ann Ruiz, a major character in the novel.
In Chapter 1, we meet Taylor Greer (whose real name is Marietta). She was brought up, as was Kingsolver, in rural Kentucky among struggling tobacco farmers. She speaks a southern dialect that realistically imitates the dialect spoken by people who live in that part of rural Kentucky. Her dialect is full of colorful expressions — such as “I’ll swan” and “ugly as a mud stick fence” — and imagery that compares unlikely things. For example, in the first paragraph of the novel, Taylor tells about her fear of putting air in tires. She describes a schoolmate’s father who blew up a tractor tire by putting too much air in it. He got thrown over a Standard Oil sign and, according to Taylor, looked like “old overalls slung over a fence.”
Taylor comes from a nontraditional family. She was raised by her mother, who worked long hours as a housekeeper to support Taylor and herself. Her father, Foster Greer, left her mother when he found out that her mother was pregnant. Her mother doesn’t mind that Foster left; in fact, she often tells Taylor that “trading Foster for [you] was the best deal this side of the Jackson Purchase.” As Taylor matures and is exposed to horrible things that fathers can say and do to children, she feels quite lucky to have grown up without a father. The resiliency of Taylor’s mother and her commitment to Taylor, as well as her indifferent attitude toward men, represent Kingsolver’s feminist views.
The importance of family, a major theme in the novel, is evident in the relationship between Taylor and her mother. Taylor’s mother thinks that Taylor “hung up [the moon] in the sky and plugged in all the stars.” She expects the best of Taylor, and Taylor doesn’t disappoint her. Rather than get pregnant and drop out of high school like many of her classmates, Taylor finishes high school and is determined to make a life for herself. Her independent and courageous nature stems from the secure environment her mother provides. When Taylor feels as though she isn’t good enough to ask for a job at the Pittman County Hospital lab, she talks to her mother, who boosts Taylor’s morale and offers encouragement. Taylor asks for the job and ends up working in the lab for five and a half years. Later, when Taylor is working in the lab and has to help Jolene Shanks, an old schoolmate who’s been shot by her father-in-law, and has to see Jolene’s dead husband, the only place she wants to be is home so that she can tell her mother about the worst sight she has ever seen. Her mother creates a safe and supportive environment for Taylor, much like Taylor struggles to create for Turtle later in the novel.
Taylor’s mother always tells Taylor that, as a last resort, they can “go live on the Cherokee Nation.” Because Taylor’s great-grandfather was a full-blooded Cherokee, they have “head rights” (a Native American tribe member’s claim to tribal property). Here, Kingsolver refers to the Cherokee Trail of Tears when she mentions that Taylor’s great-grandfather was “too old or too ornery to get marched over to Oklahoma,” so he stayed in Tennessee.
The rural Kentucky setting in which The Bean Trees begins affords Kingsolver an opportunity to make use of her extensive background in biology and natural history. As a child, Taylor goes pond fishing. She catches blue gills and bass and watches the Jesus bugs walking on the surface of the water. Taylor and her mother have a colorful flower bed full of blooming marigolds and Hot Tamale cosmos. Another example of Kingsolver’s biology background influencing the novel is Taylor’s job in the Pittman County Hospital lab, which entails looking through a microscope to count red blood cells, testing urine, and helping with x-rays.
Taylor’s resolve to leave Pittman County becomes a reality when she purchases a dilapidated 1955 Volkswagen. Ironically, the troubles she has with the car dramatically affect her life. Intending to travel beyond the borders of Kentucky, her car breaks down. Later, she gives herself a new name — Taylor — when her car almost runs out of gas in Taylorville, Illinois. When her car breaks down again, this time in Oklahoma, Taylor’s feelings of despair and hopelessness as she views the flat terrain foreshadow the future.
After Taylor’s car is repaired, she readies herself to leave Oklahoma forever. Ironically, she ends up with a Cherokee child on the seat beside her — ironic because “If [Taylor] wanted a baby [she] would have stayed in Kentucky.” Not knowing what to do with the silent child wrapped in a blanket, Taylor drives down the highway. The novel’s tone becomes serious as Taylor, experiencing an internal conflict between not wanting responsibility for a baby and not knowing where else to take it, questions her actions and realizes that she is totally responsible for the child. She feels some comfort in knowing that, if she needs help, she can always call 1-800-THE LORD, Oral Roberts’ telephone number that flashed on the television screen in the restaurant where Taylor stopped.
Taylor is nervous about having the child with her in the car, particularly because the child appears to be catatonic — she doesn’t speak, stares straight ahead, and rarely moves. Humorously, Taylor is relieved to see a sign of life when the child wets her pants. She passes a sign for the Pioneer Woman Museum, a metaphor for her life at the moment, and then stops at the Broken Arrow Motor Lodge. The name of the motor lodge is a metaphor for the child’s “brokenness,” which is a result of the abuse inflicted upon her during her short life.
Taylor resolves to care for the child and to protect her from future harm. She writes on a postcard to her mother, “I found my head rights, Mama. They’re coming with me.” This statement signals that Taylor has found something to connect her to her Indian heritage, which ultimately enables her to learn more about herself and mature emotionally.
cut out of the same mud alike.
bringing home the bacon earning a salary.
moony romantically sentimental.
Candy Stripers teenage volunteers in a hospital, noted for the requisite red-and-white striped uniforms that they wear.
Bobbie Brooks a brand of clothing associated with well-to-do young adults.
Old Grand-Dad a bourbon distilled in Kentucky.
Jackson Purchase approximately 2,000 square miles of land that extended beyond the Tennessee River and became an addition to the state of Kentucky in 1818, when General Andrew Jackson and Isaac Shelby of the United States negotiated with the Chickasaw Indian Nation. The Chickasaws received $300,000 over fifteen years. (In the same treaty, the Chickasaws relinquished 6,000 square miles of land, which was added to the state of Tennessee.)
it was no horseradish meaning no playing around.
Great Plain high plateau in central North America; the High Plains in northwestern Oklahoma and the panhandle are part of the Great Plain.
cashing in and plowing under committing suicide and being buried.
ace in the hole something held in reserve that can help in an emergency.
head rights claim to Native American ancestry.
Oral Roberts University named for evangelist Oral Roberts and located in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
giant McDonald’s thing the stainless steel Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, which stands 630 feet tall and commemorates the city’s role as the gateway to the West during the nineteenth century.
blue moon the second full moon in a calendar month; “once in a blue moon” indicates a rare occurrence.
spit nails angry.
Psycho a 1960 Alfred Hitchcock movie about a murderous, mentally unbalanced man and one of his victims.
President Truman Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), the thirty-third president of the United States (1945-1953).