The Bean Trees draws from many of the experiences of its author, Barbara Kingsolver, whose personal life and academic training provide some of the background for the novel. The novel is not autobiographical, but there are numerous parallels between Kingsolver and the narrator, Taylor Greer. Like Taylor, Barbara Kingsolver was born and raised in rural Kentucky and moved to Tucson, Arizona. Kingsolver even sought employment in the medical field, much as Taylor does when she works in the Pittman County hospital. Kingsolver's personal history also inform several of the plotlines and themes of the novel. Kingsolver frequently mentions plant growth; she studied biology in college and later got her masters in ecology.
The history of two Native American groups plays a significant role in the novel, which deals with the history of both the Cherokee nation in North America and the Mayan people of Central America. The Cherokee people to whom Turtle belongs are of Iroquois lineage; originating in the Great Lakes area, they migrated to eastern Tennessee after their defeat at the hands of the Delaware and Iroquois tribes. A series of wars with English settlers around the Revolutionary War reduced the power of the Cherokee in Tennessee and their other holdings in Georgia and the Carolinas. However, during the nineteenth century the Cherokee people were notable for their assimilation of European culture and their adoption of a government modeled after the United States. Nevertheless, this did not protect the Cherokee from U.S. encroachment in their territory, and, under the Jackson administration's Indian Removal Act in 1830, fifteen thousand Cherokees were displaced on the "Trail of Tears," ending in eastern Oklahoma (the region in which Taylor finds Turtle).
The Cherokee Nation now exists as the federally recognized government of the Cherokee people, and its capital is near Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The government consists of an executive, legislative and judicial branch headed by, respective, a Principal Chief, 15-member Tribal Council and Judicial Appeals Tribunal.
The Mayan people (the culture of Esperanza and Estevan) existed as one of the greatest civilizations in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of European settlers. The Mayan people settled in villages based upon agricultural cultivation as early as 1500 BCE, and by 200 CE the Mayan villages had developed into cities. Relics from the Mayan communities reveal that the Mayans of this period had developed a hieroglyphic system of writing as well as advanced irrigation and terracing methods. The Mayan people thrived during their Classical Period between 250 and 900 CE, until agricultural exhaustion and armed conflict caused the decline of the civilization. The major Mayan cities (Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Mayapan) continued to flourish, however, until the arrival of Spanish settlers during the fifteenth century. The present-day Mayan peoples are primarily agricultural, raising crops of corn, beans and squash. They are nominally Roman Catholic, but retain the Mayan cosmology and parts of their religious tradition, particularly in domestic rites.
The contemporary history of Guatemala and the Mayan people is useful for understanding the plight of Esperanza and Estevan that forms a major plotline of the novel. The nation of Guatemala has a long history of political violence as well as an unstable government system. The portion of this history critical to the novel begins in 1978 with the discovery of oil in northern Guatemala, which led to government-sanctioned violence responsible for displacing many Mayans to the north and into Mexico. As a result, many of the Mayans organized into peasant militias. Political violence in Guatemala against the Mayans continued through several regimes. In 1983, upon a coup by General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, the United States restricted aid in an attempt to push for improvements in human rights. In 1985 the government approved a new constitution that placed greater emphasis on human rights, but the nation dropped into the worst economic conditions in fifty years. The election of a civilian president brought hope that human rights might improve, but a resurgence in death squad activity occurred, while bands of Marxist guerrillas became powerful throughout the nation. It is roughly under these political conditions that the fictional characters Estevan and Esperanza would have lived, and thus explains their need to escape from Guatemala, particularly concerning their involvement with teachers' unions in Guatemala.