The protagonist and narrator of the novel, Taylor Greer is the daughter of an impoverished single mother who nevertheless resists the pitfalls that befall many of the girls of her status in her small Kentucky town in Pittman County. She is independent and assertive, believing that she does not need and will never need a man, and fiercely avoids marriage and children until, upon finally leaving Pittman County, she is given an abandoned Indian child. Taylor adopts her name after leaving Pittman County; through the first chapter she retains her birth name, Marietta. Although Taylor is quite confident and headstrong, she is not unwavering in her determination, and frequently sustains herself through the confidence in her that her mother and her best friend, Lou Ann Ruiz, feel. The Bean Trees is in many ways the story of Taylor's growth and maturation, as she begins to realize her place in a vast world and learns to accept the possibility of love, both romantic and parental.
Lou Ann Ruiz
A transplant from Tug Fork, Kentucky who now lives in Tucson, Arizona, Lou Ann is both a new mother and recently separated from her husband, Angel, who leaves her on Halloween, shortly before she gives birth to a son, Dwayne Ray. Lou Ann is a bundle of neuroses and fears, considering every single unlikely calamity that may befall her or her son because of a dream that she considered prophetic that foretold that her son would not live to see the year two thousand. In contrast to the confident Taylor, who becomes her roommate, Lou Ann is perpetually worried about what others will think about her, and fears saying the wrong thing and offending friends who may abandon her. However, through the course of the novel Lou Ann becomes more confident and calm, particularly after taking a job at Red Hot Mama's salsa factory and channeling her nervous energy into a fervor for work there.
He is one of the refugees from Guatemala who stays with Mattie at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. A former schoolteacher who leaves Guatemala because of political oppression, Estevan is a Mayan who changed his name to the Spanish-sounding Estevan when he moved to the urban areas of Guatemala. Estevan is married to Esperanza, and in Guatemala they had a daughter, Ismene, who was taken from them when Esperanza refused to give the names of several union members. Estevan is highly skeptical of American arrogance and insularity, and frequently criticizes American culture in front of Taylor, who eventually falls in love with him. Estevan nevertheless dearly loves his wife and cares for her throughout her deep depression.
She is the wife of Estevan, and stays with Mattie at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires as a political refugee from Guatemala. Esperanza suffers from a prolonged depression caused by the loss of her daughter, Ismene, who was taken from her when she refused to give the names of teachers' union members to the police, for by naming names these union members would certainly be put to death. Esperanza attempts suicide while in Tucson, but she begins to improve once she becomes closer to Turtle. By falsely relinquishing custody of Turtle in Oklahoma, Esperanza feels a sense of catharsis concerning Ismene, and thus finally makes a breakthrough toward recovery.
She is the owner of Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, a grandmotherly woman who assists Taylor when she first arrives in Tucson, Arizona with punctured tires. Mattie immediately realizes that Taylor is a new mother and gives her advice on Turtle, and eventually she even gives Taylor a job at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires and helps Taylor conquer her fear of exploding tires. Mattie runs a sanctuary for refugees from South America, and it is she who houses Estevan and Esperanza along with other illegal immigrants. When Mattie cannot find a reasonable way to transport Estevan and Esperanza to another safe house farther away from the border, Taylor offers to transport them while going to Oklahoma to establish guardianship over Turtle.
April Turtle Greer
She is the infant Cherokee Indian child whom Taylor is given while she passes through the Cherokee Nation on her journey west. Named Turtle for most of the novel, she gains the name April when Taylor realizes that April is her birth name. When Taylor first finds Turtle, the girl is horribly abused and catatonic, but after several months with Taylor, Turtle begins to thrive and prosper, at least until she is attacked at the park, leading to psychological scars and jeopardizing her status as Taylor's foster child. With the help of Estevan and Esperanza, Taylor illegally gains custody of Turtle at the end of the novel.
She is an elderly neighbor of Lou Ann and Taylor whom they invite for dinner when they watch Mattie speak about the plight of Guatemalan refugees on television. She lives with Virgie Mae Parsons and is the more diplomatic and kind of the two women. Taylor soon realizes that Edna Poppy is blind and that Virgie Mae Parsons is her guide. It is Edna Poppy who protects Turtle when she is assaulted at the park.
Virgie Mae Valentine Parsons
She is the elderly neighbor of Lou Ann and Taylor whom they invite for dinner when they watch Mattie speak about the plight of Guatemalan refugees on television. Virgie Mae Parsons is often rude and provincial, complaining about the increasing linguistic and social multiculturalism in the United States and making disparaging remarks about Angel to Lou Ann. Yet it is she who cares for Edna Poppy and allows her to function well, despite her blindness.
Alice Jean Greer
She is the fiercely independent and assertive mother of Taylor Greer, a single mother who raises her daughter to demand only the best treatment and to relish her unique qualities. She is often the source of inspiration and comfort for her daughter, and exists as a vital character herself, finding love in her old age and professing to feeling like a teenager as she prepares to be married.
Mr. Jonas Wilford Armistead
He is a tall, white-haired public notary officer whom Cynthia recommends that Taylor see when she attempts to establish custody over Turtle. Taylor, Estevan and Esperanza deceive him into thinking that Turtle is Estevan and Esperanza's child, and that they are transferring custody.
He sells tomatoes from his truck to Lou Ann Ruiz, and brags about how his car salesman son, Bill Bing, could raise him from poverty and buy him a house in Beverly Hills if he wanted.
She is the secretary to Mr. Armistead.
She is the social worker who deals with Turtle's case after she is attacked in the park. Although Taylor is initially intimidated by Cynthia, Cynthia proves herself helpful and shows confidence in Taylor's ability as a mother.
He is the owner of El-Jay's Paint and Body and the fiancé of Mama Greer. Taylor resists the engagement, but relents when she realizes that it has given her mother a new life.
She is the woman at the "harmonious space" that Taylor visits when searching for a place to live who details the absurd rules of this house including straining curd and behaving in an open (yet somehow rigidly dogmatic) manner.
He is the member of an impoverished and low-class family in Pittman County known for vastly irresponsible behavior. Taylor vividly remembers how his father was blown over the top of the Standard Oil sign when he changed a tractor tire. Newt Hardbine dies from a gunshot wound during an argument among him, his father, and his wife, Jolene Shanks.
She is the owner of the Broken Arrow Motor Lodge who gives Taylor work after she begs for a room during her journey out of Kentucky. When Taylor returns to Oklahoma, she finds that Mrs. Hoge died of Parkinson's.
She is the daughter-in-law of Mrs. Hoge. In the months between Taylor's visits to the Broken Arrow Motor Lodge, Irene loses over one hundred pounds.
Lou Ann tells Taylor the story of this character, a confident student who would do her crossword puzzles in ink. Lou Ann believed that Bonita Jankenhorn was the most confident woman she knew until she met Taylor.
He is a worker at Red Hot Mama's, a former Rastafarian whom Lou Ann begins dating at the conclusion of the novel.
She is the paternal grandmother to Lou Ann Ruiz who travels from Tug Fork, Kentucky to help Lou Ann when she first delivers Dwayne Ray. She and her daughter-in-law, Ivy, are suspicious of Angel and dislike the environment in which Lou Ann lives. She brings a bottle of water from Tug Fork to baptize Dwayne Ray.
She is the mother to Lou Ann Ruiz who travels from Tug Fork, Kentucky to help Lou Ann when she first delivers Dwayne Ray. She and her mother-in-law are suspicious of Angel and dislike the environment in which Lou Ann lives.
She is one of the other roommates of Fei and a member of the commune that Taylor visits when searching for a place to live.
He is the gynecologist whom Lou Ann sees during her pregnancy, and whom Taylor sees when she suspects that Turtle has been abused.
He is an intelligent yet poor student at Taylor's high school who commits suicide because he does not fit in with any class by virtue of his upbringing and genius.
He is Taylor's supervisor at the hospital who teaches her about blood work.
He is the ex-husband of Lou Ann Ruiz, an itinerant worker who lost a leg during a car accident and subsequently became bitter and disenchanted. He leaves his wife during her pregnancy but often entertains the possibility of returning to her. His mother claims that Angel is a man who simply does not know what he wants and is unworthy of his devoted wife.
Dwayne Ray Ruiz
He is the son of Lou Ann and Angel Ruiz, born after Angel leaves his wife.
She is the waitress at the Burger Derby who becomes friends with Taylor and pries her for any information she might have concerning racehorses. She is a single mother to a young boy, Seattle, and helps Taylor get a short-lived job at the Burger Derby.
She is a rural girl in Pittman County who marries Newt Hardbine, thinking that she has no other options and becoming convinced that she must be a slut after her father had ingrained that viewpoint in her. Taylor comforts Jolene after she is shot during an argument among her, her husband and her father-in-law.
She is the elderly Asian woman who runs Lee Sing Market in Tucson, and who tells Lou Ann Ruiz that caring for a female child is like feeding a neighbor's New Year's Pig: all that work, and it eventually goes to another family.
He is the third roommate at the commune that Taylor visits when searching for a place to live. Fei reprimands him for considering gender, and claims that his homeostasis is out of balance because he consumed caffeine the day before.
Bob Two Two
He is the mechanic who fixes Taylor's car when it breaks down in Oklahoma. Taylor suspects that he overcharges her for the work, taking nearly half of her money.
He is the educated, northern blond science teacher who resembles Paul McCartney and teaches Taylor during high school. He offers her a job at the hospital after she is the only person who expresses interest in it.
He is the blue jeans-wearing priest who visits Jesus Is Lord Used Tires and aids Mattie in housing and transporting the refugees to other sanctuaries.
The Bean Trees Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Bean Trees is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Taylor has a childhood memory of Newt Hardbine’s father getting thrown in the air by an exploding tire. This shakes the narrator to the core and she vows to leave her poverty stricken hometown as soon as she can get out.
The novel is being told in first person by Taylor Greer. After Taylor heads west, there is a fairly chronological unity of time. Although the setting changes, the book generally follows a traditional plot structure.