The Bean Trees

The Bean Trees Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-17

Chapter Sixteen: Soundness of Mind and Freedom of Will:

Mr. Jonas Wilford Armistead is a tall, white-haired man who seems more comfortable with the notarizing job than the public. He has a complicated hearing aid that his secretary, Mrs. Cleary, always attempts to adjust. Estevan and Esperanza discuss the various forms to arrange for transfer of legal authority. Mr. Armistead says that this is permanent: after six months, the old birth certificate will be destroyed and the new one will be permanent. Mrs. Cleary reminds Mr. Armistead that there was no birth certificate, for "it" was born on tribal lands. Although nobody has any identification, it seems enough that Taylor has a Social Security card. Esperanza is nearly at tears, and tells Armistead that she loves Turtle, but cannot take care of her. Estevan tells Turtle that she must be a good girl, strong like her mother. Taylor wonders which mother he means, for there are so many possibilities, but is touched to think that he might mean Taylor. This is the only time in which Taylor believes she might lose Turtle, for if Esperanza had not let go of her, she would have let her have the girl. Everyone signs the form transferring guardianship of Turtle over to Taylor. In some way, Taylor wishes that years later Mr. Armistead and Mrs. Cleary could know what they actually did.


This chapter proves a final resolution to the question of Turtle's custody, but does so in a way that also allows for Esperanza to resolve her feelings over Turtle, and by extension, Ismene. Kingsolver creates tension over two major points during the visit to Armistead's office: the first source of tension is whether the entire ruse will work, while the second is whether Esperanza will relinquish her Œcustody' over Turtle or attempt to take Turtle for herself. The first source of contention is easily resolved, partially because of the contempt that Armitead shows for his clients. He readily believes that Esperanza and Estevan would want to abandon their child because of their supposed Indian background, and even considers Turtle as little more than chattel, calling her "it."

Kingsolver plays with the dualities of parenthood with Estevan's comment to Turtle that she must be strong like her mother. Taylor considers it a compliment that he might be referring to her as Turtle's mother, but in an equally and not mutually exclusive way he likely refers to the strength of his wife at this moment, praising her for her strength in letting go of Turtle just as she nobly let go of Ismene. Kingsolver leaves no doubt that the emotions that Esperanza expresses as she gives up Turtle are real; she genuinely mourns the loss of Turtle, both as the loss of a child she cares for and as a loss by proxy of her actual daughter.

Chapter Seventeen: Rhizobia:

Taylor wonders whether the cemetery that they passed is where her mother is actually buried, but her concern is alleviated when Turtle says "Mama" every time that she passes one. They find the Pottawatomie Presbyterian Church of St. Michael and All Angels, where Esperanza and Estevan will live. The search for the church is a difficult one, and they find it a day later than Reverend and Mrs. Stone expect. When Taylor prepares to leave Estevan and Esperanza, she deliberately awakes Turtle so that the baby girl can see them before going, for Taylor says "it's happened too many times that people she loved were whisked away from her without any explanation." Everyone is exhausted, so goodbyes are nearly impossible. Estevan puts his hand on Taylor's arm, and she asks what he will do. He answers: "Survive." He tells her to think of him and Esperanza back in Guatemala "when the world is different," but she says that the world will never be different. He touches her cheek as she prepares to cry. He says that he can send news by way of Mattie. Estevan and Taylor discuss how transferring custody in the office was a catharsis for Esperanza, and now she seems happy. He says that "in a world as wrong as this one, all we can do is to make things as right as we can." Taylor thinks that all four of them had buried someone they loved in Oklahoma.

Taylor calls her Mama from Oklahoma City, but bursts into tears at the beginning of the conversation. She tells her mother that she just lost somebody that she is in love with, and will never see him again. She says she let him go because he wasn't hers to have. She tells Mama that she feels like she's died. Her Mama says that she is far past her prime, but is still in love as if she were a teenager. Mama tells Taylor about how she told off her employer, Mrs. Wickentot, as she quit, criticizing her for the trash she kept in her closets and the way she let her children run wild. Mama says that her former employers are too scared to be rude to her anymore, considering the secrets she learned while she worked for them. They discuss Turtle, and Mama tells Taylor that blood is not the only way that kids become connected to their parents. Taylor tells her that Turtle is now legally her daughter.

Turtle and Taylor wait in Oklahoma City for the adoption paperwork to clear. Turtle plays with Esperanza's medallion of St. Christopher. Taylor tells Turtle that she counts as a refugee, for she is as "tempest-tossed" as they come. Taylor had remembered "tempest-tossed" from the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. Taylor tells Turtle that she has only one Ma now. The rest: Lou Ann and Edna and Mattie are all friends, but Taylor is her Ma.

On a whim, Taylor calls 1-800-THE-LORD. Instead of pledging money, Taylor says that she has always thought of the number as a Fountain of Faith, but the operator merely asks if she wants to make a pledge at this time. Taylor and Turtle spend time in the library, where they find the Horticultural Encyclopedia and look up wisteria. Taylor reads to her about wisteria: they thrive in poor soil, for their secret is rhizobia, microscopic bugs that live underground in little knots on the roots and turn the soil into fertilizer. Taylor compares the wisteria and the rhizobia to relationships such as Edna and Virgie.

At Mr. Armistead's office, while waiting for paperwork, Taylor makes a call to Lou Ann, who tells her that she spoke to her mother-in-law. Mrs. Ruiz told her that Angel wants what he can't have, and that Lou Ann is worth five or six of Angel. Lou Ann also found out that there was never a meteor shower, as Angel had told her. Lou Ann says that she is now dating Cameron John from Red Hot Mama's; the inverted first-and-last names remind her of Hughes Walter. Cameron John was once a Rastafarian and has a Doberman with pierced ears. Lou Ann recalls how Taylor got mad at her because she didn't want them to act like a family, but says that she realized that they are a family, because they've been through hell and high water together. Lou Ann says that she doesn't mean "till death do us part," but Taylor agrees that they are a family. Taylor says that Turtle is now her legal daughter. Taylor and Turtle head back to home in Tucson.


The final chapter of The Bean Trees ties together the disparate themes of the novel and demonstrates the evolution of each of the characters throughout the novel. The beginning of the chapter resolves the final material conflict of the novel, as Estevan and Esperanza safely reach the new sanctuary in which they will stay. Yet more importantly this chapter fully explains and resolves the dynamics between Turtle and Esperanza as well as Estevan and Taylor. The incident at Armistead's office serves as a catharsis for Esperanza; as she transferred her fictional custody of Turtle to Taylor, she found some relief concerning her lack of a real transfer of custody of Ismene. Estevan makes clear that Esperanza was saying goodbye to Ismene in the notary office.

The resolution of the relationship between Taylor and Estevan is one-sided by necessity. Taylor realizes the depth of her love for Estevan, but also realizes that she had to give him up because he is not hers. The importance of the relationship is the very fact that Taylor realizes her ability to love; she makes a final break from the idea that no man could satisfy all of her needs, and allows one to affect her deeply. It is once again Mama Greer who places this in perspective, giving her perspective and strength in this time of need, much as she did after the incident with Newt Hardbine and Jolene Shanks early in the book.

Two major themes of the novel, natural growth and female reciprocity, come together with the final anecdote concerning the wisteria vines. The information about the wisteria vines growing because of a symbiotic relationship, as Taylor explicitly states, parallels the various relationships of the novel. This highlights the fact that the growth of each character is not an independent thing: Taylor teaches Lou Ann to become more independent and assertive, Estevan teaches Taylor to open herself to love, Mattie helps Taylor take a more vast look at the world, and so forth. Lou Ann also contributes to this theme with her insistence that she and Taylor form a family: just as Mama Greer reminds Taylor, a family is not simply blood, but a bond between those who love one another. Taylor accepts this definition of family as she did not before, for it is a relationship of equality and reciprocity.

Barbara Kingsolver thus ends the novel almost as it began, with the journey of Taylor and Turtle Greer back to Tucson. Yet they return as a family engaged in a world larger than their own experiences, bound to others who similarly care and depend on one another.