Chapter One: The One To Get Away:
The Bean Trees takes place in rural Pittman County, Kentucky, in the 1980s and its narrator is Marietta Greer, a young woman from an impoverished family. She begins the novel with an admission that she has always been afraid of putting an air in a tire ever since she saw a tractor tire blow up and send Newt Hardbine's father flying over the top of the Standard Oil sign. Although her name is Marietta, her Mama has called her Missy for years, ever since she was a three year old and demanded to be called "Miss Marietta" just as her Mama called her employers (the name soon shortened to Missy).
Although not an outstanding student in high school, Marietta stays out of trouble and does well enough. By her senior year she is one of the few girls not to drop out of school, and feels it is the girls' "special reward" to get the science teacher Mr. Hughes Walter, a blond northerner who resembles Paul McCartney. Mr. Walter changes Marietta's life when he tells his students about a possible job opening at the hospital where his wife works. Marietta thinks that he will offer the job to a Candy Striper, but Mama insists that Marietta demand the opportunity and tell Hughes Walter that she is the best person for the job, "even if" he has already given it to a Candy Striper. When Marietta confronts Hughes Walter, he immediately gives her the job, for she is the first person to ask about it.
At the laboratory in the hospital where she works, her supervisor (Eddie Rickett) treats her well and teaches her a great deal about working in the lab. During her first week at the hospital, Jolene Shanks, the wife of Newt Hardbine, comes into the hospital in a stretcher, covered in blood and fighting and cursing. Although she had been shot, she was screaming at her husband. In another stretcher, this one meant for the coroner's office, is her husband. Marietta attempts to console Jolene, and when she asks Jolene "why Newt?" she answers that her father had been calling her a slut since she was thirteen, so "why the hell not?" Although Marietta considers quitting after this incident, she decides to stay at the hospital, thinking that she has seen the worst. When she tells her mother this, she replies "I have never seen the likes of you."
Marietta stays in the job for five and a half years, but she develops a plan to leave Pittman County. When she first buys a car, a '55 Volkswagen bug with no windows and no starter, Mama immediately knows that she'll use this car to get away. Eventually, when Marietta leaves Pittman, she makes two promises to herself: one that she keeps, and one that she does not. The First she decides to get herself a new name: she chooses the name Taylor after going past Taylorville. The second promise is to drive west until her car stopped running and stay there. Her car gives out in the middle of a Cherokee reservation when the steering wheel stops working. A man called Bob Two Two fixes her car, and he charges her nearly half the money she has. Taylor has one eighth Cherokee blood, and her Mama had always claimed that she could claim "head rights" because of this, if she ever needed to do so, but going to the Cherokee Nation, she now sees, is not even acceptable as a worst case scenario.
While staying the night in the town on the Indian reservation, Taylor goes to a diner and writes a postcard to her mother. There are only two men at the counter, a white guy and an Indian. The cowboy, Earl, makes a joke when Taylor asks if there is anything at the diner for less than a dollar, but Taylor quickly reprimands him. There is a woman in the bar at the back who looks frightened. After Taylor leaves the diner and returns to her car, the woman, an Indian, follows her and tells her to take her baby. She warns her not to take the child back to the diner, indicating some unimaginable harm that could be done to her. Taylor argues with her, claiming that she can't take the baby because she doesn't have the papers, but the woman says that nobody knows that the baby is alive or cares. Finally Taylor takes the child; she does not know whether the child is a boy or a girl, and even wonders at one point whether it is still alive.
Taylor and the child arrive at a hotel, and Taylor begs the woman who runs the hotel for a room despite her lack of money. When she bathes the child, a girl, she sees that the girl has "bruises and worse." From this hotel Taylor sends the postcard to her mother, writing that she "found her head rights" and "they're coming with me."
Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees is a comic bildungsroman, a novel charting the character development of its main character, Taylor Marietta Greer, as she branches out from her secluded, rural upbringing in Pittman County and begins to view the world on a national and even an international scale. Told primarily in the first person, with only a few minor shifts from Taylor's perspective such as the second chapter of the book, The Bean Trees begins by establishing compactly the details of Taylor's upbringing before the narrative begins in earnest with her departure from Pittman County.
Kingsolver tells the novel in a very compact fashion; even some of the most seemingly minor details recur, such as Taylor's early admission that she has been afraid of putting air in tires since the accident with Newt Hardbine's father. This anecdote works on two separate levels: the first foreshadows the later, critical event concerning the Hardbines later in the first chapter, while the second foreshadows Taylor's work once she arrives in Tucson, Arizona. Kingsolver is sparing in her details, thus any seeming diversion from the narrative likely will be critical at a later point.
Even those anecdotes that do not directly relate to the plotline create a vivid picture of the young Taylor Greer. From the beginning of the novel, Kingsolver paints her narrator as a strong and assertive woman, demanding that her mother treat her with respect even as an infant. This particular anecdote is the first instance that demonstrates the importance of names, a theme that will be prevalent throughout the novel. The infant Marietta demands to have a different name as a sign of respect: the name Missy is significant in defining her place within her particular world and her relationship with her mother. The second change in the narrator's name, from Marietta to Taylor, demonstrates an equally significant change in the character: she adopts a new name as she adopts a new perspective on the world, broadening out from her rural Kentucky background to a larger view of life.
The character of Hughes Walter also contributes to the importance of names and naming in The Bean Trees. One of the means by which Taylor and her classmates identify Hughes Walter as different is his inverted' name, endowing him with the foreign quality of an educated northerner with a greater perspective on the world. Taylor's interaction with Hughes Walter provides yet another example of the narrator's determination and fortitude: she gets the job simply because she asks for it, yet is prepared to demand the job and prove herself the best suited for the position.
Yet an equally important dimension of the interaction between Taylor and Mrs. Walter is the third important character in this anecdote, Mama Greer. However assertive Taylor might be, she is not without her doubts and reservations, believing that Hughes Walter might offer the job to a Candy Striper. Taylor draws a great deal of strength from her mother, who bolsters her confidence and demands the best from her daughter. Mama Greer provides a clear indication of how Taylor came to be the independent girl that she is, but her role also shows that, in some respects, she draws this confidence from others around her.
The first major dramatic event in The Bean Trees concerning Newt Hardbine serves several purposes. The first is to demonstrate the environment in which Taylor lives; although the novel takes place in the not distant past (the 1980s), the rural Kentucky society is often backward and reactionary, a fatalistic society in which many women find their prospects no better than becoming housewives for errant and unstable husbands. The second is to demonstrate the difference between the other Taylor and the other members of that society such as Jolene Shanks. While Taylor has been brought up to believe that she can achieve or demand anything, Jolene has been raised to believe in her own worthlessness. The third effect is to serve as a harbinger for Taylor; this more than perhaps any event is the impetus for Taylor to leave Pittman County.
The first chapter of the novel establishes the primarily feminine tone to The Bean Trees. With one obvious exception later in the novel, all of the men in The Bean Trees are unreliable (or worse), or in cases such as Hughes Walter, are merely engines for the plot without any discernible inner life. Part of this perspective comes from history of the narrator; until the introduction of Estevan later in the story, Taylor has little direct use for men, in particular in a society and class that demands her submission to them. When Taylor finally leaves Pittman County and travels through Oklahoma, Kingsolver provides further evidence of this perspective, introducing an unscrupulous mechanic (Bob Two Two) and the anonymous men in the diner responsible for abusing the child that the Indian woman leaves her.
Taylor's sudden adoption' of the Indian child is an event filled with irony, for just as Taylor escapes a society in which she could have a role only primarily as a mother, she suddenly comes to become the mother to an Indian child. Having spent so much time trying to avoid having a child she would not want, she finds one simply placed in her lap. The details of the adoption' are significant, and Taylor's objections are well-founded: she foreshadows later legal problems that she will have in establishing custody for the child.
Chapter Two: New Year's Pig:
This chapter shifts from the first person narrative to a third person perspective, telling the story of Lou Ann Ruiz, who lives in Tucson but thinks of herself as a Kentuckian who is far away from home. She acquired her "foreign" last name from her husband, Angel, who left her on Halloween. She knew that they would divorce eventually, but did not expect him to leave her while she was pregnant. He claimed that it was because of his leg: he had been in a car accident in which his boot caught on the door frame, and he had to have his leg amputated. On the day that Angel left, Lou Ann visits the office of her gynecologist, Dr. Pelinowsky. Lou Ann had decided to give her baby, once it was born, a Catholic baptism, because it was easier to upset her mother, who lived in Kentucky, than to upset her mother-in-law, who lived down the street. After visiting Dr. Pelinowsky, Lou Ann goes past a garage called Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, which reminds her somehow of Kentucky, and goes into Lee Sing Market. The elderly Chinese owner, Lee Sing, remarks that the girl that Lou Ann will have will be like "feeding the neighbor's New Year pig. All that work. In the end, it goes to some other family." When she returns home, she realizes that Angel had left.
In the second chapter of The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver makes the one significant shift from Taylor's perspective in order to tell the back story of Lou Ann Ruiz. This is one of only two chapters in which Taylor does not appear and does not narrate; breaking from the first person perspective is perhaps the only way for Kingsolver to resolve the problematic dilemma of providing the volumes of information concerning Lou Ann Ruiz. Lou Ann certainly contributes to the pattern of women in the novel unjustly treated by men; her husband Angel, whose appearances in the novel are primarily recalled second-hand, is portrayed as an unstable and immature man bitter over his fate and unable to continue his relationship with a doting wife.
Before Kingsolver even brings together Taylor Greer and Lou Ann Ruiz, she establishes the parallels between the two women. Both are, in some sense, refugees from Kentucky and maintain their Southern sensibility even in their new locations. Additionally, both characters suddenly find themselves as single parents, Taylor because of the sudden abandonment of the Indian child, Lou Ann because her husband leaves her while pregnant. Yet Lou Ann possesses a different manner from the assertive Taylor; she is more easygoing and diplomatic, allowing her marriage to fall apart as it inevitably would instead of taking a stand to end it, and ceding her wishes for a Protestant baptism simply because it is practical to please her nearby mother-in-law over her distant mother. Lou Ann does not have the demanding persona of Taylor, and has come to accept the difficulties in her life instead of struggling against them; this sets Lou Ann up for an eventual transformation and character development as she will assert herself within the world.
Lee Sing's remark to Lou Ann at the market underscores a theme of the novel, the devaluing of women throughout society. Lee Sing views a female child as merely a possession that will serve only as the property of another family when she becomes married. The analogy is certainly a harsh one, placing the status of a woman as equal to the status of a farm animal prepared for the slaughter. Among the female characters of the novel, it is Lou Ann who is most ready to accept this pessimistic viewpoint, and is thus most ready for a drastic development and maturation.
Chapter Three: Jesus Is Lord Used Tires:
Taylor and the Indian girl enter into Arizona on the second day of the new year. She remains at the Broken Arrow through the holiday season, making money by changing beds for the owner, Mrs. Hoge. Mrs. Hoge adores the Indian girl, who has come to be called Turtle, for she wishes that her heavy daughter-in-law Irene would have children. Taylor and Turtle reach Tucson during a hailstorm, just as the car breaks down once more. They take cover at a building, where a man in army pants and a shirt that reads "visitor from another planet" questions Taylor and tries to impress her by warning her about a tarantula. Although initially wary, Taylor decides that this man is dumb but not harmful. Taylor leaves the building and drives down several blocks before reading Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. A woman named Mattie at Jesus Is Lord helps Taylor with her car, and asks Taylor what her little girl's name is. Taylor asks how Mattie knows that Turtle is a girl, and she replies that there is something about the face. Mattie serves Taylor coffee and Turtle peanut butter crackers. She tells Taylor that her husband Samuel was from Tennessee, and it was he who started this repair shop.
While Mattie gets apple juice for Turtle, two men enter; one man wants an alignment and a tire for his ORV, while the other has a black shirt, blue jeans and a priest's collar. The priest seems jumpy, and when he leaves Taylor notices that there is a whole family of Indians in the back of his station wagon. Taylor watches Mattie fix Roger's Toyota and is impressed by her kind of know-how. Taylor refuses to buy the tires for her car, telling Mattie that she can't afford them, and Mattie recommends that she keep Turtle from becoming dehydrated, which can often happen in such dry country. Taylor suspects that Mattie has grandchildren, and Mattie admits that she has "something like that." Mattie asks what type of work Taylor is looking for, and she replies that she is looking for anything, but has experience in "housecleaning, x-rays, urine tests, and red blood counts. And picking bugs off bean vines." Mattie tells her that they have bean vines, even purple ones. Mattie shows Taylor the purple beans that Lee Sing had given her from seems she brought over in 1907.
Turtle and Taylor take up residence in the Hotel Republic, within walking distance of Jesus Is Lord. Life in the Republic is an improvement over the Broken Arrow, for Tucson is lively, with secretaries and executive types and outlandish prostitutes at night. There are also groups of homeless people. There is also another group of people who wear embarrassing hand-me-down clothes and have studios and galleries in empty storefronts. Taylor enters one of these buildings one day, intrigued by something that looks like "cherry bombs blowing up in boxes of wet sand, and the whole thing just frozen mid-kaboom." Taylor asks the woman there what it is supposed to be, and she answers that it is non-representational. The thing is entitled "Bisbee Dog #6." It is on days like this, looking through the art gallery, that Taylor begins to feel a bit crazy. She applies for a job at the place where people give blood, but the man there asks whether she is a licensed phlebotomist in the state of Arizona, as if she were impertinent to think that she "could be on the end of the needle that doesn't hurt."
Taylor becomes friends with Sandi, the waitress at the Burger Derby. She is horse-crazy, and was ecstatic to learn that Taylor is from Kentucky, because of its Derby. Taylor shocks Sandi when she tells her that the famous race horse Secretariat was a homosexual. Sandi suggests that Taylor work at Burger Derby, for she could even take Turtle to Kid Central Station during work shifts, just as Sandi does with her little boy (Seattle, like the racehorse Seattle Slew). Taylor tells Sandi that Turtle is not really hers, but is "just somebody I got stuck with," and Sandi replies "I know exactly what you mean."
Barbara Kingsolver fills The Bean Trees with a multitude of female characters sympathetic to the plight of Taylor during her journey west. There is a sense of camaraderie between Taylor and even minor characters such as Mrs. Hoge, who provides Taylor with work before she can move farther west. A more important female character with which Taylor will find some affinity is Mattie, the owner of Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. Kingsolver establishes Mattie as sensible, perceptive and tough (quickly identifying that the androgynous Turtle is a girl, fixing a tire with supreme confidence and know-how), and like both Taylor and Lou Ann, a refugee from the South who has found her way west.
The incident with the priest at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires (and the Indian family in his car) foreshadows a later elucidation of Mattie's role within the novel; Mattie is vague about the role she plays as mother or grandmother, demonstrating knowledge of the job but leaving the specifics of this role ambiguous. This foreshadows later events in the novel in which Taylor finally realizes the scope of Mattie's work.
Taylor's first experiences in Tucson demonstrate the extent to which she exists as a foreigner in the large city. Kingsolver portrays Taylor as nearly overwhelmed by the new sights in the city; she bolsters this with the random depiction of Taylor walking into the art gallery, in which the woman is rude to Taylor because of her lack of knowledge and, likely, because of her class status. Applying to the blood bank gives additional evidence of this condescension against the obviously new and inexperienced Taylor, yet these incidents do not diminish her indomitable spirit. Kingsolver portrays them as obstacles but not setbacks.
The theme of Taylor as a foreigner takes a comic turn when Taylor becomes friends with Sandi from the Burger Derby. Sandi appreciates Taylor as an outsider because she may be privy to information about racehorses (being from Kentucky) that Sandi could never garner. Although Taylor genuinely appreciates Sandi, she uses this status to shock the impressionable Sandi.
Sandi provides yet another example in the novel of a single mother coping with an unwanted (but not unloved) child. Like Lou Ann and Taylor (and, as the novel will show, in a more abstract sense Mattie), Sandi finds herself parenting Seattle through compromises and the sheer fortitude of necessity.