The Bean Trees | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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Barbara Kingsolver | Biography


Early Life

Barbara Kingsolver was born in Annapolis, Maryland in 1955, but she and her family moved to rural Kentucky when she was two years old. In her autobiography, she writes, "I'm lucky to have grown up in the midst of pastures and woodlands, with parents who favored virtually any form of reading as educational."

The family traveled frequently, including a two-year stint in the newly independent Republic of Congo in 1963. The family lived in a remote village with no electricity, running water, or cars, while Kingsolver's parents worked to address serious public health issues like smallpox and leprosy. Kingsolver credits this early exposure to cultural differences with giving her "both a sense of the world beyond [my] small hometown, and an uneasy status as an outsider in a peer-group that valued conformity."

Education and Activism

In 1973, Kingsolver received an undergraduate degree in biology at DePauw University and then a graduate degree at the University of Arizona. During this time, she considered herself a political activist. She participated in protests against the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War (1955–75), in which the United States intervened in the struggle between North and South Vietnam in order to prevent the spread of communism. She also demonstrated against President Richard Nixon's administration (1969–74), which many saw as corrupt. She paid her bills with freelance science writing and wrote stories and poetry on the side.

In 1979, Kingsolver moved to Tucson, Arizona. She worked as a lab technician at the University of Arizona Medical School for two years, and then began a doctorate program in theoretical population genetics. In 1985, however, she gave up both to work on her writing as a full-time career. She married chemist Joe Hoffman, and the pair moved out to the desert, where they began to work with organizations that "worked to investigate human-rights violations on the border and support Latin American refugees seeking asylum."

The Bean Trees

The Bean Trees is Kingsolver's first novel. It was published without fanfare but quickly gained popularity by word of mouth among booksellers, critics, and readers. For Kingsolver, a Kentucky native transplanted to Tucson, elements of the book are autobiographical: "Every character in The Bean Trees is a piece of me." Published in 1988, The Bean Trees is intentionally political, taking up the ongoing and fiercely contested issue of immigration to the United States from Central American countries. In 1981, the issue led to the rise of the "Sanctuary Movement," a loosely defined movement to aid in the shelter of refugees denied asylum by the United States government. Kingsolver returned to the characters to write a sequel entitled Pigs in Heaven (1993) that picks up Taylor and Turtle's story three years after the end of The Bean Trees.

Literary Contributions and Honors

After publishing her first novel, The Bean Trees, in 1988, Kingsolver published over a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction. Her most popular book is her 1998 novel, The Poisonwood Bible, about a missionary family in the Congo. It was shortlisted for both the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award, and it won the National Book Prize of South Africa. Her 2010 novel The Lacuna won the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Many of Kingsolver's awards and honors center around not just her writing, but her activism. Her awards include the Physicians for Social Responsibility National Award, the Arizona Civil Liberties Union Award, and the Edward Abbey EcoFiction Award. In 2008, she won the James Beard award for Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, which focused on eating only local food. After winning the National Humanities Medal in 2000, Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize for Fiction for first-time novelists writing "socially engaged fiction."

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