The Bean Trees | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Bean Trees | Chapter 1 : The One to Get Away | Summary

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Summary

The novel opens with a story told by the narrator, Marietta Greer, who will later take on the name of Taylor Marietta Greer. At this point in her life, however, during high school, she is called Missy, a name which developed out of her childhood demand that her mother call her Miss Marietta. Missy describes what her life in Pittman County, Kentucky, is like.

In particular, Missy compares her life with that of Newt Hardbine, whose father was thrown up onto a Standard Oil sign when the tractor tire that he was filling exploded. Outside of that, Missy says, there weren't many differences between her and Newt Hardbine; they were "cut out of basically the same mud." Missy gets her first real job in the hospital lab with Eddie Rickett, where she tries to help care for Jolene Shanks, now Hardbine, whom Newt Hardbine had gotten pregnant and married and who he tried to murder before committing suicide.

With her mother's support, Missy decides to leave her hometown, driving a 1955 Volkswagen bug with no windows and taking a new name from the town where her car ran out of gas, becoming Taylor Greer. She keeps driving into Oklahoma until her car needs a repair, which takes her off the interstate and into what she believes is the Cherokee Nation, to which she is distantly connected via her Cherokee great-grandfather. She eats at a dingy restaurant where, as she leaves, a Native American woman holding a toddler begs Missy to take the toddler with her. Missy reluctantly agrees, and together the two travel on to the Broken Arrow Motor Lodge.

Analysis

In the first chapter, Missy characterizes her life through stories about others, especially Newt Hardbine. Newt is a few years older than Missy, and watching the course of his life seems to foreshadow what her own future might look like. Missy states throughout that most girls ended up getting married because they became pregnant, like Newt's wife, Jolene. Jolene tells Missy that she married Newt because her own father had been cruel to her, and now she lived in a house with Newt's harsh father and a husband who had just tried to shoot her and then shot himself. Newt and Jolene provide an example of the kind of life that awaits Missy if she remains in her hometown, which allows the reader to implicitly understand all of her motivation for wanting to leave, even though Kingsolver does not explicitly describe it at length.

Missy's descriptions of her mother as well as the way that her mother quizzes Missy on her ability to fix her car when it breaks on the road provides the reader with a clear impression of Missy's character. Her mother often appears amazed at the strength and resilience of her daughter, and when Missy faces hypothetical flat tires, she takes on the attitude of a competent problem solver.

The way that Missy chooses her new name, moreover, provides a first introduction to the way that Missy conceives of fate in her life. Missy decides that she will take her name from the town where her car runs out of gas, but then with "fingers crossed," she pushes her car through every town whose name she doesn't like until she "coasted into Taylorville on the fumes." Although Missy—now Taylor—might believe (a bit ironically) in chance and signs from the universe, it is the strength of her own mind that determines what she makes of her life.

Chance brings Taylor to the restaurant where the Native American woman tries to give her the toddler. Yet it is Taylor's decision to trust the woman and to believe that there is a need to save the child from her current situation. . Taylor is the one who decides that she will accept this new responsibility of caring for this child, even though she left Kentucky in part to avoid the burden of an unanticipated pregnancy.

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