The Bean Trees | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Bean Trees | Plot Summary

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The Bean Trees opens with "Missy" Marietta Greer considering her future in her small Kentucky hometown. Missy has decent life: she loves her mother and manages to get a job at the hospital lab after high school graduation. However, she fears the life that people like her—poor and scrappy—tend to lead, described to the reader through the example of Newt Hardbine. Newt gets a girl pregnant and, after years of an unhappy forced marriage, tries to kill his wife before succeeding in killing himself.

Desperate to avoid an accidental pregnancy and the life it would trap her into, Missy decides to leave Kentucky. She saves up, buys an old Volkswagen Bug, and heads west. She gives up the name Missy at the first town where she buys gas, taking the town's name as her own and becoming "Taylor." She has to stop when her car breaks down in Oklahoma, where she finds herself on the territory of the Cherokee Nation. Being one-eighth Cherokee and having heard about her mother's backup plan to move to the Cherokee Nation, Taylor is disappointed to find empty prairie and little else. After fixing her car, she pulls into a bar for a bite to eat, and as she leaves, a Cherokee woman sets a small child down on the passenger seat of her car. The woman insists that the child, her niece, will be better off with Taylor, and Taylor feels obligated to help them, deciding to bring the child with her.

Saddled with the responsibility that she had so intently avoided in her hometown, Taylor is uncertain what to do, but trusts the Cherokee woman that the child needed help. Stopping at a small motel, Taylor discovers that the child has been abused, names her "Turtle" for her unrelenting grip, and decides to keep her.

Taylor and Turtle stay on at the motel for a few months before heading westward and landing in Tucson, where they are stranded by two ruined back tires. Taylor meets a woman named Mattie, who owns a tire store, called Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, and a woman named Lou Ann, who has a new baby and a recently absent husband.

Taylor meets Lou Ann by answering a for rent ad in the local newspaper, and the two women feel an immediate kinship, thanks in part to their shared Kentucky accent. Taylor takes a job at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, and Taylor and Lou Ann establish a family in their own style. Turtle is slowly gaining confidence in the safety of her new surroundings and begins to speak and laugh for the first time since Taylor has known her. She speaks mostly about vegetables.

Taylor begins to understand Mattie's work helping illegal immigrants when Mattie introduces her to Estevan and Esperanza, two of the many Spanish-speaking people who sometimes live above Mattie's garage. From a visit to the pediatrician, she learns more about the severe physical abuse and deprivation Turtle suffered, which stunted her growth by as much as a year. Taylor is shocked by the extent of Turtle's previous suffering, but she is content in the knowledge that Turtle is now safe and healthy, thanks to Taylor's care.

Lou Ann's husband sends for her to join him in Montana. At the same time, Mattie is absent more often, driving migrants to other sanctuaries. Estevan and Esperanza live in constant fear of deportation, and Taylor begins to fear her present instability. When a stranger tries to attack Turtle in the park, Taylor falls into despair. She worries that she cannot protect Turtle just as the state's social worker, whom Taylor and Turtle visit for therapy after the incident, realizes that Taylor has no legal claim to the child.

Finally, with encouragement from Lou Ann and Mattie, Taylor decides to fight for custody of Turtle, which requires a trip to Arizona to obtain consent from her guardians or next of kin there. Taylor proposes that on the same trip, she takes Estevan and Esperanza to a new sanctuary in Oklahoma. When Taylor is unable to find anyone who might know who Turtle's relatives might be, Estevan and Esperanza pretend to be Turtle's Cherokee parents and sign over custody of the child to Taylor. Taylor says an emotional goodbye to Estevan and Esperanza at the sanctuary in Oklahoma City, picks up her adoption certificate, and begins the drive back to Arizona with Turtle.

The Bean Trees Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Taylor drives west from her Kentucky hometown.

Rising Action

2 Turtle's aunt asks Taylor to take and care for the child.

3 Angel Ruiz leaves seven-months pregnant Lou Ann.

4 Taylor decides to stay in Tucson, living with Lou Ann.

5 Taylor becomes friends with Estevan and Esperanza.

6 The doctor explains the abuse Turtle previously suffered.

7 Esperanza attempts suicide.

8 Edna Poppy fights off a stranger who attacks Turtle.

9 Taylor decides to fight for custody of Turtle.

10 Taylor drives Estevan, Esperanza, and Turtle to Oklahoma.


11 Taylor falsifies documents to gain custody of Turtle.

Falling Action

12 Taylor takes Estevan and Esperanza to the sanctuary.

13 Taylor calls her mother to tell her the news about Turtle.

14 Taylor receives Turtle's official adoption papers.


15 Taylor and Turtle being the drive back to Tucson.

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