The Bean Trees | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Bean Trees | Quotes


You couldn't have said, anyway, ... which would be the one to get away.

Taylor, Chapter 1

Taylor describes life in her hometown largely by describing the life of a boy she knew in school, Newt Hardbine. She starts out with a description of how she and Newt were both poor, scrappy kids looking for a better life and not so different from one another. As she puts it, "... we were cut basically out of the same mud." In her opinion, there was nothing different about their upbringing that could have predicted whose life would end like Newt's did and whose would go one like Taylor's did. Newt got a girl named Jolene pregnant, married her, and lived an unhappy life with her until he shot first her and then himself. Jolene survived; Newt did not. To Taylor, Newt's life presents a clear glimpse of the future that staying in her town could offer. Taylor manages to achieve something more, saving enough money to buy a car and heading west for grander opportunities.

However, even though Taylor feels that there wasn't much separating her from Newt (or at least, Jolene), the end of the novel presents an alternate reading of Taylor's and Newt's circumstances. On the phone call between Taylor and her mother after Turtle's adoption, Taylor's mother says that Newt "went bad" because everybody told him he was bad: "He was just doing his best to be what everybody in Pittman said he was." Meanwhile, Taylor felt like her mom always "acted like I'd hung the moon," and Taylor's mom implies that it was her strategy to help Taylor grow into the best person she could be. Taylor's can-do attitude and the humanity of her choices provides some strong support to her mother's case that the words parents tell their children have a lasting impact.


You just never knew where something was going to end up.

Taylor, Chapter 3

When Taylor arrives in Tucson, it begins hailing, and Taylor takes a quick exit off the highway to find shelter. She stops under the awning of an old gas station and chats with a strange local who comes out. As she waits for her engine to dry, she watches ants begin to pull apart a discarded cigarette. She thinks about the way that the tobacco was probably grown in Kentucky, made into a cigarette, shipped here on a truck, only to be pulled apart by ants at this lost little gas station. Her consideration of the randomness of how things end up in the places they end up is directly relevant to her own situation, as she will soon discover that she both of her back tires are flat. As Taylor muses on how that cigarette came to become a part of the soil in Tucson, she is unknowingly already in the very place where she will put down roots.


Whatever you want the most, it's going to be the worst thing for you.

Bobby Bingo, Chapter 4

After Lou Ann's mother and grandmother leave, Lou Ann makes a small gesture toward independence: she buys tomatoes from Bobby Bingo. He sells produce out of the back of his truck, and Lou Ann had only recently "gotten up the nerve" to ask how much they cost. For Lou Ann, making any small change to her normal routine takes an unusual amount of courage. When she sees Bobby Bingo, he tells her all about his ungrateful son, who grew up to become the "real big guy" his father always wanted him to be. Unfortunately, he has become egotistical and lost respect for his father. Bobby Bingo concludes that the thing he wanted most, for his son to be successful, is the worst thing for him.

Lou Ann is struck by his observation, particularly in the context of her recently failed marriage. As she returns home, she continues to repeat "the worst thing for you" while moving around her house, taking in her current situation. It's not clear what Lou Ann would identify as the thing she wanted most, but Angel and their life together seems to rank quite high on the list of things she wanted that turned out differently than she had imagined they would.


You believe that if something terrible happens to someone, they must have deserved it.

Estevan, Chapter 8

When Estevan and Esperanza meet Virgie Mae Parsons, the older woman makes a series of disparaging remarks about immigrants and how they should stay in their own countries. Taylor is shocked to hear what Virgie Mae says and eventually feels it necessary to apologize to Estevan on Virgie Mae's behalf. Estevan responds with this quote, explaining what he sees as an American perspective. Taylor considers his opinion and decides that he is correct because "I guess it makes us feel safe."

This brief exchange represents a deep reflection upon the origin of American lack of sympathy for the plight of immigrants. Kingsolver's argument in this scene is that people can withhold their sympathy from immigrants, even innocent children, based on a self-serving belief that those people must have done something wrong. If they did something wrong, it explains why bad things happen to them, and by extension, suggests that those bad things will not happen to people who have not done something wrong. If, on the other hand, bad things happen to innocent people, then Americans would have to deal with the possibility that those bad things might happen to them as well. If this is correct, people withhold sympathy from immigrants in an act of psychological self-preservation.


You just couldn't imagine how she'd made a home in there.

Taylor, Chapter 8

When Taylor takes Turtle to Dr. Pelinowsky, the doctor explains that Turtle is actually three years old. Her growth has been delayed by a period of physical and emotional deprivation that caused a "failure to thrive." He hangs the child's x-rays in the window and begins to describe the series of injuries and broken bones that the child had suffered before coming into Taylor's care. Taylor is unable to process the amount of suffering that Turtle has endured and, instead of looking at the x-rays, stares out the window at a bird who had made a nest in a cactus: "In and out she flew among the horrible spiny branches, never once hesitating." Taylor observes this marvel and wonders how the bird made a home there. The bird functions as a symbol of Turtle's resilience, finding a way to make a happy existence in a world full of danger.


It was another miracle. The flower trees were turning into bean trees.

Taylor, Chapter 10

Taylor sends Estevan home when Esperanza is pronounced healthy after her suicide attempt. Taylor then spends time with Lou Ann, who has just returned from Angel's family reunion. The two of them catch up under the arbor in the park. Turtle interrupts them with the word "beans." The women think she means "bees," but she points up at the wisteria tree and repeats "beans." For the first time, Taylor notices that the flowers on the tree are turning into seed pods that resemble beans. She considers it a miracle. Turtle is helping them to see the world differently, and Taylor is beginning to notice the transformation. Their lives are changing, from the women filling in spaces around Lou Ann's house to Lou Ann beginning to job hunt.


Like a woman is something you shove on and walk right through.

Lou Ann, Chapter 10

Lou Ann returns from her first job interview, and Taylor catches up with her as they walk to Edna Poppy and Virgie Mae Parson's house to pick up the kids. Lou Ann tells Taylor about the horrible interview where the convenience store manager was constantly "calling me sweetheart" and "talking to my boobs." They walk past Fanny Heaven, the local nightclub and pornography shop, and Lou Ann makes the comment that she can't stand to look at the door. On the door is a painting of a woman in a leopard-print bikini positioned so that the door handle "would sink into her crotch." Lou Ann's comment in this scene reflects her growing confidence in standing up for herself. She begins to express how the men in this world have treated her, from the leering convenience store manager to her own husband, who picked her up and tossed her aside as his moods changed.


There seemed to be no end to the things that could be hiding, waiting it out, right where you thought you could see it all.

Taylor, Chapter 12

Mattie takes Taylor, Estevan, and Esperanza to the desert to witness the first rainstorm of the summer. After the rain, the group returns to the car, crossing the desert in the dark and being surprised by the loud sounds of spadefoot toads. She is shocked at how they come out of the desert floor for just a few hours after the rain. Her remark is an observation grounded in the moment, but it also foreshadows the fact that Taylor will receive the bad news about Turtle's attempted abduction—which, unknown to her, is happening at the same time back in Tucson—when she returns home.


What I'm saying is nobody feels sorry for anybody anymore, nobody even pretends they do.

Taylor, Chapter 12

After the stranger attempted to abduct Turtle, Taylor realizes that she cannot protect Turtle from the world, and she falls into a depression. Lou Ann tries to convince her to fight back, but Taylor is feeling overwhelmed. She is upset about her inability to protect Turtle, worried that Esperanza and Estevan will be deported, and generally in despair about the state of the world. She says that it's become "unpatriotic" to feel sorry for others. From her perspective, too many people are hurting others, and not enough are helping.


Nobody can protect a child from the world.

Mattie, Chapter 13

Lou Ann is unable to pull Taylor out of her depression after Turtle was nearly abducted, but Mattie offers some advice that seems to resonate. Taylor confides that she is not sure that she is the best person to be Turtle's mother because she is unable to protect the child. Mattie says that Taylor is asking the wrong question, that she shouldn't ask if she can protect Turtle from everything, because no parent can truly do that. Instead, she should ask herself whether she wants to try to take care of the child, because the best a parent can do is try. This theme is repeated later in the novel, when Taylor and Turtle leave the Grand Lake o' the Cherokees. Taylor tells Turtle that she cannot make promises, but Taylor will "try as hard as I can to stay with you."


Some folks are the heroes and take the risks, and other folks do what they can from behind the scenes.

Mattie, Chapter 13

Taylor makes the decision that she will drive Estevan and Esperanza to a new sanctuary in Oklahoma when she takes Turtle there to search for someone to sign over custody of the child to her. As she's leaving, Mattie hands her an envelope full of money. Taylor tries to refuse it, but Mattie insists that she take it for Estevan and Esperanza's new future. Mattie tells her that the money comes from many others behind the scenes. It is one of the few hints that Mattie gives about the breadth of her network of support for the immigrant sanctuary that she runs. Mattie is grateful for all of the help that she receives, whether it is in the form that Taylor provides—as a hero willing to risk her own safety—or in the form of anonymous monetary support. To Mattie, every action to help matters, no matter how small.


What I really hate is not belonging in any place. To be unwanted everywhere.

Estevan, Chapter 14

As Taylor drives Estevan, Esperanza, and Turtle toward Oklahoma, she and Estevan discuss their pasts and their futures. When Taylor asks him about his home, Estevan tells her that he and Esperanza are Mayan and that they speak Spanish as a second language. They moved from their hometowns to Guatemala City and left Guatemala City for the United States. Now he has to leave Tucson as well. He misses many different homes, and he cannot return to any of them. For Estevan, this is the worst part of being a refugee: having no home and feeling unwanted everywhere.


Mi'ija, in a world as wrong as this one, all we can do is to make things as right as we can.

Estevan, Chapter 17

When Estevan and Esperanza arrive at the Oklahoma sanctuary, Esperanza says goodbye while Estevan lingers to speak with Taylor. Taylor asks him about the catharsis Esperanza experienced in the office of the notary public, when she and Estevan pretended to be Turtle's parents and signed over custody to Taylor. Taylor worries because Esperanza suddenly seems happy, as if passing Turtle off to a safe situation somehow resolved her own daughter's situation. With this quote, Estevan shares his perspective that anything that helps anyone is a good thing. His advice to Taylor is similar to the advice that Mattie gave Taylor about being a mother to Turtle: you cannot protect a child from the world; all you can do is try to do your best for the child. Estevan has managed to keep himself and Esperanza safe on their long refugee journey by doing the best that he can. Taylor has done her part to make the world as right as she can by helping Estevan and Esperanza get to a safe place and by caring for Turtle.


I don't think blood's the only way kids come by things honest.

Mama Greer, Chapter 17

When Taylor's adoption of Turtle is nearly finalized, she calls her mother, who is delighted to have a grandchild. Taylor takes offense when her mother says that Turtle comes by something "honest" because Taylor thinks similarity to a parent is said to prove that a child is biologically related to the parent. Taylor's mother responds by saying that biology isn't the only thing that influences what children inherit from their parents. Instead, it is what the parents tell them. She uses Newt Hardbine as an example, saying that his parents and everyone else always told him he was bad, so he turned out bad. Taylor's mom always told her that she was good, Taylor believed her, and she turned out well. Taylor's mom believes that Taylor can have a positive influence on Turtle because nurture will matter as much as nature.


The wisteria vines on their own would just barely get by, ... but put them together with rhizobia and they make miracles.

Taylor, Chapter 17

Taylor and Turtle go to the library while they wait for the official adoption certificate in Oklahoma City. Taylor opens the encyclopedia to read to Turtle about some plants and finds the page for the wisteria trees—the bean trees—that Turtle enjoys in their park in Tucson. She learns about the rhizobia, the bacteria that lives among the roots of the wisteria tree, taking nitrogen out of the soil in a way that allows the tree to use it. Taylor understands the rhizobia as a kind of underground railroad carrying nutrients to support the tree and compares the rhizobia to the network of support she has found in Arizona. The bean trees—the wisteria trees—provide a metaphor for the strong relationships that drive the plot of the novel.

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