The Bean Trees | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Bean Trees | Themes


The Female Bond

The Bean Trees is a story driven by female characters and their relationships to one another. Taylor's mother defines the character of her childhood, consistently offering supportive words and confidence in Taylor's ability to handle whatever she experiences in the world. As a result, Taylor becomes a strong, independent woman who knows the power of a strong female support system. Throughout the novel, Taylor both gives and receives support in a network of woman-to-woman reliance that spans the country.

Taylor's experiences are colored by the peculiar nature of the female bond. Turtle's aunt did not know Taylor personally when she approached Taylor and asked her to take care of Turtle. At best, Turtle's aunt had a little time to assess Taylor's personality while Taylor ate dinner in the bar. Taylor had no reason to accept the responsibility of caring for the child, especially since doing so put her into the role of mother, which she had specifically avoided in Kentucky. Yet Turtle's aunt makes the request, and Taylor accepts. There is an unspoken trust between the two women that underlies their interactions and reassures each that the other has the best of intentions.

Throughout the novel, women extend welcoming care to Taylor and Turtle, from Mrs. Hoge at the motel in Oklahoma to Mattie at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. Mattie, moreover, spends a vast amount of time and effort running an underground railroad and providing care for migrants. She is defined by her willingness to support others. Lou Ann and Taylor's relationship is founded upon and strengthened by their ability to carry one another through difficult moments. Taylor helps Lou Ann move on after her husband leaves, and Lou Ann takes care of Turtle and Taylor when Taylor sinks into a depression. The network of support that Taylor identifies as her "rhizobia"—the microorganisms that support the "bean trees"—is composed entirely of women: "Edna has Virgie, and Virgie has Edna, and Sandi has Kid Central Station, and everybody has Mattie. And on and on."


The experience of refugees features as a central part of the storyline in a way that challenges readers to consider the lived experiences of immigrants to the United States and reevaluate the way this country treats refugees of different kinds.

As soon as Taylor arrives in Tucson, she begins to see parts of the secret life that Mattie lives, providing sanctuary and transportation for illegal immigrants moving into the United States. Through Mattie, Taylor and Turtle meet Estevan and Esperanza, who describe their experiences as refugees forced out of Guatemala by their government. The reverberations of the trauma they endured in their home country continue to have an influence on their everyday life: Esperanza barely speaks and tries to commit suicide due to the tragic loss of her daughter. Mattie fears they will be deported because they do not possess documents that will prove their need for asylum in the United States. Taylor learns, moreover, that they are Mayan by birth and were forced out of their villages to Guatemala City. Estevan and Esperanza built a life there, but they were persecuted by the government for their participation in a teacher's union. Reaching the United States illegally, they will be targeted by immigration enforcement for the rest of their lives.

Estevan's discussions about home and about how Americans lack sympathy for immigrants directly address the issue of immigration, but there are more subtle explorations of the theme as well. When Taylor arrives in Tucson, Mattie takes her and Turtle in for the afternoon and provides them with food and advice. Mattie welcomes Taylor and Turtle into her home as if they were refugees, and in a way, they both are. Taylor voluntarily left her home, but she was fleeing a poor county where she had little opportunity to lead life the way she wanted. Turtle is given away, thrust into Taylor's arms by the child's desperate aunt. The Cherokee girl was forced to leave to escape a situation so terrible that she did not speak for months, her bones show healed fractures, and she had not even grown for nearly a year. When Esperanza pretends to be Turtle's mother and signs custody of the girl over to Taylor, Esperanza takes her necklace and gives it to Turtle. It bears the medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of refugees.

Turtle, Taylor, Estevan, and Esperanza are all at least partially Native American and all are refugees from their homes. Taylor and Turtle can move with relative freedom to seek a better life within the United States; Estevan and Esperanza constantly fear deportation, simply because they crossed a national border as they sought safety. The juxtaposition of the two different refugee stories asks the reader to expand their sympathy for immigrants of all kinds.


Native American heritage plays a critical role in the lives of Taylor, Turtle, Estevan, and Esperanza. Since she was a child, Taylor's mother shared stories about their Cherokee heritage and insisted that their ability to claim "head rights" could always be their backup plan. When Taylor heads west from her hometown, she is—perhaps unintentionally—seeking some connection with Cherokee land, which leads her through Oklahoma. She isn't very impressed with what she sees on the first trip, but her presence in Oklahoma provides the opportunity for Turtle's aunt to get the child out of her horrible situation. The fact that Taylor is later able to legally adopt Turtle is dependent upon Turtle's Cherokee birth. Taylor has no access to Turtle's parents, guardians, or any documentation, but since the girl was born on tribal lands, a birth certificate is not required.

Estevan and Esperanza are Guatemalan citizens as well as members of Mayan tribes whose lands are controlled by the Guatemalan government. The two actually speak different Mayan languages and both celebrate their Mayan heritage when it is safe, through traditional dresses and songs in their native languages. However, their lives have been made doubly difficult by their Mayan origins, since the government first evicted them from their tribal lands and then persecuted them for their membership in the teacher's union. In Oklahoma, their Native American heritage becomes an asset. To the eyes of white people and immigration officers, Estevan and Esperanza can blend in with the people of the Cherokee Nation and hopefully build an entire life under cover of assumed Cherokee names. They are even able to pass for Turtle's Cherokee parents in order to help Taylor secure custody of Turtle.

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