Taylor Greer is gutsy and practical. She views her hometown as stifling and tiny, and she decides she wants to avoid the trap of an early pregnancy and make her escape to a more interesting life. Taylor’s spirited, quirky voice shapes the novel. She perceives things in an original fashion, communicating her wonder at the customs and landscape of the Southwest with unusual metaphors and folksy language. Taylor settles in Tucson, Arizona, because its landscape strikes her as outlandish; newness and amusement appeal to her more than comfort or familiarity. As she contends with dangerous poverty, an unasked-for child, and many other trials, Taylor’s wit and spirit remain intact.
Although never naïve, Taylor becomes even more worldly after learning about the political corruption and personal tragedy faced by Estevan and Esperanza and the abuse inflicted on Turtle. Her sympathetic reaction to the difficulties of others reveals Taylor’s tenderheartedness. Taylor cares for the abandoned and the exiled with increasing enthusiasm as the novel progresses. Mattie calls her a hero for risking her own safety in order to achieve a more just society. In some ways, Taylor is an archetypal hero: she leaves her home and family, descends into darkness, and reemerges to accomplish some good for the sake of her society. She also functions as Esperanza’s comedic counterpart. Whereas tragedy permanently enshrouds Esperanza’s life, Taylor has a chance to hold on to her daughter and her happiness. Unlike traditional female heroines, Taylor’s adventures do not revolve around finding or keeping a man. Her life focuses instead on females—primarily on Turtle, but also on her mother, her friend, and her mentor. The male-female love she experiences remains purely platonic.
Lou Ann is soft, motherly, and worrisome; she fears her own death and the death of her child. Far more womanly in a traditional sense than Taylor is, she pines for her husband and expresses her conviction that marriages and love should last forever. A Kentuckian, she retains the innocence of a small-town girl. Despite this innocence and occasional spates of homesickness, Lou Ann demonstrates her grit by moving to Tucson and then staying there alone to raise a child over the objections of her female relatives. She and Taylor form a functional family, caring for their children and for each other.
Lou Ann undergoes a transformation from dependent housewife into strong single mother. She has feminist instincts from the beginning of the novel, but initially she does not express them. She remains silent even though the sight of the local strip joint makes her shudder; she notices that her house feels more whole with her female relatives present than with her husband; she reflects on the strength of her body during her pregnancy. Around Chapter Ten, Lou Ann changes. She begins to speak about the contradictions and injustices of gender relations. She tells Taylor that she despises the obscene painting on the door of the strip joint. She searches for a job and accepts that she will have to support herself. She acts more boldly, scolding Taylor when Taylor does not fight hard for her rights.
Though a cast of strong women peoples The Bean Trees, the only male character of consequence is Estevan, whose presence grows more important as the novel progresses. Taylor’s affection for him suggests that he is a welcome addition to an otherwise exclusively female world. Estevan represents the opposite of the stereotypically chauvinistic American male. A good man, he counters the novel’s villainous and sexually predatory men, such as Turtle’s abuser, the prowler in the park, and the absentee Angel. We empathize with Estevan not only because of his kindness, but because he lacks a homeland. Like women and like the natural environment, he knows destruction and persecution. Via Estevan, Kingsolver dispels many myths about illegal immigrants. One myth holds that immigrants cannot speak English well, but Estevan speaks better English than any of the native English-speakers in the novel. His pristine English and impeccable grammar suggest his intelligence and industry.
A history of abuse makes Turtle silent for much of the novel. She seems almost catatonic, anxious to remain unnoticed and therefore unmolested. However, as the novel progresses and Turtle begins to trust that Taylor will take good care of her, the three-year-old girl becomes increasingly talkative and charming. She begins to preface friends’ names with the word Ma: Lou Ann becomes Ma Woo-Ahn, for example. She demonstrates a connection with the earth, taking great pleasure in naming vegetables and playing with seeds or dirt. Her made-up songs concern vegetables, and her preferred bedtime story is the seed catalogue. This love of the land links her, Kingsolver suggests, to her Native American heritage.
One of the first characters we meet, Alice Greer sets the precedent for the series of strong, loving women that come after her in the novel. Kingsolver suggests that children become what they are told they will become; because Newt Hardbine is told he will fail, for example, he does fail. In contrast, because Alice constantly tells Taylor she is wonderful and smart and will succeed, Taylor is wonderful and smart and successful. Alice also represents the independence from men advocated by the novel. She lives happily, sometimes married, sometimes not, and never imagines she needs a man in order to raise Taylor.
Mattie acts as a mother to hundreds of people, including Taylor. She does not fit the typical portrait of a mother figure, however, for although she is wise and loving, she is also fearsomely intelligent and tough. Her combination safe house, garden, and tire shop symbolize Mattie’s combination of qualities. Mattie does not push anyone to act heroically, as she herself acts, but she does inspire heroism through her own actions. She also breathes fresh air into the lives of her provincial, undereducated friends with her work as an intellectual. The other characters only dimly grasp her work as an activist and an intellectual, but the fact that it exists points to a world outside the novel’s scope.