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The Bean Trees

Barbara Kingsolver

Chapters Sixteen–Seventeen

Chapters Fourteen–Fifteen

Important Quotations Explained

Summary—Chapter Sixteen: Soundness of Mind and Freedom of Will

Estevan, Esperanza, Taylor, and Turtle go to the office of Mr. Jonas Wilford Armistead. Estevan and Esperanza pose as Steve and Hope and say they are Turtle’s biological parents. Taylor poses as Turtle’s adoptive mother. Mr. Armistead, who assumes they are telling the truth, explains the permanence of the adoption, and asks Estevan and Esperanza to confirm they can give up their child. Esperanza begins to cry, and Taylor realizes that she is not acting. Esperanza says they love their daughter but cannot care for her. She says that someday, when they have a home, they might have more children. Watching Esperanza hold Turtle, Taylor realizes that if Esperanza said she wanted to keep Turtle, Taylor could not deny her. However, Esperanza gives her St. Christopher medallion to Turtle and tells Taylor she knows Turtle will grow up happy. Estevan and Esperanza sign a document stating that they agree to the change in custody and that they sign in “soundness of mind and freedom of will.” Afterward, Esperanza’s face seems newly happy.

Summary—Chapter Seventeen: Rhizobia

[Turtle] . . . entertained me with her vegetable-soup song, except that now there were people mixed in with the beans and potatoes: Dwayne Ray, Mattie, Esperanza, Lou Ann and all the rest. And me. I was the main ingredient.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Taylor takes Estevan and Esperanza to the church where the reverend and his wife will provide them with shelter. Taylor must say goodbye to Estevan. She tells him she has never before lost anyone she loves. When she asks if it will be safe to write, he tells her he can only send messages through Mattie. He kisses her before he goes into the house, and Taylor muses, “[A]ll four of us had buried someone we loved in Oklahoma.” After leaving Estevan and Esperanza, Taylor calls her mother from a pay phone and tells her she lost her love. Alice comforts her. She tells Taylor that she has quit her job cleaning houses, and Taylor tells her about Turtle’s official adoption. Taylor and Turtle have their “second real conversation” (the first concerned Turtle’s burial of her doll). When Turtle says she would like to see “Ma Woo-Ahn,” Taylor explains that although Turtle has many friends, she now has only one Ma in the world. She tells Turtle her name is now April Turtle Greer.

On a whim, Taylor decides to call 1-800-THE-LORD, a number she imagined calling if she ever hit rock bottom, just as her mother imagined cashing in their head rights in the Cherokee Nation. When she calls, the number turns out to be a pledge line. Taylor is not disappointed, but amused, and she tells the woman who answers that the number has been a “fountain of faith” for her. She and Turtle go to a library, where they look at horticulture reference books. Turtle sees a picture of wisteria and recognizes it as bean trees. Taylor reads out loud about wisteria vines, which grow with the help of rhizobia, microscopic bugs that suck nitrogen from the soil to help the plant. Taylor explains that the bugs are like an underground railroad helping the plant, just as people have people helping them. Taylor takes Turtle to the courthouse to pick up the adoption papers, and calls Lou Ann. She nervously asks Lou Ann if she plans to go back to Angel, and Lou Ann emphatically says no. Lou Ann tells Taylor about a new man she is dating, a former Rastafarian with a dog named Mr. T. She says that she does not plan to move in with this man, because she feels like Taylor and Turtle are her family. Taylor tells Lou Ann that she has adopted Turtle, to Lou Ann’s great relief. Finally, Taylor and Turtle leave Oklahoma City, heading back to Tucson. Turtle sings what Taylor calls her “vegetable-soup song.” Along with vegetable names, Turtle adds the names of her friends—Lou Ann, Esperanza, Mattie, Dwayne Ray, and Taylor, “the main ingredient.”

Analysis—Chapters Sixteen–Seventeen

Just as Turtle closed a chapter in her life by reenacting the burial of her mother, Esperanza finds relief in the ceremony of giving up Turtle. Esperanza never got a chance to say goodbye to her daughter, Ismene, so she finds closure in a formal goodbye scene with a girl who looks like her own child and whom she loves like her own child. She also has the comforting illusion that she has left her own daughter in good hands with Taylor, a relief because she does not know who now cares for Ismene. The goodbye serves as a catharsis, a purification leading to renewal. Taylor notices that Esperanza’s face looks refreshed as she leaves the office. As Taylor later tells Estevan, “[S]he seems . . . as happy as if she’d really found a place to leave Ismene behind.”

Taylor says that “all four of us had buried someone we loved in Oklahoma”; Turtle buries her biological mother, Esperanza buries Ismene, and Taylor buries Estevan. Taylor does not explain whether the person Estevan loves and buries is herself or Ismene. Taylor and Estevan never express their feelings for each other, but Kingsolver implies that each understands Taylor’s love for Estevan and his acknowledgement that in different circumstances, they could have been together. In the moral world of this novel, Taylor and Estevan cannot run off with each other, or even sleep with each other, for several reasons: Estevan, a good man, loves and respects his wife; Taylor does not want to betray Esperanza; and although the novel prizes all-female families, it also respects conventional families such as Estevan and Esperanza’s and does not advocate shattering them.

Taylor’s successful maturation is confirmed when, in Chapter Seventeen, she realizes she no longer needs her ace in the hole, 1-800-THE-LORD. She has hit her low point and lived through it, and she now feels strong and happy. She says that 1-800-THE-LORD used to be her “fountain of faith”; the number turns out to be a sham, but Taylor now recognizes that her friends provide her with a true fountain of faith. Kingsolver contrasts the useless phone call Taylor makes to 1-800-THE-LORD with the reviving, helpful phone calls she makes to her mother and Lou Ann. Taylor also demonstrates the fullness of her maturation by identifying herself to Turtle, for the first time, as Turtle’s mother. Taylor now feels eager to provide care and love for her child.

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