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The Bean Trees

Barbara Kingsolver

Chapter Seven: How They Eat in Heaven

Chapters Five–Six

Chapters Eight–Nine

Summary

In March, Mattie, Lou Ann, Dwayne Ray, Taylor, and Turtle go on a picnic near a beautiful creek. Two of Mattie’s friends, Esperanza and Estevan, go with them. Esperanza and Estevan are a married couple from Guatemala City. Estevan, who taught English there, speaks better English than any of the American characters do. Esperanza keeps staring at Turtle, and Estevan explains to Taylor that Turtle reminds Esperanza of a child they knew in Guatemala. Estevan and Taylor take a swim in the ice-cold creek water. On the way home, they have to slam on the brakes to make way for a family of quail. Taylor gets teary-eyed at the sight of the bird family. Lou Ann thinks that Angel, instead of being touched, would have wondered how many birds he could hit. Turtle reacts to the sudden stop by doing a somersault and making her first sound: laughter. Taylor feels relieved that Turtle’s first sound was a laugh; it reassures Taylor that she is doing a decent job of raising Turtle, for she feels that if Turtle were unhappy, she would not laugh. A little later, as Turtle and Taylor help Mattie plant the garden, Turtle says her first word: “bean.”

One night, Lou Ann tells Taylor about her fear that the horrible things she imagines will happen in real life. She tells Taylor that in high school she stood looking over a cliff and imagined jumping. After imagining it, she became terrified that she actually would jump. She says she used to worry that she would say something rude in the middle of church. Taylor says she has felt similarly, and Lou Ann feels relieved that someone understands her.

That night, Edna Poppy and Mrs. Virgie Parsons, two elderly neighbors, come to Lou Ann’s house for dinner and to watch Mattie, who is scheduled to appear on TV. Esperanza and Estevan also come over. On television, Mattie talks about human rights, the United Nations, the concept of asylum, and the violence visited upon immigrants who are forced to return to their countries of origin. Edna and Virgie do not understand Mattie’s remarks, and neither does Taylor.

Mrs. Parsons assumes that Turtle is Esperanza and Estevan’s child, and calls her a naked wild Indian. Estevan, who works washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant, has brought chopsticks to eat dinner with, but Mrs. Parsons turns up her nose at them. She goes on to remark that immigrants should “stay put in their own dirt” and not take American jobs. Turtle tries to put a piece of pineapple in her mouth with her chopsticks, but cannot. To make her feel better and to chasten Mrs. Parsons, Estevan tells a story. He says that in hell, people sit around a big table with plenty of food, starving to death because they must eat with long-handled spoons and cannot manage to get the spoons in their mouths. Heaven, he says, looks just the same: same table, same food, same spoons. But in heaven, the people use the long-handled spoons to feed one another. Estevan demonstrates by feeding Turtle a new piece of pineapple.

Analysis

Turtle’s first sound coincides with the appearance of the quail family, birds that suggest several symbolic meanings. Throughout the novel, Kingsolver uses birds to symbolize Turtle. In this instance, just as the baby birds come close to getting killed but survive, Turtle miraculously survives her tortured babyhood. Turtle’s little yelp might indicate her recognition of kindred spirits in the birds. The birds also have a symbolic meaning for Taylor. The car squeals to a stop to save the lives of the birds, just as Taylor’s life stopped, or changed course, so she could save Turtle’s life. Finally, the fact that the car stops for a family of quail suggests that Taylor, Lou Ann, and the others are becoming more and more like a family.

With Estevan, Kingsolver introduces a new kind of male character in her novel. Estevan, unlike the other male characters, is not selfish, abusive, irresponsible, or mean. Rather, he is kind, intelligent, and responsible. Lou Ann draws our attention to this difference when she notes that Angel would have tried to run over the baby birds. In contrast to Angel’s cruelty, Estevan slams on the brakes to save them.

Chapter Seven makes explicit Mattie’s role as an activist for illegal immigrants and refugees. Clues from previous chapters hinted at her work: Spanish-speaking people constantly staying in her house, a hurried priest with an Indian family waiting in his car, Mattie’s explanation to Taylor that she operates a human sanctuary. It now becomes clear to us that Mattie not only works for immigrants’ rights, she hides illegal immigrants in her house. The novel takes a political stance, portraying Mattie’s work as good and heroic. Edna and Virgie do not understand Mattie’s remarks, perhaps deliberately: Virgie harbors very conservative views on immigrants and twists Mattie’s ideas in order to hear what she wants to hear. Neither does Taylor fully comprehend what Mattie says, a failure that Kingsolver does not excuse. Because Kingsolver makes the nature and nobility of Mattie’s work clear to the reader, Taylor’s failure to grasp it seems perplexing and possibly willful. Kingsolver lets us wonder if Taylor decides not to understand because the topic scares or upsets her. Estevan’s story of heaven and hell continues this political commentary. As he tells the story, he glowers at Virgie, conveying his disapproval of her views on immigrants. She thinks immigrants should fend for themselves and Americans should not help them, just as the hell-dwellers in Estevan’s story think only of helping themselves.

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