Traditionally, American society has defined “family” as “nuclear family”—a father, a mother, and children living together. The biological mother is often viewed as the natural caregiver, and the father is viewed as the provider. How does this novel ask us to rethink our definition of family and how does it suggest alternative role models in place of or in addition to the biological mother?
This novel presents several models of unconventional yet functional families. Kingsolver does not scoff at the traditional family—Taylor affectionately refers to a family of paper dolls she had as a child. She remembers loving the dolls and intensely longing for a family like theirs. Kingsolver suggests such perfect doll families exist less and less frequently, and women must come up with new versions of family. Lou Ann and Taylor form a new familial structure that does not depend on a romantic or a blood relationship, but still provides two parental figures for the children. At the end of the novel, Lou Ann responds to the news of Turtle’s adoption with a relief and joy that rivals Taylor’s. This novel values a sociopolitical system that regards caregiving as the work of a community, not an individual.
The first mother introduced in the novel, Alice Greer, sets the stage for all the models of motherhood to come. Alice is a loving, responsible single mother, and her daughter does not grieve the absence of a male role model—in fact, she counts herself lucky to lack a father in a town where men call their daughters sluts, or get girls pregnant and run away. As the novel progresses, Kingsolver presents more models of motherhood: Taylor becomes an adoptive mother overnight, acquiring a child of a different racial makeup and background than her own. Lou Ann gives birth to a child on her own. We never find out if Mattie has children of her own or not, but this seems unimportant. Mattie provides for many “adopted” people, loving them and risking her safety for them just as a mother would.
What is the relationship between religion and spirituality in this novel? What role do the conspicuous signs of commercialized religious belief (Jesus Is Lord Used Tires and the sign reading 1-800-the lord) play in establishing the novel’s moral code?
The Bean Trees reverberates with a deep sense of spirituality that has little to do with organized religion. In the novel, commercialized religion works not as the means to salvation, but as a humorous lucky charm. At the bar with the sign that reads 1-800-THE-LORD, Taylor finds Turtle, who will become the most precious part of her life. Jesus Is Lord Used Tires brings Taylor to Mattie, who becomes a mother figure and mentor. While the Jesus mural on the wall of the used-tire store holds no sacred value for Lou Ann and Taylor, they relish the fact that it scares off would-be patrons of the neighboring strip club.
To what extent does the novel define home in terms of geographic setting? In terms of people?
Kingsolver first addresses the question of home as geographic setting when Taylor reaches Oklahoma. Taylor thinks back to the way her mother talked about the Cherokee Nation, and feels thoroughly let down. Still, although her mother’s Cherokee “head rights” do not amount to much, she finds head rights of her own when an Indian woman gives her Turtle. The postcard Taylor writes to her mother indicates that Taylor’s obligation is to a little girl, not to a geographic place: “I found my head rights, Mama. They’re coming with me.” Taylor’s sense of home has to do not with the geographical location of the Cherokee nation, but with Turtle.
Eventually, Taylor does locate a physical place that feels like home. The quirky beauty of the Arizona desert begins to feel homey, and by the time she returns to Tucson at the end of the novel, she is returning both to her geographic home, and to her home community of people. Esperanza and Estevan are forced to define home as the place where they have friends, rather than as the location of their homeland. When they arrive at the Cherokee Nation, where they look similar to the inhabitants, they seem heartened. Although they cannot live in their native South America, they find a community of similarly displaced people where they blend in. As someone tells Taylor, the Cherokee Nation is not a place, but a people.
1. Questions of legality surface many times in this novel. How does the novel regard the law? If the law cannot act as an authority, what dictates right and wrong in its place?
2. Compare the experiences of Esperanza and Estevan, who are of the Mayan people, to the experiences of Turtle, and the Cherokee people in general.
3. Think of the bird imagery in this novel. What do the birds symbolize? How are different kinds of birds used to represent different ideas?
4. The Bean Trees is a novel about refugees. Identify the characters in the novel who have left or been driven from their homelands. What differentiates their experiences, and what commonalities bind them together?
5. What is the significance of the many different forms of violence referred to in this novel?