Taylor Greer 

The protagonist of the novel, Taylor also narrates much of the story. She is a strong, gutsy woman, and her voice is both sassy and kind. Born and raised in rural Kentucky, she leaves to escape a small life in her hometown. Like her mother, she is proud of her Cherokee blood.

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The child given to Taylor in the middle of the Cherokee nation. She gets her name from her clinginess, which reminds Taylor of the mud turtles in Kentucky. She is so quiet and unengaged that many believe her to be dumb or retarded. This silence, however, is due to Turtle’s history: although she is only three years old, Turtle has already been physically and sexually abused. Although Taylor has spent her life avoiding pregnancy, she keeps Turtle with her.

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Lou Ann Ruiz

A Kentuckian woman who settled in Tucson with her baby, Dwayne Ray. Her husband, Angel, has just walked out on her when the story begins, and Taylor and Turtle move in with her. She worries about the terrible accidents and horror stories she hears about, fearing for the safety of herself and her baby. More sensitive and more provincial than Taylor, she is nonetheless a survivor.

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The owner of Jesus Is Lord Used Tires and a mother figure for Taylor. She is wise and kind. She allows illegal immigrants to stay in her home, operating a kind of sanctuary. Her garden of beautiful vegetables and car parts is an inspiration for Turtle, whose first word is bean and who loves all kinds of vegetables.

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A Guatemalan refugee, he worked as an English teacher in Guatemala before he and his wife fled to the United States. He speaks beautiful English, and his kind ways inspire romantic feelings in Taylor. He lives in Mattie’s building with his wife, Esperanza. He enlightens Taylor about the corruption of Central American governments.

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Estevan’s wife. Her grave demeanor is a reflection of her sorrowful past. Turtle’s presence touches her because Turtle reminds her of the daughter she had to leave behind.


Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter, whom they left in Guatemala. She represents both the horror of political corruption and the desperation that can necessitate the abandonment of children.

Angel Ruiz

Lou Ann’s husband, he is a Mexican man whom Lou Ann met when he worked in the rodeo in Kentucky. Angel’s prosthetic leg—the result of a pickup truck accident—wounds his pride terribly and makes him unhappy.

Alice Greer

Taylor’s mother, who lives in Kentucky. In Chapter One, Taylor says that her mother expects the best from her daughter and thinks that whatever Taylor does is wonderful. An encouraging, kind mother, she is the only part of Taylor’s hometown that Taylor misses when she leaves.

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Dwayne Ray

Lou Ann’s son. He was born on New Year’s Day.

Newt Hardbine

A classmate of Taylor’s. He drops out before graduation to help his family on its farm and dies before Taylor leaves Pittman County. He represents what could have been Taylor’s fate had she not had a wonderful mother and the determination to leave town.

Mrs. Virgie Parsons

Lou Ann’s grumpy neighbor, who sometimes baby-sits for the children. She makes insensitive remarks about immigrants.

Edna Poppy

The blind woman who lives with Mrs. Parsons. She is much warmer than her roommate.


The social worker who comes over after Turtle’s run-in with a miscreant in the park. Her prim attitude annoys Taylor, but her intentions are good.

Mr. Jonas Wilford Armistead

The legal authority in Oklahoma City who oversees Turtle’s adoption. An old white man, he treats Esperanza and Estevan like ignorant foreigners.

Granny Logan

Lou Ann’s grandmother. She is provincial and harbors many prejudices about Angel’s nationality. She hates the arid climate in Tucson and brings Lou Ann water from the Tug Fork River in Kentucky so that she may baptize Dwayne Ray properly.


Lou Ann’s mother. She fights perpetually with Granny Logan, her mother-in-law. Like Granny Logan, she is provincial and has no interest in seeing Arizona.

Mrs. Hoge and Irene

The mother and daughter, respectively, who run the Broken Arrow Motor Lodge, where they let Turtle and Taylor stay free of charge on their trip west.

Father William

The priest who works with Mattie, transporting illegal immigrants to and from her house.


The woman who owns the grocery store and Laundromat next door to Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. Her mother brought the original bean seeds from China, the descendents of which now grow in Mattie’s yard.