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
To what extent
does the novel define home in terms of geographic setting? In terms
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