The Bean Trees (Greer Family, #1)

By Barbara Kingsolver

138,331 ratings - 3.98* vote

Clear-eyed and spirited, Taylor Greer grew up poor in rural Kentucky with the goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting away. But when she heads west with high hopes and a barely functional car, she meets the human condition head-on. By the time Taylor arrives in Tucson, Arizona, she has acquired a completely unexpected child, a three-year-old American Indian girl named Turt Clear-eyed and spirited, Taylor Greer grew up poor in rural Kentucky with the goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting

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Book details

Hardcover, 232 pages
March 1st 1989 by Perfection Learning

(first published December 1st 1988)

Original Title
The Bean Trees
0812474945 (ISBN13: 9780812474947)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


My stepmother was the type of woman who painted the walls in our house eighteen different colors and wore turquoise-encrusted Kokopelli jewelry to show how in tune she was with the local culture. She hung Frida Khalo prints on the bedroom walls and thought that speaking ‘Food Spanish’ to waiters made her nearly fluent. She also compelled my sister and me to read a lot of Tony Hillerman paperbacks and other ‘local literature,’ which I am now almost positive included The Bean Trees. Because after reading the first chapter of this book, I got the strangest sense of de ja vu.

This is probably appropriate in its way, given that the reason I picked it up in the first place was to suppress a bit of homesickness. Because a couple times a year—amidst the April snowstorms and one too many guys on the subway who splay themselves across two seats while playing audio-enabled Snood on their cell phones—I start pining for the homeland. I turned to this book hoping to get a good dose of Tucsonan flavor to keep me going until I had the time and money to go home and remember why I left in the first place.

I have to say, though, The Bean Trees didn’t really do the trick. Because even though I appreciate details about the Sun Tran bus line and the way it smells in the desert when it rains (the thing I miss the most about Tucson), there’s more to invoking a landscape than just listing of things that are really there. A good book about New York, for instance, isn’t good because it mentions the Empire State Building or talks about people taking taxis. It is a major (and frequent) misstep in novels to try and just be factually accurate about a place, without ever getting into how it really feels there.

To be fair, though, while the landscape wasn’t terribly reminiscent of Arizona, the writing style really was in its own (probably accidental) way. Because Ms. Kingsolver really illuminates that deep Southwestern flare for ‘characters’ and ‘culture’—a fondness for highlighting how darn quirky desert folk really are, and a gringo’s deep and abiding love of all things latino.

(As a side note, though: if we’re going to just start dropping real places into the book for authenticity, I would have swapped the ‘Jesus Is Lord’ tire place for the church that has ‘Happiness is Submission to God’ painted on it—a slogan which often gets altered to ‘Happiness is Submission to Godzilla!’ by persistent neighborhood delinquents…)


Marietta Greer has just completed two miracles of her rural Kentucky upbringing: graduating high school and avoiding pregnancy. To celebrate, she jumps in her ’55 Volkswagen bug and rides West, leaving her job at a Kentucky hospital counting platelets to stay true to her plan “to drive out of Pittman County one day and never look back” (11). On the road, she changes her name to Taylor and finds herself in Tucson, Arizona with a broken down car and a Cherokee baby in her arms.

Taylor is an honest, straight-forward protagonist that speaks with youthful tact and an open heart. Through her, Kingsolver voices the morals of an ideal United States brought down with prejudice and misunderstanding. The Bean Trees isn’t a celebration of the Southwest and its adopted mixed-heritage culture as it is a vision into a world stricken by the hypocrisy of that adoption. Comparing her rural Kentucky hometown and Tucson, Arizona together to discover they’re as foreign to each other as to be separate countries, Taylor declares herself an immigrant in her own right and easily warm up to Mattie--the local mechanic--and the plight of the hunted illegal immigrants coming and going from the sanctuary rooms above her garage. She is naive, but warm-hearted, as she struggles to comprehend the idea that a person can not only commit illegal acts, but can be illegal in the eyes of the law, too.

When I began the novel, I was not expecting to read about political and human rights issues. I was really surprised to discover Taylor navigating prejudices that are extremely close to home. Now that I’ve finished, I’m blown away with Taylor’s sweet-below-the-surface personality and firm beliefs in the extension of natural human rights to everyone, not just citizens. She finds more in common with Estevan, Esperanza, and Lou Ann Ruiz--her roommate--than she does with the other local folks she meets in town. Themselves displaced from their own points of origin, Taylor and her group form fast friendships and a loyal support system as binding as any family she could ever imagine. Together they help each other survive in a foreign land, everyone as much part rhizobia as part wisteria vine. They are an incongruous family, the titular bean trees, a confusing connotation of the more widely known and beautifully named wisteria vine.

Kingsolver’s debut novel is charmingly powerful and subtle in its celebration of families, whatever the form. I’m also entirely prejudiced when it comes to immigration issues and agree with Kingsolver’s politics here (there are a lot of people who will not). I think it’d be difficult to get through this novel coming at it with a closed or contrary mind that would disallow for the suspension of one’s own beliefs. The Bean Trees is filled with rich sentiments that call for an open mind and are impossible to ignore if you want to experience (and enjoy) the book to its fullest.

The best part about the book was the dialogue. Taylor and Lou Ann’s colloquial conversations are disarming and honest. It’s very easy to fall in love with their (and everyone else’s) quirks--they bloom from the pages as studies of characteristics we’ve all encountered before; Lou Ann, the worrisome young mother; Virgie, the bigoted senior citizen; Mattie, the bleeding heart. Because of this, The Bean Trees readily comes to life, vividly reminding us of real life issues still very pertinent to our society, even after twenty years. Even little Turtle, who speaks her strange vegetarian language, manages to communicate effectively, if a bit eccentrically, and found in me a sympathetic heart. She speaks a recipe of nourishment, sprinkled here with food, there with a small army of ‘Ma’s determined to raise her right. Like Taylor and Lou Ann finding reprieve in each other’s speech, she finds solace in surrounding her auditory world with comfortable, familiar things.

One of my favorites scenes is a complete spoiler, but I think it’s the most powerful in the entire book: emotional and transcendent, reaching far beyond the actions on the page. I’ve dwelt on the political issues, but what drives the narrative are the characters, their personal journeys, and the relationships they form with each other. While it may be difficult to appreciate those aspects without also understanding the politics of what motivates them, it’s hard not to grip the book firm with both hands when Taylor, Turtle, Estevan, and Esperanza sit nervously in Mr. Jonas Wilford Armistead’s office, certain that any sudden movements will break the spell and destroy not one, but four lives. I held my breath and absolutely could not put The Bean Trees down or risk psychologically damaging someone.

I had nothing to compare Kingsolver’s writing to. This is the only book of hers I’ve read so I can’t say where on a Kingsolver scale this would land, but I really liked it. What am I talking about? I loved this book. This is the type of literature I think everyone should read and try to understand. It opens a dialogue that I hope engages people in a positive way.

da AL

A gently told story of the power of love, of how the families we make are as important as the ones we're born into. Each of us can make a difference with our compassion.


I quite liked this, though it's obvious that this was Kingsolver's first novel. The main character, Taylor, is unevenly developed--she's too mutable, changing to fit what Kingsolver wants to say or how she wants to say it at various points in the book--and many of the other characters are types, not people, however finely observed. The plotline involving the refugees from Guatemala in particular was a little too anvilicious. And while it's set very definitely in the American South, the novel didn't seem reminiscent of it--I never really got a picture of Tuscon or Oklahoma in my head--because there was description but no feel.

What drew me into this book, though, were the hints of how vivid her writing would become by the time of The Poisonwood Bible: there are some really sharp and oddly beautiful observations, and when she's not trying too hard to drive home a point, her dialogue is nicely observed. Interesting, too, to see that is a book in which men are characterised almost solely by their absence. Enjoyable for the style and the promise, but not for the substance, I think.


I have to admit, this book really did a number on me. It was recommended to me from a friend, so my expectations were high, but after the first few chapters I was was not getting into it. The narrator's first-person voice was simple, non-descriptive, and frankly just a bit too naive to handle for an entire novel. But the story was interesting, so I kept going.

And the thing is, so does Taylor, the main character. As she charges her way through a haphazard journey to the Southwest, she begins to grow up right before your eyes, and so does her narrative voice. Slowly, her language becomes more mature, as do her observations. A story that started out very basic and straightforward becomes rich and multi-faceted. By the end I was shocked at the transformation that happened in just 200+ pages, just as Taylor must have been to see herself and her world change in less than a year.

I now have nothing but love for this adorable book. So roll your eyes all you want at the girl in the first few chapters, she'll grow on you.

Joy D

A young woman leaves home in Kentucky and heads off to establish a new life. Protagonist Marietta has never liked her name, so along her journey she changes her name to Taylor. In Oklahoma, her car breaks down. After repair, she goes to a restaurant, where a Cherokee woman bundles a small child into her car and drives away. The child appears to have been abused. When her car breaks down once again, Taylor and the child land in Tucson, Arizona. She rents a room from Lou Ann Ruiz, also from Kentucky, and they become fast friends. Lou Ann has a baby and has been abandoned by her husband.

This is a story of forming a sense of family with close friends and establishing a sense of home in a new location. It is a story of the relationships the foursome develops with the other characters, such as a pair of elderly ladies that watch the children and a woman that rescues Guatemalan refugees. It is a story of how a nurturing environment can help a child flourish. The title is fitting, as horticulture serves as an important symbol for the healing an abused child. Taylor’s lack of official parental authority is eventually questioned, which leads to the climax of the story.

I cared about the characters. They grow and develop over the course of the narrative. Taylor is a spirited protagonist and the dialogue reflects her it. She rubs off on Lou Ann, who initially lacks self-esteem. If you like novels about strong women pulling together to face life’s challenges, pick this one up.

Richard Derus

Real Rating: 1.5* of five

I made a huge mistake. I thought this was The Beans of Egypt, Maine. It wasn' was the hallucinations of a pregnant and sleep-deprived Kingsolver transmuted to fiction. I daresay its fans would say "art;" I beg to differ.

Like the unbearable gynergy of The Mists of Avalon, the fog of womanness that enshrouds this book blocked my view of its merits.


When I first read this book several years ago, I was terribly impressed by
1) her writing style, which I really like - I wish I could write like that
2) the interesting plot of a single girl who had avoided teenage pregnancy through her young life only to end up with someone else's baby
3) the relationship she has with her mother, who believes her daughter "hung the moon in the sky" and can absolutely do no wrong. I think it would be wonderful if my daughters came out of their childhoods not pregnant, and with the assurance that I think they are so wonderful.


So many things about this book bugged me.
1. Someone abandons a baby in your car and you don't get ahold of the police.
2. Someone abandons a baby, in your broken down car, you don't have a home or money or a destination in mind, so you decide to adopt baby.
3. You decide to adopt baby, but you spent the next several years being so bewildered by motherhood that you might as well have left baby in the car to be raised by coyotes.
4. Americans in general are directly responsible for the torture of innocent Guatemalans (in general) because an American manufactured telephone was disassembled and used for electric shock torture by the bad guy Guatemalans. This is your fault ugly American. You must take responsibility for any harm your good inventions cause when used completely out of context.
5. Where in the heck does she get her statistics for the random facts she throws in to odd character conversations? 1/4 of all girls are sexually assaulted by a relative? I'm an ER nurse. When you throw out a stat like that you better be ready to quote me your source and it better be peer reviewed.


"But nothing on this earth is guaranteed, when you get right down to it, you know? I've been thinking about that. About how your kids aren't really YOURS, they're just these people that you try to keep an eye on, and hope you'll all grow up someday to like eachother and still be in one piece. What I mean is, everything you get is really just on loan. Does that make sense?"

"Sure,"I said. "Like library books. Sooner or later they've all got to go back into the nightdrop."

I'm trying to get better about listening to more audiobooks in the car and less Top 40s best hits of today and your school days. Allow me to be perfectly clear: there is entertainment value in your child knowing all the words to Soulja Boy's romantic serenade "Kiss Me Through the Phone," but it's also rewarding for him to say that Barbara Kingsolver is a good storyteller, discuss immigrants, refugees, and murderous South American regimes on the way home from the bus stop, and groan when the narrator announces the last disc. "There's a sequel! We'll read it! Don't worry," I offered.

I picked The Bean Trees to rehabituate myself to the life of an audiobook commuter because I remembered reading another Barbara Kingsolver book in college, and I remembered her writing to be funny and engaging, I remembered she leans toward female protagonists that don't suck, and she wrote that book everyone loves, Animal Vegetable Miracle. I keep meaning to read AVM, but it's got such a long wait at the library. The Bean Trees had no waiting at all, and Sue Monk Kidd said it was one of her all-time favorites it in the Goodreads September newsletter. That's enough good reasons.

So I "read" the audiobook of The Bean Trees, and I enjoyed it. The pace of the story is occasionally more of a stroll than a walk, the characters fluctuate in ways that are more convenient for the plot than authentically human, and the dialogue trails off occasionally, leaving the reader hanging. All these things can be annoying, or charming, and I think they work well enough here. So, yes, it reads a little bit like a first novel, which it is. I was quite surprised to realize this was written in 1988 - a number of the sentiments and political views seem timely and contemporary, like Native parental rights & US immigration/refugee policies. This book has feminist characters and stories, it's structured around unconventional families, and includes an emphasis on community support in a way that's not contrived, hokey, or idealistic. Special bonus for the most amazing business name ever: Jesus is Lord Used Tires.

The most important things I hope I remember about this book:
1. The new year started on July 12, my birthday.
2. They spend a lot of time in Oklahoma, which I have done.
3. The ladies in this book are smart, independent, and they talk to each other about real life.
4. I just love a good, epic road trip with life-altering consequences.
5. There's a lady whose "power color" is red, and she wears it all the time. I love people with power colors.
6. The theme of unintentional single motherhood & parenting in a fairly unconventional way.