The Bean Trees: Novel Summary
Chapter 1 - 4
The protagonist grew up in rural Kentucky. Her name is Marietta, but everyone calls her Missy because when she was three she insisted upon being called "Miss," just like the rich children for whom her mother worked. However, she does not keep this name long, adopting the name of Taylor when she leaves Kentucky.
She explains that she decided not to get pregnant and to finish school because she does not want to be tied down in Kentucky. She gets a job in the local hospital and saves up enough money to buy an old car. In this car, she escapes a life where the town low-life family, the Hardbines, is a symbol of the desperation a life in rural Kentucky could become.
In Oklahoma on the Cherokee Nation, an Amerindian woman gives her a toddler and asks her to take care of it. Taylor finds a motel willing to put her up for free and bathes the child. She discovers that it is a girl who has been horribly abused and molested. Now she realizes why the woman wanted to find a safe home for the child and that she is destined to take care of it.
Lou Ann Ruiz comes from Kentucky and lives in Tucson, Arizona. Her husband, Angel, got into an accident three years ago and lost one leg. While Lou Ann was never bothered by this, Angel changed after the accident. Now, she is seven months pregnant, and she knows their marriage has fallen apart.
Angel leaves Lou Ann on Halloween. He takes many things he thinks of as his. She is left alone and unable to reach down to take off her shoes. She goes to sleep in her pantyhose and shoes and cries.
Taylor stays at the motel for a few weeks, earning some money. She gives the child the name Turtle till she can figure out her real name. The child does not speak and seems developmentally delayed, but Taylor believes she simply has her own way of doing things. After the New Year, the two head onto the road again.
Due to a hailstorm, Taylor ends up getting off the highway in Tucson, where she gets two flat tires. This causes her to meet Mattie, the proprietor of Jesus is Lord Used Tires. Mattie's late husband gave the business its peculiar name. She is kind to Taylor and Turtle. Taylor cannot afford to replace the tires. She looks for a job but wonders what she will do with Turtle while she is working.
Lou Ann has the baby on January 1. Her mother and grandmother come to visit for two weeks. Angel moves back in so that the women will not know they are getting a divorce. Lou Ann's mother, Ivy, is always in a fight with her grandmother, Granny Logan. They have lived together since Ivy married. Lou Ann talks to her mother about that, as she is so far away from her family.
After the women get on the bus to go back to Kentucky, Lou Ann stops to buy vegetables from Bobby Bingo, who sells them out of his truck. When she gets home, she nurses Dwayne Ray. When Angel gets home, he packs up his shaving supplies to leave.
The first four chapters set up the women's personalities. Taylor is tough. She sets her mind to something and then accomplishes it through pure grit. She does not get pregnant or drop out of high school because she decided not to. She does believe in fate, knowing that fate brought her to Turtle. However, she also believes that a person can make a bit of her own fate. So, although she wants to let fate decide her new name by simply taking the name of the place where she runs out of gas, she makes her car go a little longer till she gets to a place with a nice name.
Lou Ann, on the other hand, just waits for things to happen to her. She "expected that a divorce would just develop, like a pregnancy" (26). She does not fight the things that happen to her, instead avoiding conflict as much as possible. She agrees to baptize the baby Catholic because the Catholic grandmother lives nearby and could put up more of a fight. However, she does have her own kind of strength. She loves with fervor, and when Angel was injured, she doubled her devotion to him. It is only when he pulls away from her that she loses that feeling.
Both women are down on their luck. Both have children who are dependent upon them. And both need the kind of help that only other women can provide. That is why Mattie's friendship is such a relief to Taylor and why Lou Ann feels empty when her mother and grandmother leave.
It is also important to note that Taylor's chapters are in first person, while Lou Ann's are in third person. Thus, while Lou Ann is an important character, this is Taylor's story.