The Bean Trees

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The Bean Trees Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The first frost of winter comes on Valentine’s Day and all of Mattie’s plants start to die. Taylor is saddened by this but Mattie is unfazed. Mattie says that this is simply the cycle of life, but Taylor thinks that Mattie is gloating a bit because she had the foresight to pick the green tomatoes before the frost came.
The frost comes on Valentine’s Day, a bad sign on a holiday intended to celebrate romance and warmth. Mattie turns this into a good thing, though, by spinning the frost as a gift from nature so that the green tomatoes would be ready. Through Mattie’s eyes, nature is able to adapt to any so-called “disaster.”
Themes
Nature Theme Icon
Disaster and Survival Theme Icon
Taylor has decided to take a job at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, something she hates because of her fear of tires, but also loves because of her friendship with Mattie. At first, Taylor tried to change the subject whenever Mattie talked about needing extra help, but Mattie stubbornly insists that Taylor would have an aptitude for tires. Finally, Mattie offers to fix Taylor’s car for free if Taylor takes the job, and Taylor knows she can’t say no. The working arrangement is perfect, because Turtle can come in to work if Lou Ann can’t watch her.
Mattie’s attitude toward disaster is to face it head-on, as she suggests that Taylor should do by confronting her fear of tires. Mattie becomes a surrogate mother for Taylor, encouraging Taylor to reach toward her goals even when it is difficult. This calls back to Taylor’s mother’s advice the first time she was scared to take a job in Chapter 1.
Themes
Family and Motherhood Theme Icon
Disaster and Survival Theme Icon
Taylor finds out that Mattie lets many Spanish-speaking families stay in her upper room, which Mattie says is a “Sanctuary.” Taylor compares this to a bird sanctuary where birds cannot be shot, and Mattie is content to leave the explanation there. The priest that Taylor saw the first day she came to Jesus Is Lord Used Tires brings the refugee families to and from Mattie’s back door. Father William wears a belt buckle with a stick figure in a maze (a Native American symbol for life) and Taylor finds him both oddly handsome for a priest and oddly old for his young age. Taylor remembers later that she had a book of poems as a child that included the poem “You are Old, Father William.”
Birds are a symbol of vulnerability in the novel, just as the families that Mattie helps are in an incredibly vulnerable position as undocumented immigrants in the United States. Father William’s name, though obviously a sign of his Catholic position, is also a reminder of the family that Mattie and Father William create for these immigrants. Father William’s belt buckle then represents the sanctuary’s attempt to guide these refugees safely through life.
Themes
Family and Motherhood Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
Disaster and Survival Theme Icon
Taylor congratulates herself for how well she is hiding her fear of tires, but Mattie notices how jumpy she is around the shop. Mattie asks her what she is afraid of, saying that anything is okay as long as Taylor is not running from the law. Taylor wonders why Mattie has had so much experience with people running from the law. After some deliberation, Taylor decides to admit to Mattie that she has a “chicken-shit” fear of exploding tires. Mattie looks at Taylor with disbelief, and then throws a can of water at Taylor. Taylor catches it, barely, as Mattie explains that an exploding tire would not have any more force than that can of water.
Like a real mother, Mattie is able to see when Taylor is uncomfortable and trying to hide it. Taylor’s “chicken-shit” fear uses the bird as a symbol of how vulnerable coming clean about her fears makes her feel. Mattie teaches Taylor how to deal with this fear and how to have a practical approach toward disaster in general. Taylor needs to learn that some things may hurt, but that she is capable of survival.
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Disaster and Survival Theme Icon
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Taylor, still wary, explains to Mattie that she once saw a man blown in to the air because of an exploding tire, but Mattie tells Taylor not to worry unless it is a tractor tire. Taylor is comforted, though still afraid, and realizes that it is better to live your life as fully as possible than to stay paralyzed by fear. Taylor offers to help Mattie if there ever is a tractor tire in the shop, then pours the can of water out on Mattie’s bean plants. As Taylor wonders why the bean plants didn’t die in the frost as the other plants did and idly watches a young boy ride past with a bunch of roses, she realizes that Mattie is watching her in such a motherly fashion that she aches to see her own mother.
Taylor’s fear of tires now becomes a desire to help Mattie if disaster (symbolized by a tractor tire) ever comes. Using the watering can from her tire lesson to water the bean plants metaphorically explains how Taylor will use this lesson about being prepared to survive disaster to grow as a person. Mattie’s place as Taylor’s surrogate mother is cemented in that last look, as the boy riding past with the roses reminds us how Valentine’s Day can also be used to celebrate other types of familial love.
Themes
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Disaster and Survival Theme Icon
After, work, Taylor goes to buy Turtle some books to look at. She chooses Old MacDonald Had an Apartment House, because the small garden in the book reminds her of Mattie and because the pages are thick enough to withstand Turtle’s tough grip. While shopping, Taylor also picks out a Valentine’s Day card for her mother. Taylor still feels guilty for betraying her mother by changing her name, even though when her mother found out she had said that Taylor fits her better than Marietta ever had. Taylor eventually decides on a card with a picture of a pipe wrench inside as a joke to help her mother open tight jar lids.
Like the apartment garden, Turtle will thrive in the city environment that Taylor creates for her. Taylor’s thoughts of her own mother suggest that she is feeling guilty for changing her whole identity more than just her name, but her mother is smart and strong enough to know that children have to change as they grow up. The card that Taylor picks is another sign of how Taylor does not feel that she needs male help in her life, using a pipe wrench rather than a husband to open a jar.
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When Taylor gets home, she finds out that Lou Ann has bought a baby name book for Turtle. Lou Ann reads out names to Turtle as she cooks dinner, but Turtle and Dwayne Ray both just stare into space as they sit in high chairs at the table. Lou Ann is reading names from the L’s when Taylor comes in and she excitedly tells Taylor that the name Lou Ann is on the exact middle page of the book. Taylor scoffs at any meaning this might have, saying that the only name book their parents had was the Bible.
Though Turtle is much older than Dwayne Ray, the two children seem to be developmentally at the same place. Turtle’s lack of a real family at birth stunted her emotional growth, and her emotional maturity should instead perhaps be counted from the day that Taylor became her mother. Lou Ann still sees symbolism in everything.
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In a bad mood, Taylor tells Lou Ann that trying to find out Turtle’s name is foolish, but Lou Ann insists that they have to try to find Turtle’s personality beyond her habit of grabbing on to things. Lou Ann tells Taylor to play with Turtle more to help her develop a personality. Taylor, hurt at this comment, snaps at Lou Ann that she bought a book for Turtle today. Lou Ann apologizes and changes the subject to the borscht soup she has made. Taylor imagines Lou Ann trying to find recipes that use the vegetables that Taylor brings home from Mattie’s garden and laments the fact that Lou Ann is starving herself to get rid of the non-existent baby weight she gained. Taylor apologizes in turn, telling Lou Ann that she just had a bad day.
Lou Ann’s attempts to find Turtle’s real name are an attempt to recover Turtle’s time with her birth family, but Taylor is resistant to anything that will distance Turtle from being truly hers. As a young mother, Taylor is not able to accept that Turtle may not always have the name that Taylor chose for her, even though Taylor’s own mother just gave her an example of how to deal with that exact situation. However, Taylor’s mother has had more time to see Taylor’s true personality, something that Turtle has not yet been able to display. Lou Ann oddly parallels Turtle’s lack of growth, specifically not eating so that she will shrink back to the most conventionally attractive version of herself. Lou Ann is uncomfortable with both the metaphorical and literal weight of being a mother.
Themes
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Taylor starts to feed Turtle some borscht soup, while Lou Ann warns her not to give Turtle any peas so she won’t choke. Lou Ann sees disaster everywhere, even saving newspaper clippings of freak disasters around the country. Lou Ann considers anything involved in these accidents, even innocuous things like Frisbees, to be dangerous. Taylor assures Lou Ann that she will be very careful about what Turtle eats and Lou Ann settles down to eat herself, commenting that her Granny Logan would never eat a Russian soup like borscht for fear of communism.
Lou Ann again sees disaster in everyday circumstances, a worry that neither helps prevent these disasters nor would make it easier to handle them if they did come true. Taylor, for her part, knows that Turtle needs the nourishment of the vegetables in the soup so that her growth is not stunted any more than it has been. Lou Ann’s family rejects this potential growth in another way, refusing to learn from other cultures for fear of any change.
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That night, after the kids are put to sleep, Taylor realizes that she is uncomfortable with the family dynamic that she and Lou Ann have fallen into with Lou Ann caring for the kids and Taylor working all day. Lou Ann comes in with the baby name book and Taylor decides to talk to her about this feeling, giving Lou Ann a beer to prepare her for the conversation. Taylor tries to explain how she likes Lou Ann and appreciates her help, but doesn’t want Lou Ann to feel obligated to do things for her as if they were a real family. Three beers later, with plenty of snacks as well, Lou Ann is crying while Taylor wonders aloud why she is acting like a workaholic father when she never even knew her dad. Taylor blames this emotional outburst on the junk food they’ve been eating.
Taylor realizes that she is performing the traditional “father” role of the family by going to work and leaving Lou Ann to the traditional “mother” role at home with the kids. While Taylor has no problem acting in a male position, enforcing these gender roles is not healthy for either woman. However, the way that Taylor explains it opens up the question of whether she and Lou Ann are a “real” family. The unnatural, processed food that Lou Ann and Taylor are eating reinforces how Taylor sees this family as an unnatural construct at the moment.
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A while into this conversation about families, Lou Ann goes very still and Taylor thinks that she is choking. Lou Ann then covers her eyes and wails that she never drinks because she is afraid to lose control. Lou Ann’s biggest fear is that she will lose all her friends because she says something stupid in a momentary lapse of control, an idea that Taylor calls a “weird theory of friendship.”
Lou Ann’s fear of losing control suggests that she thinks that she can avert disaster if she is in control at all times. Taylor’s response is a reminder that the only way to deal with disaster is to lean on your friends and family when it happens.
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Lou Ann recounts an embarrassing experience she had while drinking. She and Angel went to look for a meteor shower with some friends and a bottle of tequila, but one friend lost an earring and Lou Ann spent the whole night looking for it. The next morning, Angel kept talking about the wonderful meteor shower and teasing Lou Ann for not remembering it. Taylor can’t decide how this makes her feel about Angel, a man sensitive enough to go star-gazing, but crude enough to tease Lou Ann about missing something that may never have happened. Taylor asks Lou Ann if she ever checked with the friends to see if the meteor shower actually happened, but Lou Ann says that the friends moved to San Diego. In any event, Lou Ann says that the meteor shower is not the point, as what she is truly concerned about is the troubling possibility of a lapse in memory.
Angel displays an emotional abuse tactic known as gas-lighting, in which an abuser convinces another person that their view of reality is false. Specifically, Angel convinces Lou Ann that her memories of the meteor shower are incorrect, as Kingsolver examines the shades of domestic abuse in Lou Ann’s marriage. Lou Ann needs the support of another woman to recover from this, as Taylor tries to help Lou Ann come to terms with these lies. Lou Ann doesn’t seem ready yet to place the blame on anyone but herself.
Themes
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Still melancholy, Lou Ann mourns her lack of a husband on Valentine’s Day. Taylor doesn’t know how to comfort her, thinking that Lou Ann will only hear what she wants to. Taylor looks at Lou Ann lying flat on the couch and thinks about Lou Ann’s father, who was killed when his tractor rolled over and flattened him. Lou Ann interrupts Taylor’s morbid thoughts to wonder whether it was her fault that Angel left. Lou Ann insists that something is wrong with her because people are supposed to love the same person their whole lives, but Taylor just tells her that she reads too many magazines.
Lou Ann is still wrapped up in the vision of conventional love, even though she was unhappy with Angel. Taylor’s musings about Lou Ann’s father bring in the idea that Lou Ann’s childhood upbringing colored her view of healthy relationships for life, as Kingsolver again points out how much influence family has on a person’s life. Taylor, raised by a single mother, never bought into those ideas of conventional family, but Lou Ann is still not ready to let them go.
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Taylor goes to get more junk food from the fridge, even as she thinks that too much junk food will kill them. She tells Lou Ann her theory on “staying with one man your whole life long,” which involves Taylor’s experience fixing a toilet. As Taylor replaced a part in the toilet tank, the packaging read “No installation requires all of the parts,” a philosophy that Taylor has carried over into her love life. No one man could possibly understand all of Taylor’s parts. Lou Ann laughs, once again covering her mouth, and Taylor wonders who shamed Lou Ann about her laugh. To keep Lou Ann laughing, Taylor starts ranting about all of her parts as if she is a chicken that men want to pick apart and eat.
Taylor uses two metaphors about romance between men and women, both of which paint these relationships in an unflattering light. The toilet metaphor suggests that all the parts of a woman’s personality, both the stereotypically masculine and the feminine traits, will never reach their full potential in a relationship with a man. The chicken metaphor, bringing in the bird symbolism that threads through the novel, accentuates the vulnerability that women have in a male-centric society that prioritizes male appetites (sexual or otherwise) above female safety, as Taylor describes her body being metaphorically consumed by men.
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Lou Ann and Taylor keep laughing, so Taylor shows Lou Ann the wrench card she got for her mother. Lou Ann laughs harder, trying to remember the name of the tool that looks like a “weenie,” and Taylor comments that all tools look like either weenies or guns. Lou Ann laughs harder at the thought of sending a card like that to her own mother and grandmother. Finally in a good mood, Taylor thinks that Lou Ann looks like an Egyptian queen laid out on her couch. Lou Ann tells Taylor that Angel never would have stayed up all night to talk about something that was bothering him, and asks if Taylor is still mad. Taylor responds, “Peace, sister,” knowing that this 70s slang is woefully out of date anywhere but her hometown in Kentucky.
Taylor wants to help Lou Ann reach the place of feminine independence that she and her mother have embraced. The two women make fun of the male ego as Kingsolver jokes at calling men “tools” who are attracted to phallic shapes. Taylor references Egyptian queens such as Cleopatra or Nefertiti whose strength and intelligence were overshadowed by the males in their lives, like Lou Ann was stifled by Angel. Taylor presents a better way to form a family, with the two women as equal sisters rather than one partner being stronger than the other.
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