The Bean Trees

The Bean Trees Chapter 7 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The chapter opens as Lou Ann remembers a mnemonic device for spelling “arithmetic”: A Red Indian Thought He Might Eat Tobacco In Church. Lou Ann then begs pardon for talking about Indians that way, but neither Taylor, Mattie, nor either of the refugees staying with Mattie take offense. Mattie then tries to think of the memory trick for geography, but can’t remember the word for the y. A young man, the husband of the Guatemalan couple currently staying with Mattie, chimes in to finish the rhyme. As he was an English teacher in Guatemala City, Lou Ann and Taylor tell him that he knows better English than the two of them combined. Taylor can’t remember the young man’s name, knowing only that it starts with Es-something.
When Lou Ann apologies for talking about “Indians,” it’s unclear whether she is worried about offending Taylor (for Turtle’s sake) or the Guatemalan couple, as Kingsolver starts to connect Turtle and the Guatemalan couple. The husband’s superior knowledge of English shows that he “belongs” in America just as much or more than Lou Ann and Taylor, who were born here. He put effort into learning these English mnemonics that those who were born here did not.
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Taylor, Lou Ann, Mattie, and the two Guatemalan refugees are talking about spelling while on a picnic in the desert. Taylor is sweating in her jeans, as the weather has turned unseasonably warm again after the one frost on Valentine’s Day. Mattie says that the summer wildflowers blooming before Easter is a sign from the Lord that they all need to go have a picnic. Taylor skeptically wonders just who Mattie’s Lord is, but doesn’t mind following the enjoyable commandments he gives.
The unseasonable warmth is another sign that nature is suffering due to human actions, even as the main characters of the novel unabashedly enjoy the fruits of nature on their picnic. Mattie connects her love of nature to her spiritual beliefs. Kingsolver’s own regard for nature is as sacred as the religious beliefs that she talks about in the novel.
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The picnic spot is a watering hole that Lou Ann recommended, as it was a place that she and Angel used to go to together. Taylor worries that the location will bring back bad memories of Angel, but Lou Ann seems more concerned that the rest of them are happy with the picnic spot. Lou Ann even talks about how she and Angel wanted to get married here, except for the fact that Angel’s mother would have been aghast at the thought of either hiking or riding horseback this far into the desert. The English teacher translates this story into Spanish for his wife, and the humor of Angel’s overbearing mother is one of the few things that earns a smile from the quiet young woman.
Lou Ann is starting to display her own character and opinions, a far cry from her passive traits in Chapter 2. She is still dependent on her friend’s approval, but she has moved away from chasing Angel’s approval and by extension is rejecting a society that says women should try to please men. The family dynamics that Lou Ann describes cross the language and cultural barriers, as Kingsolver points out that family is universal.
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Taylor finally remembers the Guatemalan couples’ names: Estevan and Esperanza. She describes the married couple as more like twins, both for their matching names and their matching appearances. Both are small and dark with eyes that remind Taylor of Turtle’s Cherokee features, due to Estevan and Esperanza’s Mayan heritage. While Taylor thinks that Estevan’s smallness is sprightly, Esperanza’s smallness strikes her as sad – as if Esperanza used to be larger but shrunk. Esperanza’s silent watchfulness also reminds Taylor of Turtle.
Taylor describes the Guatemalan couple like two halves of a whole, the one true partnership between a man and a woman in the novel. Their appearances, as well as matching each other, match Turtle’s as Kingsolver sets up parallels between the couple and Turtle as fellow refugees and survivors. Esperanza’s “shrunken” appearance is reminiscent of the shrunken appearance of Turtle’s aunt after she gives up Turtle. This suggests that Esperanza had some sort of motherhood-related tragedy in her past.
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Taylor describes the strange scene when Esperanza first met Turtle. When she saw Turtle get out of the car at the trailhead to the picnic spot, Esperanza looked like she had been hit with an exploding tire, and her face paled. As they hike, Taylor thinks that Esperanza looks like a school girl from another time, with an orange canteen that sticks out as if from another planet. Taylor asks Estevan if Esperanza is okay, and he says that she is. He explains that Turtle simply looks like a child they once knew in Guatemala. Taylor responds that Turtle could be Guatemalan for all she knows, given that Turtle isn’t really Taylor’s daughter.
Taylor again talks about tragedy in terms of tires, cementing the idea that Turtle reminds Esperanza of some form of disaster she experienced in her past. Kingsolver also relates Esperanza to the innocence of nature, suggesting that the artificial plastic of the canteen does not belong to the earth the way that Esperanza does. Taylor first mentions the possibility of Estevan and Esperanza being Turtle’s parents as a joke, but this potential family will return again and again until the climax of the novel.
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At the watering hole, Esperanza continues to watch Turtle while Taylor and Estevan decide to go for a swim after finishing their baloney sandwiches. Lou Ann furiously warns them not to swim for at least an hour after eating, for fear they will drown. Taylor simply tells Lou Ann to pull them out if they start to sink, and dives into the freezing water. Taylor and Estevan splash Lou Ann and Mattie until Mattie and Lou Ann tell them that they won’t even dream of saving them after this bad behavior.
Taylor once again laughs off Lou Ann’s warning, as Kingsolver continually points out that endless worrying over disaster will not prevent those events. Both Taylor and Estevan dive into this danger, as their method of dealing with disaster is to face it head on.
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Calming down from the excitement, Estevan swims over to Esperanza’s rock and sings to her in Spanish. Taylor guesses that it is a love song and notes how handsome Estevan looks as he sings. Esperanza doesn’t seem to notice, entranced by the sight of Turtle and Dwayne Ray asleep in the sun. Taylor looks closer at the kids and sees Turtle’s eyes moving beneath her lids, as if she is dreaming of doing all the things that she simply watches in her waking life.
Taylor realizes that she is attracted to Estevan while they are in water, which the novel uses as a symbol of significant realizations. This is not the first time that Taylor has acknowledged that a man is handsome, but it is the first time that she has not treated that as something shameful. However, Estevan and Esperanza remain completely unaware of this epiphany and instead remind Taylor of her responsibility as Turtle’s mother. Taylor puts aside her attraction to Estevan in order to focus more fully on Turtle.
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The group leaves the picnic spot at dusk, with Estevan driving Mattie’s car because of Mattie’s terrible vision at night and Lou Ann, Taylor and the kids in Taylor’s car. Mattie warns Estevan not to attract the attention of the police, which Taylor finds odd considering how carefully Estevan drives. Lou Ann complains about her sunburn and tries to keep the kids entertained in the back seat when suddenly Estevan stops and Taylor has to slam on the breaks. Taylor worries about Turtle falling in the back seat, but Lou Ann assures her that Turtle is fine. Turtle is smiling, and may have even laughed at the sudden movement of the car.
Taylor does not understand the constant danger that Estevan and Esperanza are in due to their status as undocumented refugees. If they are stopped by the police, Estevan and Esperanza will be sent back to Guatemala. Kingsolver presents Taylor’s worries at Turtle’s tumble as normal for a new mother, but also points out Turtle’s resilience by having her laugh at this fall.
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Lou Ann and Taylor try to see what made Estevan stop, finally noticing a family of quail crossing the road in front of the car. Taylor, Lou Ann, and Turtle freeze as they watch the baby quail swarm in all directions around the mother quail, until final the mother manages to corral all her children safely into the bushes. Estevan taps the brake once more, as if winking the lights, and then continues driving. Taylor feels as if she is going to cry, but thinks that she must be about to get her period. Lou Ann mentions that Angel would have given himself two points for every quail he hit.
The quail, another instance of symbolic birds in the novel, are in a vulnerable position because of the road that humans have built through their habitat. Estevan, in contrast to Angel’s destructive masculinity, is sensitive to the birds’ danger. This moment makes Taylor even more attracted to Estevan, though she refuses to admit it to herself. Taylor also identifies with the mother quail, desperately trying to keep her babies safe like Taylor tries to keep Turtle safe.
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Taylor feels much better now that Turtle’s first sound was a laugh, taking it as a sign that she isn’t completely failing as a mother. Taylor laughs at herself for looking for signs, blaming it on Lou Ann’s avid interest in horoscopes and symbols. Yet when it happens, neither Lou Ann nor Taylor can make sense of Turtle’s true first word: Bean.
Both Turtle’s laugh and her first word point to Turtle’s ability to grow. Even though she has suffered more than any child should, she can still experience joy. Like a bean, which is small and ordinary at first, Turtle has the potential to grow into a beautiful plant.
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Turtle speaks her first word, bean, while she and Taylor are helping Mattie in the garden. Taylor tries to explain the concept of seeds to Turtle, a process that Mattie says Turtle will find confusing because most seeds don’t look like the vegetable they will grow into. Taylor decides to show Turtle a bean, which looks the same as the beans they eat, and Turtle names it accordingly. Taylor is dumbfounded at the sound of Turtle’s voice, until Mattie prompts her to praise Turtle for her effort. Taylor then hugs Turtle, calling her “the smartest kid alive.”
Taylor needs Mattie’s help with this momentous occasion in Turtle’s life, as she is still young enough to need motherly advice even though she is a mother herself. Taylor’s effusive praise of Turtle echoes the way that Taylor’s mother always unconditionally supported Taylor.
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Mattie suggests that Taylor take some beans home for Turtle to play with, and Taylor agrees (though she worries what Lou Ann will think of the choking hazard). Taylor explains to Turtle the difference between playing-with beans, eating beans, and putting-in-the-ground beans. Turtle seems to understand, playing quietly with her beans and then finally burying them in between two squash plants. On the way home, Turtle exclaims “bean” at every patch of dirt they see.
Taylor is starting to anticipate Lou Ann’s thoughts as they continue to grow closer as a family. Still, Taylor does not give in to Lou Ann’s worrying but prepares Turtle for this danger as best she can. Turtle, for her part, associates the beans with their potential to grow. These ritual “burials” show that Turtle has the potential to grow herself.
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At home, Lou Ann is cutting her hair again, something that has become an almost daily habit. Taylor warns Lou Ann that she will be bald if she keeps this up, saddened by the fact that Lou Ann probably never noticed that she had the type of perfectly straight blonde hair that all the high school girls envied. Instead, Lou Ann focuses on her flaws. Lou Ann wails that her hair looks like it has died, and Taylor hesitates to either agree or contradict her, as Lou Ann manages to turn even compliments about her appearance into insults. Taylor wishes she could give Lou Ann a lucky shirt like she did for Turtle, to remind Lou Ann how beautiful she really is.
Kingsolver laments the ever-changing standards of beauty for American women as Lou Ann struggles to understand that she is beautiful without even trying. Taylor managed to escape those worries, probably through the unwavering support of her own mother. The t-shirt that Taylor gave Turtle is a sign that Taylor will raise Turtle to find her own beauty as well, but Taylor cannot do the same to reprogram Lou Ann’s years of internalized sexism.
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As Lou Ann worries over her hair, Taylor starts to prepare for Esperanza and Estevan to come over for dinner. Lou Ann invited them over to watch Mattie who was appearing on the evening news, forgetting that Angel had taken their little TV when he moved out. Taylor corrects this by inviting over some neighbors who own a portable TV, Edna Poppy and Virgie Parsons. Though Taylor hasn’t met them yet, she knows that Lou Ann likes them, and owes them a favor for watching Dwayne Ray occasionally.
Taylor’s little community is growing, as she wants to invite Estevan, Esperanza, Edna, and Virgie into her home. The extra-familial bonds give each person something that they cannot provide for themselves, as Edna and Virgie bring the TV, and Taylor provides the food. Kingsolver suggests that this type of sharing may be uncommon in large cities today but is an important component of human society.
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As Taylor cooks dinner, she mulls over the arrangement she and Lou Ann have made over household chores. Taylor wants to make sure that Lou Ann feels repaid for the times she watches Turtle. The two women also split the bills, with Taylor working and Lou Ann drawing from savings that Angel left. Taylor is cooking sweet and sour chicken for the party, though she had originally planned to make navy bean soup in honor of Turtle’s first word. By now, Turtle has said so many new words that Taylor can’t fit them all into any soup – even if Turtle’s vocabulary is limited to vegetables alone.
Lou Ann and Taylor’s partnership is as equal as possible, as the two women attempt to avoid the struggle for dominance that they have seen in relationships between men and women. Turtle is thriving in this environment, and each new veggie that she pronounces seems like another sign of her emotional growth.
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Lou Ann worries about what to wear for the party, considering that she is heavier after giving birth to Dwayne Ray. Taylor refuses to hear Lou Ann call herself fat, forcing Lou Ann to change the subject to Mattie’s TV appearance. Lou Ann doesn’t know exactly why Mattie will be on TV, only that it has something to do with “the people that live with her,” but Lou Ann is sure that she wouldn’t want to be on TV herself.
Lou Ann is still preoccupied by the weight she gained while pregnant, not seeing that these extra pounds are a normal outcome of her new role as a mother. Lou Ann and Taylor’s ignorance about Mattie’s immigrant relief efforts show how people who belong in America by birth don’t always recognize their privilege or even consider welcoming in new immigrants.
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Lou Ann compares her fear of being on TV to her childhood fear of saying something inappropriate in church, and Taylor agrees that she is always afraid that she will say something scandalous to Mattie’s Catholic priest friend. Lou Ann likens this to a strange episode in high school, when she worried that she was going to throw herself off of the dome at the Kentucky state capital. Her boyfriend at the time called it a fear of heights, but Lou Ann knows that it is something else. Taylor calls it a “fear that the things you imagine will turn real” and Lou Ann is shocked that Taylor understands so exactly. Taylor just shrugs, saying she saw a Star Trek episode along those lines.
Lou Ann, who sees disaster everywhere, takes it one step further by thinking that just imagining these things my cause them to happen. While a previous boyfriend misread this fear as a simpler fear of heights, Taylor understands Lou Ann’s complex motives. Taylor is able to meet Lou Ann at a deeper level than any of the males in her life have, even though Taylor continues to joke about this connection.
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Estevan and Esperanza arrive. Estevan compliments Taylor’s new look, thanks to Lou Ann’s ministrations and a borrowed Chinese style dress, but Taylor thinks that Esperanza looks even more beautiful. Esperanza’s Guatemalan dress is a rainbow riot of colors and Taylor can’t believe that Esperanza had to leave a country whose vegetation matched the vibrant colors on Esperanza’s clothing.
Taylor’s look borrows (and arguably appropriates) fashion from another culture, as many American trends have done. Esperanza’s dress, however, belongs to Esperanza’s own heritage. Taylor seems jealous of how completely Esperanza belongs to her own culture, as Taylor has never been entirely comfortable in her American homes.
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The women from next door finally show up with the television, and Taylor helps Edna Poppy set it up. Edna is dressed entirely in red, while Virgie Mae looks like she is in her formal church wear. On TV, Mattie starts to talk about the United Nations “something-something” on human rights. The program continues to explain the plight of thousands of Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants who flee civil wars but are not granted asylum in the United States. Taylor finds it all hard to understand, made worse by the hubbub of the guests still getting comfortable.
Edna’s red outfit appeals to Taylor, who has previously mentioned her affinity for the color. Virgie’s dress, however, reminds Taylor of the formality and judgment that some people associate with religion. When Mattie starts talking on the TV, Kingsolver specifically does not explain what Mattie is talking about. Taylor’s ignorance on the immigrant crisis mirrors how many Americans in the 70s and 80s had no idea of the struggle that these people faced.
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As Edna and Virgie finally settle in, the TV program Mattie appeared on ends. Virgie sniffs, saying that all she caught was “some kind of trouble with illegal aliens and dope peddlers.” Taylor then tries to introduce Estevan and Esperanza, but Estevan cuts in to introduce himself as Steven and his wife as Hope. Virgie asks if Turtle, who is wandering around “like a wild Indian” without a shirt on, is theirs but Estevan tells her that they have no children. Esperanza looks like she has been slapped. Taylor claims Turtle as her own, proudly stating that Turtle is a wild Indian, and ushers the group into the kitchen for dinner.
Virgie represents the viewpoint of many Americans who only see the problems that immigrants might cause in America, subtly echoing Lou Ann’s earlier fear of the things she imagines becoming real. Virgie lets her fear rule her life rather than seeing the human element of immigration. Estevan understands this and tries to pass himself and his wife off as Americans with American names. Virgie mistakenly thinks that Turtle is Estevan’s daughter, as Kingsolver continues to point out this possible family. Yet Taylor, Turtle’s real mother, refuses to be cowed by Virgie’s judgement and proudly revels in Turtle’s “Indian” heritage.
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Esperanza comes into the kitchen to help Taylor set the table, and Taylor apologizes for Virgie’s rudeness. As everyone comes in, Taylor looks over Virgie and Edna’s outfits again. Edna has two red bobby pins in her hair, and Taylor imagines the sweet older woman finding them in the drug store and trying to share her excitement with Virgie only to find Virgie lecturing the check-out boy.
Taylor, for all that she is ashamed by Virgie’s judgment of immigrants, also makes the mistake of judging Virgie. She imagines that Edna is always sweet while Virgie is always sour even though she has no way of knowing what these women are actually like.
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Estevan brings out a package of chopsticks for everyone to use. Taylor thanks him, but Edna pronounces herself not up for such a “great adventure” and Virgie sniffs at “such foolishness.” Everyone else attempts to use the chopsticks, learning from Estevan who works as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant. Estevan relates how the Chinese family translates English through their five-year-old daughter, which sends Virgie on a diatribe against immigrants stealing jobs in America and degrading the language. Edna stops her, but Taylor is angry at what these comments might mean to Estevan. She wants to tell Virgie that Estevan was an English teacher in Guatemala City, but notices that Estevan himself is staying calm and decides to stay quiet herself.
Estevan continues to show his openness to new cultures. Edna and Virgie however, are not ready to change their ways – though Virgie is much more critical of these new additions to American life than Edna is. Taylor wants to prove Virgie wrong, a testament to her courage and loyalty to her friends, but she is too rash in her anger. Estevan is much more even-tempered, knowing that the risk of exposing his and his wife’s background is far more important than proving a point to someone who will likely not change her opinion anyway.
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After Virgie’s outburst, Edna smooths out the mood by complimenting the food. Turtle finally manages to spear a piece of pineapple on her chopstick, but starts to cry when it slides off. Estevan comforts Turtle with a “wild Indian” story from South America about heaven and hell. Virgie makes a face, but Estevan continues: In hell, there is a pot of stew, but no one can eat because their spoons are too long for their arms. No one can reach his own mouth and so they starve. Estevan looks right at Virgie and goes on: In heaven, there is the same stew and the same long spoons yet everyone is well fed—because they feed each other. Then Estevan picks up a piece of pineapple with his chopsticks and feeds it to Turtle.
Edna and Virgie are another complex duo of women, seemingly completing each other in ways that no man could. Meanwhile, Estevan manages to drive home Kingsolver’s point about the importance of community. Heaven is only a paradise because people choose to feed each other instead of always worrying about themselves. Likewise, those in America who are scared of the changes that immigrants would bring should focus more on how they can help people in need rather than futilely attempting to preserve the status quo.
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