Taylor finds out that her mother is getting remarried, to a man named Harland Elleston who works at a car body paint shop in Pittman County, Kentucky. Taylor is incredulous, both that Lou Ann was the one to receive this important phone call and that her mother is getting married at all. Taylor calls her mother, and they chatter about the gardening peculiarities of Arizona before Taylor’s mother confesses that she is as surprised by the wedding as Taylor is. In her whirlwind of emotions, Taylor’s mother remembers to ask how Turtle is doing. Taylor tells her mother that Turtle finally started talking and Taylor’s mother says that Taylor herself was late to talk too. Taylor wonders why that matters, as Turtle is not biologically related.
Taylor’s mother was the ultimate symbol of female independence to Taylor, which is why Taylor is so disturbed by the news that her mother is getting married. Yet it is clearly still possible to be a feminist and be married to a man, as Taylor’s mother does not compromise anything of her own identity in getting married. The conversation about gardens subtly hints that this moment will be a growth opportunity for both Taylor and her mother. Taylor’s mother also shows how she fully accepts Turtle as part of their family, even though she is not Taylor’s biological child.
Lou Ann is much more excited about the prospect of a wedding than Taylor is, as Taylor can only focus on how her mother will never come out to Arizona now that she has married a Kentucky man. Lou Ann says that Taylor is jealous, just like Lou Ann was when her brother married and “deserted” their family. Lou Ann’s Granny Logan was aghast at the girl’s “Eskimo” heritage, while Lou Ann found the whole thing exotic.
Marriage can either add people to a person’s family, or steal them away, and Taylor definitely feels that her mother is leaving their family by getting married. It would be easy to read this as a gendered decision, but Lou Ann also brings up her brother as an example. Both men and women can choose to desert their family or stay connected to them when they get married.
Lou Ann and Taylor are talking about the upcoming wedding while their kids play in Roosevelt park, which the neighborhood kids call Dead Grass Park and Dog Doo Park because it is so scraggly and unkempt. Lou Ann sums up Taylor’s discomfort by telling her to focus on the good news that her mother still has a life. Lou Ann’s own mother practically died when her husband did, and Lou Ann would be ecstatic if her mother remarried. Lou Ann suggests that her mother should marry Bobby Bingo, the vegetable seller, so that Bobby and Turtle can talk vegetables all day.
Roosevelt park, which could have been an oasis of nature in the city of Tucson, is another sign of how humans do not take care of nature. Lou Ann’s mother is a sad vision of what Lou Ann could have become without Angel, but luckily Lou Ann seems focused on building her own identity. Her reference to Bobby Bingo’s vegetables, while a joke, is also a sign of Lou Ann’s desire for self-growth.
Taylor is still upset that her mother is going to marry a man who isn’t “related” to them. Lou Ann reminds Taylor that she never seems to like any men, to which Taylor responds that she likes Estevan. As she says so, Taylor feels her heart jump a beat and realizes that she has romantic feelings for Estevan. Lou Ann dismisses Estevan as “taken” and tells Taylor that she should try harder to find a good man for herself.
Just like Lou Ann felt that living with Angel was like living with a stranger, Taylor also has trouble thinking that men and women can be truly family. Estevan’s sensitivity and charm have allowed Taylor to see him as a fellow human rather than another strange man.
Lou Ann starts to daydream about when she first met Angel. Though the only good thing to come out of their relationship was Dwayne Ray, Lou Ann stills finds Angel’s old rodeo persona deeply romantic. Lou Ann wanted to catch Angel’s eye because he had seemed so bored even with the excitement of the rodeo all around him.
From the very beginning, Lou Ann and Angel’s relationship was unequal. Lou Ann and Angel’s relationship was built on Lou Ann trying to impress Angel and live up to his high standards.
As Lou Ann talks, a boy in a Michael Jackson t-shirt runs up and tells Lou Ann that he recognizes her from when she gave out pennies on Halloween. Lou Ann rolls her eyes at this reminder of her past embarrassment, but the boy just warns Lou Ann and Taylor not to stay in the park after the bums come at nightfall, and rides off. Taylor and Lou Ann are sitting in the arbor, the nicest part of the park with a trellis covered in wisteria vines. Taylor is pleasantly surprised when the wisteria vines bloom after looking dead all winter, comparing it to the Bible story of striking water out of a rock. These flowers out of bare dirt are the Miracle of Dog Doo Park.
The boy from the park reminds Lou Ann of the pennies, a small fund that Lou Ann had started for a washing machine that Angel had never supported. However romantic Lou Ann found Angel, he was never a true partner to her. The boy’s warning about the bums foreshadows that this park can be a dangerous place. The wisteria vines, which Turtle later compares to bean trees, grow in poor soil, just like many of the characters in the novel (Turtle especially) must miraculously grow in tough circumstances.
Lou Ann circles back to talking about Taylor’s mother. Taylor scoffs that her mother, already named Alice Jean Stamper Greer, doesn’t need to add Elleston to the end, but Lou Ann finds the whole thing romantic. Lou Ann teases Taylor by singing about her mother and Harland, and Taylor starts singing to drown them out, until the two women see their neighbors, Mrs. Parsons and Edna Poppy. They wave to their neighbors, and Turtle waves back, thinking that Taylor is waving at her.
Significantly, Taylor suggests that her mother will add another last name rather than replacing Greer with Elleston. This shows that Taylor will always consider her mother a part of her family first, no matter what other families she joins. Turtle is starting to engage with people, noticing her mother’s greeting and greeting her in return – a far cry from her previous blank stare.
Taylor and Lou Ann have started leaving Turtle and Dwayne Ray with Edna Poppy and Virgie Mae Parsons a couple of times a week. Turtle calls them Poppy and Parsnip, keeping up her trend of speaking solely in vegetables. Turtle greets Edna as “Ma Poppy,” just as she adds ‘ma’ to the beginning of every woman’s name. Edna and Virgie walk slowly toward the little group, Edna dressed all in red and Virgie dressed in “old lady clothing.” Edna has worn all red since she was 16, a trait that Taylor admires. Taylor also admires Edna’s forthright speech, even though the older woman never looks at people when she talks. Edna and Virgie say hello, and Virgie warns Lou Ann that Angel may be looking for her.
Vegetables are still a positive force in Turtle’s imagination, a symbol of all the growth that she will accomplish. Turtle sees the goodness in Edna and Virgie, calling Edna a beautiful red flower, while Virgie is parsnip, a harsher vegetable that is nonetheless very nutritious. Though Taylor doesn’t know it, Turtle’s habit of adding ma to women’s names is presumably a tradition in her birth family, a well as a reminder of the new familial bonds that Turtle is building with her community in Tucson.
When Edna and Virgie leave, Lou Ann wonders why Angel would want to see her again. Taylor, however, wonders why sweet Edna puts up with sour Virgie. Lou Ann says that Virgie is harmless, just a stubborn woman like her Granny Logan. Yet, Lou Ann adds that her Granny Logan is different because she is only mean to her own relatives. Finally, Taylor summons her courage to ask Lou Ann questions she’s been wondering about: if Lou Ann would ever take Angel back, even if it meant that Taylor and Turtle had to move out. Lou Ann, surprised at the question, just says that Angel is her husband.
Lou Ann accepts that her grandmother is mean to family, as Lou Ann’s experience of family is not a group of people who support each other unconditionally. This helps explain why she claims Angel as her husband even though he doesn’t support Lou Ann like a husband ideally should. Taylor’s nerves over Angel make sense, as she doesn’t know if Lou Ann will go back to the harmful but socially-acceptable family that she has always known, or stay committed to the healthier family they are creating.
Taylor goes into work the next day still bothered by what Virgie said about immigrants the night they all had dinner together. She apologizes to Estevan and says that Virgie didn’t really mean it. Estevan just shrugs and says that Americans tend to believe that bad things only happen to bad people. Taylor wants to disagree, but knows that it is probably true, if only because it “makes us feel safe.”
According to Estevan’s view of American logic, he and Esperanza must have done something terrible in order to be forced to leave their home. Taylor points out that this argument makes people feel safe because it gives people a sense of control over these disasters.
Estevan and Taylor chat often, as Estevan gets ready to catch his bus from Mattie’s office to his work. Taylor adores the beautiful way that Estevan speaks English, and appreciates Estevan’s looks too (though she does not tell Estevan this). Estevan just laughs and says, “You are poetic mi’ija.” He tries to explain to Taylor what it means to call someone mi’ija (literally: my daughter), but can’t translate the sentiment into English. Taylor thanks him for the poetic compliment, and Estevan leaves to jump up onto the bus. Taylor imagines him catching a bus in Guatemala City with his arms full of books and papers, even though Estevan only works as a dishwasher in Tucson.
Taylor is attracted to Estevan’s intelligence, as well as the fact that his impeccable English is the complete opposite of the rural twang of the boys that Taylor hated when she grew up. Estevan’s endearment “mi’ija” is another reminder that the boundaries of family can be blurred in the novel, especially as Taylor builds a new family for herself out of friends.
Feeling depressed, Taylor goes to Mattie that evening to find out more history of Tucson. Mattie tells Taylor the origin of Roosevelt Park, named for Eleanor rather than Teddy or Franklin, and describes a speech that Eleanor Roosevelt gave in that park about helping the poor. The houses around Roosevelt Park used to belong to the upper class, but the neighborhood has not aged gracefully. However, Mattie notes that this allows her to better hide her sanctuary, a concept that Taylor is starting to understand means that families come and go quietly and often.
Roosevelt Park is named for a woman, a surprising fact when most of the monuments in America honor men. Eleanor’s speech highlights Mattie’s shame over American lack of compassion for others. Yet the unfortunate poverty of the neighborhood also allows Mattie to keep her relief work safe. Her sanctuary belongs in this neighborhood because everyone is down on their luck.
Mattie sometimes leaves for a few days, with Taylor in charge of the shop and afraid that a tractor tire will come in. Mattie just laughs, saying that no one will bring a tractor tire to a “city vet.” Then she leaves in a four-wheel Blazer with binoculars and says she is going birdwatching. Sometimes, a young red-headed man comes to see Mattie when she returns from these trips. Mattie says that he is a doctor who looks after people who arrive here sick or hurt. When Taylor is confused why people would get here injured, Mattie elaborates that people often arrive with burns, specifically cigarette burns on their backs. This evening, as Taylor leaves the shop, she sees a small woman with white hair in Mattie’s office window. The woman is folding a pair of men’s pants very carefully, over and over.
Mattie calls herself a city vet, displaying again her high regard for nature. Her birdwatching is code for going to meet the immigrant families that she helps find new homes and jobs in the United States. Like all the birds in the novel, these people are in a vulnerable position and they need specific effort to stay safe. The woman folding pants in the window presents a tense look at a domestic task. Taylor takes her laundry for granted, yet this woman must put careful attention into the most mundane jobs.
Just as he said, Angel soon comes back. But instead of trying to move back in with Lou Ann, he tells Lou Ann that he is leaving for good. Taylor, meanwhile, is off at a doctor’s appointment for Turtle when Angel brings the news. Turtle is healthy, but Taylor wants to make sure that the abuse Turtle suffered as a baby is not continuing to affect her. Taylor has trouble filling out the forms detailing Turtle’s unknown medical history.
Taylor is confronted with two things that remind her of the fragile state her chosen family is in. Angel has the potential to take Lou Ann away from Tucson, while Turtle’s doctor visit reminds Taylor that she really has no official connection to Turtle. Taylor will never truly know about Turtle’s past, a fact which may present a threat to Taylor’s status as Turtle’s mother.
Leaving Turtle to page through a magazine looking for pictures of veggies, Taylor goes to tell the nurse that she can’t answer the questions about Turtle’s medical past. The nurse hears Taylor say that Turtle is not her real daughter and assumes that Turtle is in foster care with Taylor. She just tells Taylor to bring the foster care paperwork next time and gives Taylor a much simpler medical history form.
Turtle is doing well, as evidence by her happy chattering and the veggies that signal her continued growth. But Taylor is on risky ground. She previously assumed that she could automatically be Turtle’s mother, but now is demoted to a temporary “foster” mother.
Turtle retreats into her old, clingy, self when she sees Dr. P. The doctor pronounces Turtle a healthy two-year-old, and Taylor clarifies that she brought Turtle in to check up on some things that happened to Turtle in the past. Taylor tells Dr. P that she is Turtle’s foster parent, and is worried that Turtle was sexually abused by her biological family. He starts to examine her again, but tells Taylor that it is more likely to see behavioral damage than physical damage after this long. He recommends an X-ray and an update to immunization, so Taylor goes to the x-ray room with Turtle.
The doctor, one of the few men that Turtle has interacted with since Taylor became her mother, clearly reminds her of sexual assault, and his presence seems to undo all the progress she has made. Dr. P’s reference to behavioral damage calls back to Lou Ann’s cat, who constantly tried to cover up bad behavior that he hadn’t actually done. Turtle is also at risk for low self-esteem and guilt because her birth family treated her so poorly.
Taylor and Turtle wait for Dr. P to read Turtle’s x-rays, with Turtle still hanging tightly to Taylor. Dr. P comes in, looking shaken, and holds Turtle’s x-rays against the light of the window. Taylor feels a chill at seeing Turtle’s bones, which only worsens once Dr. P points out the healed fractures in Turtle’s arms and legs and explains that Turtle looks two but is actually closer to three. Dr. P calls this slow growth “failure to thrive” due to Turtle’s lack of support in her previous home. Taylor is relieved that Turtle is growing now, even though it means she is growing out of her clothes. Dr. P continues to explain Turtle’s past injuries, but Taylor gets distracted looking out the window at a bird that has made a nest in a cactus.
Turtle’s abuse is actually still recorded on her body, especially in the way that she stopped growing because of the lack of emotional support. This “failure to thrive” is the ultimate sign of how necessary a loving family is to their children’s growth. Yet the bird in the cactus shows that Turtle may yet be able to make a home out of a hostile birthplace. If the vulnerable bird can live in a cactus without getting poked by the spines, Turtle too can thrive in spite of the danger she once lived in.
After Turtle’s doctor appointment, Taylor and Turtle meet Lou Ann and Dwayne Ray at the zoo. On the bus there, Taylor tries to ignore the words “failure to thrive” and prepares herself for all the zoo disaster stories that Lou Ann will tell. When Taylor gets there, Lou Ann is crying and can barely explain to Taylor that Angel has told her that he is leaving to join the rodeo again. Confused, Taylor leads Lou Ann into the zoo to sit next to the giant tortoises and calm down.
In another view of nature in the novel, the zoo keeps animals on display in an unnatural urban environment. Taylor anticipates that Lou Ann will see disaster in all of this, but Lou Ann is actually dealing with a real crisis for once. Angel’s plans to move out of town force Lou Ann to confront the fact that her marriage is truly over and that she is in some sense on her own.
As they sit on the bench, Taylor shows Turtle the big turtles (hoping that the little girl won’t be confused by the name) and Lou Ann explains more about Angel’s desire to leave Tucson for the Colorado-Montana rodeo circuit. An older woman leans in to listen in to their conversation, and Lou Ann is embarrassed when Taylor tells the old woman outright about their problems so that she will stop eavesdropping. The woman goes back to her tabloid, a story about an infant mother.
The woman’s tabloid magazine references the confusion in the back of Taylor’s mind. She too feels like an “infant mother,” unsure what to do for her daughter.
When Lou Ann tells Taylor that Angel talked about divorce papers, Taylor warns Lou Ann that she may have to think about getting a job soon. Lou Ann laments that she has never had a job in her life, then complains that the worst part is that Angel didn’t ask her to go with him, even though she never would have been able to take Dwayne Ray on the road like that. Lou Ann thinks this means that Angel never fought for her, but Taylor suggests that he was just being practical about taking a 4-month-old to a rodeo.
Lou Ann’s lack of employment is another sign of how much she depended on her husband instead of being a complete person on her own. Taylor has to remind Lou Ann of her duties as a mother. If Lou Ann can’t mature for her own sake, she must do it for the sake of her son.
Turtle interrupts Lou Ann and Taylor’s conversation to present Taylor a peanut she has dug out of the ground. Taylor tells Turtle the name for peanuts and marvels at the scars hidden inside Turtle that no one can see. Lou Ann, unaware of Taylor’s preoccupied thoughts, asks why Taylor is taking Angel’s side now that he has left, and Taylor says that she is just trying to save Lou Ann’s dignity in case Lou Ann decides to get back together with Angel later. Lou Ann insists she is completely over Angel, but that she just can’t get over how Angel left her. Taylor reminds Lou Ann that Angel left her six months ago, given that he left in October and it is now April.
Peanuts, a plant that grows under the ground, are unseen from the surface, just as Turtle’s abuse is unseen on the outside. Taylor is a wonderful friend to Lou Ann, anticipating her feelings in the future rather than selfishly trying to avoid a fight now. The bond between Taylor and Lou Ann is much more important than the bond between Lou Ann and Angel, even if Lou Ann still isn’t fully ready to let Angel go.
At the word “April,” Turtle looks up at Taylor intently. Lou Ann comments that Turtle did the same thing once when she mentioned the April phone bill. The two women realize that Turtle’s birth name was probably April. Though happy at the discovery, Taylor thinks that Turtle should still go by Turtle. Lou Ann questions the practicality of that once Turtle gets older, but Taylor responds that Turtle is “Indian” and can have a strange name.
Turtle’s birth name, April, references the rainy part of spring that allows the flowers to finally grow. Turtle too will have to make it through rain (i.e. hardship in life) in order to grow. Taylor wants Turtle to keep the name that she gave her, a sign of how Taylor feels that Turtle now belongs with her—even though Taylor tries to tie the name back to Turtle’s Cherokee heritage to justify it.
Uninterested in Lou Ann and Taylor’s conversation, Turtle delightedly feeds peanuts to a duck. Taylor leans back and listens to bird song in the trees, a sound she has missed since moving to Tucson. Lou Ann goes to the bathroom, muttering again that she looks terrible, and Taylor notices two giant tortoises beginning to have intimate relations as Lou Ann leaves. When Lou Ann gets back, she wonders how turtles can have sex when their shells are like panty girdles. A teenage couple walk by, see the turtles, and laugh. A woman with a baby refuses to let the baby watch the turtles. Lou Ann and Taylor laugh until they cry.
Turtle, though often compared to a bird herself, has reached a point where she can give nourishment (a peanut) to a different vulnerable bird (the duck). The mating turtles reveal how humans come to a zoo supposedly to see nature, but are actually uncomfortable with what nature really is. Lou Ann and Taylor choose to find amusement in it where other people find it scandalous, because they accept nature on its own terms.