Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees follows Taylor’s attempts to raise her adopted daughter Turtle, focusing on what it takes to be a family and the alternative forms that family can take in the absence of the traditional mother-father-children family model. Taylor is fiercely protective of the small family she forms with Turtle, her best friend Lou Ann, and Lou Ann’s son Dwayne Ray in Tucson, Arizona as they all help each other “through hell and high water.” Taylor even figures out a way to legally adopt Turtle, not to prove that Turtle is a legitimate part of her family, but to protect the familial bond that she has already formed with Turtle from the reach of Child Protective Services. At the same time, the Guatemalan couple that poses as Turtle’s biological parents to aid Taylor in her adoption, must also learn to rebuild their family after the loss of their biological daughter in the Guatemalan Civil War that forced the couple to flee to the United States. Throughout the events of the novel, Kingsolver compares these families that chose each other, that chose to be families, to Lou Ann’s experience of the traditional family model, suggesting that the chosen families are actually more strongly connected through their willingness to help each other through anything.
While all family bonds are significant in the novel, the most important family role is that of motherhood. Kingsolver portrays many types of mothers, birth, adoptive and surrogate, as Taylor meets many women who help her raise Turtle as her own daughter. Though Taylor, and many of the other mothers in the novel, are not perfect, the mistakes that the mothers make are largely overshadowed by Kingsolver’s descriptions of the love that mothers have for their children. Both Taylor and Lou Ann must come to terms with the intense responsibility of motherhood, eventually finding the joy and fulfillment in a role they initially did not want. As the two women learn to be mothers who unconditionally love their children, the way that Taylor’s own mother loves her, the novel argues that motherhood requires nothing more or less than a willingness to do anything for your child. What matters is not how a person becomes a mother, or inherits any other family role, but the commitment to keeping those relationships strong.
Family and Motherhood ThemeTracker
Family and Motherhood Quotes in The Bean Trees
There were two things about Mama. One is that she expected the best out of me. And the other is that then no matter what I did… she acted like it was the moon I had just hung up in the sky and plugged in all the stars; Like I was that good.
She put her hands where the child’s shoulders might be, under all that blanket, and pushed it gently back into the seat, trying to make it belong there. She looked at it for a long time. Then she closed the door and walked away.
As I watched her I was thinking that she wasn’t really round. Without the child and the blanket she walked away from my car a very thin woman.
The Indian child was a girl. A girl, poor thing. That fact had already burdened her short life with a kind of misery I could not imagine. I thought I knew about every ugly thing that one person does to another, but I had never even thought about such things being done to a baby girl.
“Feeding a girl is like feeding the neighbor’s New Year Pig. All that work. In the end, it goes to some other family.” Lou Ann felt offended, but didn’t really know how to answer. She was a long way from her own family in Kentucky, but she didn’t see this as being entirely her fault.
By this time, I had developed a name for the child, at least for the time being. I called her Turtle, on account of her grip. She still wasn’t talking but she knew her name about as far as a cat ever does, which means that when you said it she would look up if she was in the right mood.
“You know, your little girl doesn’t look a thing like you,” …
“She’s not really mine,” I said. “She’s just somebody I got stuck with.”
Sandi looked a both of us, her elbow cocked on her hip and the salad tongs frozen in midair. “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.”
He moved around in there for quite a while before he said anything to Lou Ann, and it struck her that his presence was different from the feeling of women filling up the house. He could be there, or not, and it hardly made any difference. Like a bug or a mouse scratching in the cupboards at night – you could get up and chase after it, or just go back to sleep and let it be. That was good, she decided.
I’ll tell you one thing,” Lou Ann said. “when something was bugging Angel, he’d never of stayed up half the night with me talking and eating everything that wasn’t nailed down. You’re not still mad, are you?” I held up two fingers. “Peace, sister.”
Mrs. Parsons said, “And is this naked creature one of theirs? She looks like a little wild Indian.” She was talking about Turtle, who was not naked, although she didn’t exactly have a shirt on… “She’s mine,” I said. “And she is a wild Indian, as a matter of fact.”
“You are poetic, mi’ija.”
“Mi hija,” he pronounced it slowly.
“My daughter. But it doesn’t work the same in English. We say it to friends. You would call me mi’ijo.”
But poor Scotty with his electricity and his trigonometry, he just didn’t belong to any group. It was like we were all the animals on Noah’s ark that came in pairs, except of his kind there was only the one.
“It's terrible to lose somebody,” I said, “I mean, I don’t know firsthand, but I can imagine it must be. But it's also true that some people never have anybody to lose, and I think that's got to be so much worse.”
…If somebody offered to show me a picture of Dwayne Ray in the year 2001, I swear I wouldn’t look.”
“Well, nobody’s going to,” I said gently, “so you don’t have to worry about it. There’s no such thing as dream angels. Only in the Bible, and that was totally another story.”
“But the problem is that you have no legitimate claim. A verbal agreement with a relative isn’t good enough. You can’t prove to the police that it happened that way. That you didn’t kidnap her, for instance, or that the relatives weren’t coerced.”
“No, I can’t prove anything. I don’t understand what you’re getting at. If I don’t have a legal claim on Turtle, I don’t see where anybody else does either.”
“You're asking yourself, Can I give this child the best possible upbringing and keep her out of harm's way her whole life long? The answer is no, you can't. But nobody else can either… Nobody can protect a child from the world. That's why it's the wrong thing to ask, if you're really trying to make a decision.”
“So what's the right thing to ask?”
“Do I want to try? Do I think it would be interesting, maybe even enjoyable in the long run, to share my life with this kid and give her my best effort and maybe, when all's said and done, end up with a good friend.”
“That looks beautiful,” I said. “That's the Cherokee Nation?”
“Part of it,” she said. “It's real big. The Cherokee Nation isn’t any one place exactly. It’s people. We have our own government and all.”
Here were a mother and her daughter, nothing less. A mother and child – in a world that could barely be bothered with mothers and children – who were going to be taken apart. Everybody believed it. Possibly Turtle believed it. I did.
The wisteria vines on their own would just barely get by, is how I explained it to Turtle, but put them together with rhizobia and they make miracles.
She watched the dark high-way and entertained me with her vegetable-soup song, except that now there were people mixed in with the beans and potatoes: Dwayne Ray, Mattie, Esperanza, Lou Ann and all the rest.
And me. I was the main ingredient.