Family is What You Make
In The Bean Trees, various themes can be found intertwining and mixing amongst each other- the main character Taylor's desire to forge a new identity, her various ideas and perceptions of motherhood, the inhumane treatment of both her native daughter Turtle and illegal immigrants like Esperanza and Esteban, and the various sacrifices made by standout characters like Mattie in order to give others a chance at a better life. However, only one theme ties them all together. As Taylor ends up traveling across state borders, Lou Ann severs her ties to her husband Angel, Turtle begins to grow out of a catatonic phase and Mattie's neighbors slowly become more involved in their lives, all grow to understand the truth about their family, which is that they all are part of one another's circle of relationships and that they are all constantly affecting each other.
. At the beginning, Taylor starts the novel with a rough idea of what family is like and no desire to belong to one. Having grown up without a father, something she considers to make her "lucky that way" (Kingsolver 17), Taylor's only relative is her single mother who she ends up leaving without any intention of returning to. In addition, an encounter with Jolene Shanks, a classmate who got pregnant and was forced into marriage only serves to solidify her cynical ideas. Seeing Jolene Shanks is almost like an eerie follow-up to a traumatizing incident where Jolene's father-in-law filled a tire with too much air and caused it to explode, symbolizing the nerve-wracking and overwhelming pressure that kids mean to Taylor. Though her mother tried to show her some parts of her heritage, such as the idea of "head rights" (Kingsolver 14) as a backup plan, Taylor still remains skeptic and does not believe the ties of family to be all that deep. As a result, it is apparent at least to Taylor that happiness is not found in starting a family, and she must thus seek it by changing not only her environment but also her entire identity, similar to how she used to climb trees as a little kid because she was "trying to see God" (Kingsolver 22). Even when she first meets and is given custody of Turtle, she protests saying that if she wanted to, she "could have had babies coming out my ears by now" (Kingsolver 26). However, some part of her seems to have recognized the significant change that has occurred, as she does later write in a letter to her mother "I've found my head rights, Mama. They're coming with me." (Kingsolver 32)
Lou Ann Ruiz, on the other hand, also struggles with the idea of family as the family she knows is both coming together and breaking apart. After meeting with her mother and grandmother, she realizes that nothing in her life truly feels stable – everything from her hometown to her perception of herself has completely changed. Instead of being underweight, as she always was, she now has to watch her weight and watch over a new life, creating problems for her self-esteem as Lou Ann spends most of her time criticizing her figure and measuring time in "before and after Dwayne Ray." (Insert Citation). Not even the husband for whom she quit to her job to stay at home with has decided to stay with her – instead, he has simply taken the TV and his prized possessions and left. In a way, all of these paranoias about becoming a new mother are part of what generated Lou Ann's overprotective parenting of Dwayne Ray. When she first meets Taylor, however, she finally is able to make a connection and feel like starting her life over. Not only do both women (Insert Taylor's "I'm just a hillbilly speech), but they also end up relating to each other because of the children who they have in one way or another been "stuck with" (Kingsolver 62). (maybe mention how Lou Ann says living with Taylor made her confident enough to go out with Cameron John).
Around this time, however, all characters begin to start challenging their own beliefs about themselves. Taylor becomes forced to confront her own reservations when she gets a job with Mattie and feels the actual weight of a regular tire exploding – enough to have "knocked the wind out of you, but not enough to kill you" (Kingsolver 92) – and realizes she does actually miss her mother. She also becomes to confront the fact that Lou Ann is trying to get more involved in her life as she guesses at Turtle's real name and expresses concerns about her development, leading to Taylor's protest that "it's not like we're a family, for Christ's sake. You've got your own life to live, and I've got mine," (Kingsolver 97) since she herself "never even had an old man". However, what ultimately allows them to reconcile each other's reservations is when Lou Ann ends up revealing that she, too has an irrational fear similar to Taylor's dread of exploding tires – she herself is afraid that all of her relationships can only be maintained by being careful not to say the wrong thing, lest she end up messing everything up instantly, just like a meteor shower she can never mention because she does not remember. Taylor is thus able to
Later on, both of them end up going through several trying incidents. Their impression of their neighbors ends up changing greatly when they realize that one of them, Edna Mae is actually blind, and that strict Mrs. Parsons who once called Turtle a "wild little Indian" (Kingsolver 117) has been supporting her and buying her red clothes all along. In addition, Taylor experiences conflicting emotions when they realize Esperanza, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, has attempted to commit suicide. In a way, Taylor realizes how even the "Nutters" from her old school had each other throughout tough times, how Esperanza is experiencing the truly searing pain of losing a child, and ends up reminding Esperanza that she too is part of an important community that cares for her and needs her to not give up hope. When Turtle is nearly assaulted while at a park with Edna, Taylor ends up falling into self-doubt and depression. As she wonders if she really can provide the safe shelter of a family that she wanted to give Turtle, protesting that the world is "a terrible place to try and bring up a child in" (Kingsolver 193), Lou Ann ends up fighting with her and responding "For God's sake, what other world have we got?" In the end, it takes a talk from Mattie to finally get Taylor to realize "nobody can protect a child from the world" (Kingsolver 195) and the truth about having a family runs deeper than she really believes.
When Taylor ends up driving Esteban and Esperanza all the way to a sanctuary, she ends up confronting everything she had left behind now that she has come to accept her new life and the fact she wants to be Turtle's mother. Along the way, they end up passing several cemeteries at which Turtle believes her real mother to be buried, making Taylor realize the actions she has to take. Though she has to let go of her feelings for Esteban, she is thankful that they have helped her to secretly adopt Turtle, as all of them wish to experience the joy of a true family once more. Taylor is then able to tell Turtle that she is her mother, and that Lou Ann and everyone she has known are all part of an important system because they all support each other like the way rhizobia tend to the "bean tree" wisteria vines. Finally, after Taylor calls her mother, she realizes that blood is not "the only way kids come by honest" (Kingsolver 244) and agree with Lou Ann that while "everything you get is really just on loan" (Kingsolver 252), they really are part of each other's family. It is then that Taylor is able to tell Turtle "I'm your mother, and nobody can say it isn't so" (Kingsolver 254) and that they're going home.