Angel is Lou Ann's husband—well, ex-husband, by the time the novel draws to a close. Three years before he leaves Lou Ann, Angel lost his leg after "a bad accident in his pickup truck" (2.2). Over time, he convinces himself that Lou Ann isn't attracted to him anymore because of the handicap, but that's not true: the problem is that Lou Ann eventually gets the feeling that Angel "didn't really like her, or anyone else for that matter" (2.2). Not exactly the spitting image of marital bliss.
We know that Lou Ann is not a confident woman: berating herself in front of the mirror, and in front of anyone else who'll listen, is one of her frequent pastimes. Although we have less opportunity to get to know Angel, some of the signs point to a serious lack of confidence in him too, especially after he loses his leg. And with the fact that he leaves Lou Ann—multiple times—and eventually moves out of the state, well, we sure wouldn't be calling this guy an angel if we were in charge. Nice dose of irony, Ms. Kingsolver.
One of Tucson's local characters, good ol' Bobby Bingo runs a roadside vegetable stand out of the back of his truck. He also claims to be the father of Bill Bing, a local car salesman whose ads are all over the television every night. Like a lot of the novel's minor characters, Bobby has his quirks, but he's kind to Lou Ann and Dwayne Ray, and he lets you get his produce cheap.
Bob Two Two runs a service station in Oklahoma, on the outskirts of Cherokee Nation territory. He fixes the rocker arm of Taylor's old Volkswagen bug after she manages to "wobble" in without proper steering (1.59). Yikes. Later, when Taylor needs to come up with a false family name for Estevan and Esperanza, she remembers Bob. Using his name, Estevan and Esperanza transform themselves into Steven and Hope Two Two. Sheesh, and we thought Turtle was bad. This gal really needs some help coming up with names.
Cameron John is the man Lou Ann is dating by the novel's end. Like her, he works at Red Hot Mama's, where he packs tomatillos. Cameron is tall, African-American, and the proud owner of a Doberman pinscher called Mr. T. (he didn't choose the name) (17.159). He's sweet to Lou Ann, great with Dwayne Ray, and even a pretty great cook! After Lou Ann's ups and downs with Angel, Cameron brings some much-needed warmth into her life. And we're not just talking about the tomatillos.
Cynthia is the social worker who visits Lou Ann and Taylor's home on the night that Turtle is attacked in Roosevelt Park. Afterwards, Taylor and Turtle have weekly appointments with her. It's Cynthia who breaks the news to Taylor that she has no legal claim to Turtle, but it's also Cynthia who helps her in the end by giving her the name of Jonas Wilford Armistead, the Oklahoma notary who agrees to witness Turtle's "legal" adoption (in his defense, he doesn't know it's not actually legal).
Cynthia's most striking feature is that she is not much older than Taylor. Although Taylor finds her intimidating at first—thanks mostly to her professional-looking office, clothing, and pumps—eventually Taylor comes to understand that Cynthia is just another woman trying to do a difficult job, and trying to do right by a mother and child.
Dr. Pelinowsky is Lou Ann's obstetrician, and later on he examines Turtle, too. It's through him that Taylor comes to learn the extent of Turtle's childhood injuries, and, just as shockingly, Turtle's real age.
Lou Ann finds it hilarious that Dr. Pelinowsky's nurses call him "Dr. P," for the simple reason that he's an OB-GYN, "a maternity doctor, which all starts whenever you bring in a jar of pee" (1.11). Whenever the nurses page him, Lou Ann hears "Doctor Pee, Doctor Pee" (1.11).
Quite the knee-slapper.
Dwayne Ray is Lou Ann's son. He's a baby, and a whole lot younger than Turtle, as it turns out. He doesn't do much of anything other than eat and sleep, which makes him a pretty easy character to analyze, if you ask us. According to Lou Ann and an Angel of God who once appeared to her in a dream (just take her word for it), Dwayne Ray isn't going to make it to twenty. Fortunately for him, Lou Ann and her dreams aren't reputed as great predictors of children's life spans.
"Earl and the Bar Patrons" would be a pretty good name for a honkytonk band, if we do say so ourselves. But really we're talking about three different characters here. All of them are minor enough that their names barely matter, but all the same, they help to change Taylor's life.
As a very minor character, Earl doesn't even get a last name. He owns and runs the bar across from Bob Two Two's service station, and he gets Taylor a hamburger for 99 cents. Sounds, um, delicious…
Anyway, the Bar Patrons are the two men who are sitting at the counter when Taylor comes in. Neither of them are named, and both of them are wearing cowboy hats. One is white, the other is Native, and one of them is probably the boyfriend of Turtle's aunt. Taylor never does find out which one of them it is, but the white guy looks to Taylor "like he had a mean streak to him," and he treats her aggressively in the bar (1.78). Yet another reason to get the honkytonk out of Oklahoma.
Eddie Rickett is Marietta's (pre-Taylor) supervisor at the Pittman County Hospital. He takes Marietta seriously and expects her to do her job well, and is a decent boss overall.
A very minor character, Eddie isn't particularly memorable or crucial to the story, but he does have one feature that's noteworthy. Taylor first describes him as "an old freckled thing," but then corrects herself to say that he wasn't really old, but "far enough along that everybody noticed he hadn't gotten married" (1.28). He's also "the type that nobody made it their business to ask him why not" (1.28). Though there aren't any openly gay characters in The Bean Trees, it's possible that Taylor (or at least Kingsolver) might be trying to tell us something here.
From the first moment she meets her, Taylor likes the look of Edna Poppy. She describes her as having "bobbed, snowy hair and sturdy, wiry arms," and being dressed "entirely in red, all the way down to her perky patent-leather shoes" (7.100). Sounds like quite a catch.
Along with Virgie Mae Parsons, Edna Poppy lives next-door to Lou Ann and Taylor and helps look after Dwayne Ray and Turtle whenever Lou Ann and Taylor are at work at the same time. Her disposition is much kinder and sweeter than Virgie Mae's, and she doesn't seem to share many (if any) of her companion's nastier prejudices.
It takes Taylor and Lou Ann a very long time to realize that Edna is blind. Partly it's because neither Taylor nor Lou Ann have had many encounters with visual impairments; partly it's because they often see Edna together with Virgie Mae, who casually helps her when she needs it; and, lastly, it's partly because Edna is extremely capable and confident on her own.
Taylor comes to appreciate Edna's disability after Turtle is attacked in Roosevelt Park. Whereas Edna feels like she's to blame because she didn't notice how dark it was getting outside (which it's hard to blame a blind person for), Lou Ann and Taylor are grateful for her quick thinking. Edna knew exactly how high to swing her cane so that it wouldn't hit Turtle, and she was able to scare the child's attacker away. Pretty badass, if you ask us.
As Lou Ann says: "Anybody else might have been scared to swing at him" (12.49).
And, as Taylor thinks: "Anybody else [...] might have seen that he had a gun, or a knife" (12.50).
Like Virgie Mae, Edna becomes an indispensable part of the crazy-quilt family that Taylor builds for herself and Turtle in Tucson.
Father William is a local priest in Tucson and one of Mattie's contacts in the "underground railroad" that she and others use to move refugees into the country. He's a young man, and a bit of a nervous one too.
Fei, La-Isha, and Timothy are the first prospective housemates whom Taylor visits when she starts to look for a place in Tucson. With names like that they sound like funny 'uns, and Taylor would a zillion percent agree. As young progressives who keep careful track of their homeostasis and are starting a soy bean collective, the trio seem absolutely foreign and a little bit freaky to Taylor. They're mostly sweet people, but Taylor has never met anyone like them, and so to her eyes they seem affected and self-righteous. Besides, soy beans?
Foster Greer is Taylor's absent father. Though Taylor was plenty curious about him as a child, in later years she came to appreciate his absence. Whereas her friend Jolene Shanks grew up with a father who hurled verbal abuse from the time she hit puberty, Taylor grew up with a powerful mother instead. Unsurprisingly, Foster Greer makes no real appearance in the novel: he's simply a person whom Alice and Taylor mention from time to time. Let the trend of powerful, independent women continue.
Granny Logan is a mean-spirited, cantankerous old woman who's spent a good part of her life insulting her grandchildren and doing her part to keep prejudice alive and well in the world. When Lou Ann's brother moves to Alaska and marries an Indigenous woman, Granny Logan asks if "Eskimos count as human beings" (8.20). Likewise, in her eyes, Lou Ann's (ex-)husband Angel is nothing but "a heathen Mexican" (3.49).
Despite her hatefulness, however, it's clear that Granny Logan does love Lou Ann, deep down. When she and Lou Ann's mother come to help Lou Ann with the baby, Granny Logan is thoughtful enough to bring along a bottle of water from the creek where Lou Ann was baptized. Kind of gross, but thoughtful. Unfortunately, since Granny Logan is the kind of woman who spends her whole life criticizing people, most of Lou Ann's memories of her are of scoldings and insults rather than such kindnesses.
Harland Elleston, "of El-Jay's Paint and Body fame" (8.1), is the man Taylor's Mama up and marries not long after Taylor leaves town. Taylor isn't too impressed by Harland: according to her, "[h]e's got warts on his elbows and those eyebrows that meet in the middle" (8.31). How dashing. Still, he seems to make Taylor's Mama happy, and as Lou Ann reminds Taylor, "[e]verybody deserves their own piece of the pie" (8.13).
Hughes Walter blows into Pittman County, Kentucky like a breath of fresh air, or so Taylor tells us. In Taylor's senior year of high school, Mr. Walter comes in to teach science, "high-railing in there like some blond Paul McCartney, sitting on the desk in his tight jeans and his clean shirt sleeves rolled up just so, with the cuffs turned in. He made our country boys look like the hand-me-down socks Mama brought home, all full of their darns and mends" (1.11). Roowrrr!
Mr. Walter doesn't exactly become a mentor to Taylor, but he does change her life. Through his wife, who works at the Pittman County Hospital, he helps to get Taylor a job. That job lets Taylor help her Mama out with the bills while putting money aside, and after five and a half years, she's able to buy a beat-up old Volkswagen and get outta her home town. All thanks to those cuffs and tight, tight jeans.
Irene is the daughter-in-law of Mrs. Hoge, and the wife of the man who owns the Broken Arrow Motor Lodge. When Taylor, Turtle, Estevan, and Esperanza stop in at the motel on their way to the Oklahoma safe-house, they find that Irene has taken over most of her mother-in-law's duties, as Mrs. Hoge has died. She's also lost a lot of weight—"106 pounds in 24 weeks"—and all by eating "one Weight Watchers frozen dinner per day and nothing else but chamomile tea, unsweetened" (14.62). Kids, don't try that at home.
Ismene isn't exactly a character per se—more like an absent party whose presence lingers through the second half the novel. She is Estevan and Esperanza's daughter, and was captured in a night raid on their union members back in Guatemala. Estevan and Esperanza have no hope of ever seeing her again, though they hope that she has at least been adopted by someone who will look after her.
Ivy Logan, Lou Ann's mother, shares many of her mother-in-law's prejudices. She dislikes Angel Ruiz because he's Mexican, and according to her, Mexicans are not only "a foreign race," but make too many babies, and are "trying to take over the world like the Catholics" (2.12-14). Um, whoa.
Like Granny Logan, Ivy loves Lou Ann. Unfortunately, her narrow-mindedness forces Lou Ann to keep her at a distance, just as she keeps her grandmother at arm's length.
Jerry Speller is Taylor's manager at the Tucson Burger Derby, and according to her is a "little twerp who believed that the responsibility of running a burger joint put you a heartbeat away from Emperor of the Universe" (5.14). After he tells Taylor that she doesn't have the right attitude, she throws her hat into one of the food machines and quits.
Jill is one of a number of minor characters who pop into the narrative just long enough to give Taylor a valuable piece of information. As one of the nurses in Dr. Pelinowsky's office, Jill is the first person who (mistakenly) assumes that Taylor is Turtle's foster parent. After Jill makes this mistake, Taylor finds it much easier to give people a satisfying explanation of her relationship to Turtle: she simple tells them that the little girl is her foster child.
Jolene Shanks is a Pittman County girl a few years older than Taylor, and Newt Hardbine's unfortunate widow. Like a lot of the other girls Taylor grows up with, Jolene gets pregnant young, and marries Newt because it's considered the only respectable thing to do.
When Jolene comes into the hospital after Newt's vicious attack, Taylor asks her why she ever went with him. Jolene tells her, "Why not, my daddy'd been calling me a slut practically since I was thirteen, so why the hell not? Newt was just who it happened to be. You know the way it is" (1.41).
Taylor tells her, no, she doesn't know, because she never had a father around to berate her like that. In this moment, Jolene stands in as a foil for Taylor, along with Newt. Both husband and wife are examples of the way Taylor's adolescence could have been if she hadn't had Mama around to love and take care of her and show her what it was like not to have to depend on a man.
Jonas Wilford Armistead is the public notary in Oklahoma City who agrees to witness Taylor's "legal" adoption of Turtle. To Taylor, he seems like the kind of man "who seemed more comfortable with the notarizing part of his job than with the public" (16.1). Nice one, Tay. He's "tall, white-haired," wears a hearing aid, and, all things considered, is fairly gullible.
Although Mr. Armistead's willingness to sign Turtle over to Taylor helps keep Turtle out of an orphanage in Arizona, he doesn't do the greatest job obeying the law. This is a story for another time—another novel, in fact—and Barbara Kingsolver tackles it Pigs in Heaven. For now, suffice it to say that Jonas Armistead should never have agreed to let a Cherokee child be adopted by somebody outside the nation—not without tribal permission. Although his actions seem to give this story a happy ending, they have serious consequences down the road.
Lee Sing owns and runs the Lee Sing Market in Tucson, where Lou Ann and Taylor and the rest of the neighborhood locals buy their groceries.
Lee Sing's mother is only mysterious to those who've never seen her—which, granted, is most people. She's "said to be more than one hundred years old" (2.23), and although she lives in the back of the store with Lee Sing, she rarely makes appearances. Mattie has seen her, though, as she and the Sings are neighbors. In fact, the purple bean trees growing in Mattie's garden were given to her by the elderly Ms. Sing, who brought them with her all the way from China when she came to America in 1907. Thanks for giving a reason for the title, Mrs. Sing!
Throughout Taylor's childhood, Alice supports the two of them by cleaning the homes of Pittman County's wealthy citizens. Taylor grows up knowing what it's like to be seen as poor and second-class, but Alice does her best to make sure that they both hold on to their senses of dignity. Taylor says of her:
"There were two things about Mama. One is she always expected the best out of me. And the other is that then no matter what I did, whatever I came home with, 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." (1.46)
Not long after Taylor leaves Pittman County, Alice falls in love for the first time in decades. She marries Harland Elleston, and quits most of her cleaning jobs while she's at it. Suddenly, Alice has a new lease on life, and her former employers know it: when she quits, she lets her snooty employers know just how many of their family secrets she's gathered over the years.
That's one hot mama if ever we knew one!
Miss Brindo is another one of the secretaries working in the office of Jonas Wilford Armistead, and she acts as a second witness to the signing of Turtle's "legal" adoption papers. To Taylor, Miss Brindo appears "to have at least enough Cherokee in her to claim head rights," and Taylor wishes that she could know "what she was really witnessing that morning" (16.34).
Mrs. Cleary is Mr. Jonas Wilford Armistead's administrative assistant. Like Mr. Armistead himself, she doesn't say boo about the legality of letting two "Cherokee" parents turn their child over to Taylor. She helps with the paperwork, and sends the happy family on their way.
Mrs. Hoge is the elderly mother of the man who owns the Broken Arrow Motor Lodge, the motel where Taylor stays on the night that Turtle comes her way. Mrs. Hoge is kind to Taylor, and agrees to let her stay in exchange for some help with the housekeeping. One night turns into a couple of weeks, and Taylor gets to know the family as she stays on to work for them over the Christmas season.
Mrs. Hoge is kind to Taylor, but she makes more than one hint about Turtle's mental capacities. She also nags her daughter-in-law Irene, who is both childless and overweight (hence the subsequent Weightwatchers binge). Still, she's a fairly nice old lady, all things considered. When Taylor returns to Oklahoma towards the end of the novel, she's sad to hear that Mrs. Hoge has passed away from Parkinson's disease.
Newt Hardbine is the unlucky kid whose father gets blown over the Standard Oil sign by an exploding tractor tire. Come to think of it, Newt is unlucky in a lot of ways. What with having a violent father, and failing so many grades that he gets to be a full-grown adult in a high school classroom, Newt has a pretty rough life. Unlike Taylor, who gets through her adolescence in Pittman County without too many scars, Newt never stood much of a chance.
Newt is Taylor's foil: an example of what her life might have been like if she hadn't grown up without her mother's love and support, and her own intelligence and doggedness too. As Taylor puts it herself:
"If you were to look at the two of us, myself and Newt side by side in the sixth grade, you could have pegged us for brother and sister. [...] we were cut out of basically the same mud, I suppose, just two more dirty-kneed kids scrapping to beat hell and trying to land on our feet. You couldn't have said, anyway, which one would stay right where he was, and which would be the one to get away." (1.4)
But don't feel too sorry for Newt, even though his life and death are pretty tragic ones. Sure, it takes a lot of pent-up rage to try to kill your wife, but that sure don't make us remember this guy fondly. Anyway, he fails, shoots himself, and dies. And through all of that he has to be named Newt. Maybe Barbara Kingsolver has a thing for naming humans after reptiles and amphibians?
Roger is another character whose role in the book is so minor that it doesn't even warrant a last name. One of Mattie's regular clients at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, Roger is the first person to come to the shop on the day that Taylor meets Mattie. As Mattie works on his car, Taylor realizes how rare it is for her to see a woman doing that kind of work on her own. It's not Roger himself who's important here—what's important is that his presence helps to establish a scene in which Taylor can see Mattie in all her independent and self-confident glory. Thanks for the boost, Roger.
Sandi is one of the first friends Taylor makes in Tucson. She works at the local Burger Derby, and takes to Taylor like fire to hay because she adores horses, and imagines that anyone born in Kentucky must have grown up around horses all her life. She's not the greatest at logic, but hey, she's a nice lady.
Like Taylor, Sandi is raising a small child on her own, and after she encourages Taylor to get a job at the Burger Derby, the beginnings of a beautiful friendship are born. It doesn't last though: Taylor quite her job at the Burger Derby after less than a week, and after that, she doesn't have much occasion to run into Sandi again.
Taylor never learns much about the woman who gives Turtle away—just that she's the little girl's aunt, and that, for whatever reason, she either doesn't want to take care of the child, or can't.
When Taylor first sees her sitting in the back of Earl's bar, wrapped in a pink wool blanket, she thinks that the woman looks round and kind of dull: her braided hair lies on her shoulders "in a pair of skinny, lifeless plaits" (1.85). Later, when the woman approaches Taylor outside, Taylor thinks that "[s]he was someone you could have drawn a picture of by tracing around dimes and quarters and jar tops" (1.90). Yet another of Taylor's oh-so-flattering descriptions of indigenous folk.
To Taylor's surprise, once the woman unbundles the little girl she's been hiding under her blanket, she suddenly looks drawn and thin. Although Taylor doesn't have much to go on, it's easy to imagine that this woman's life must be wrapped up in all kinds of hardness and sadness that neither Taylor nor we can see.
Does Turtle's aunt give her away to free her from abuse, or is it simply that she doesn't want the burden of a child? Not even the novel's sequel, Pigs in Heaven, makes this totally clear—there's a lot about this woman's life that we never get to know. What we do know is that without her there wouldn't have been a novel. Thanks a bunch, Unnamed Auntie!
When Taylor retraces her route back to the bar in Oklahoma where Turtle's aunt gave her away, she's surprised to find that Earl isn't running the place anymore. Instead, a young Cherokee woman is working the counter.
As a nameless, practically faceless character, this character's only job is to provide Taylor with some crucial information: a) no one left around these parts is likely to recognize the woman and men Taylor describes, and b) the heart of Cherokee Nation territory is actually further east, up in the mountains.
Through this young woman, Taylor learns that she was wrong in her initial impression that Cherokee land was like a big vast nothingness in the middle of nowhere. As it turns out, there's a lot about the Cherokee Nation she doesn't know. But that's okay, because neither do the people who could have stopped her from getting her adoption.
Along with Edna Poppy, Virgie Mae lives next-door to Lou Ann and Taylor, and helps to look after Dwayne Ray and Turtle whenever Lou Ann and Taylor are both off at work. Virgie Mae is a good neighbor, and a big help to the girls, but she's also got a lot in common with Lou Ann's Granny Logan.
Like Granny Logan, Virgie Mae is a woman with a lot of prejudice. When she comes over to watch Mattie's television interview about the plight of Central American refugees, she misunderstands the story as being about "illegal aliens and dope peddlers" (7.111). Not the most understanding of ladies. When Estevan mentions that he works in a Chinese restaurant, and that the family who runs the place doesn't speak any English, Virgie Mae says it's a disgrace:
"Before you know it the whole world will be here jabbering and jabbering till we won't know it's America." (7.131)
Did we just walk onto Fox News? Anyway, that night, as Taylor first starts to form an opinion of Virgie Mae, she thinks of her as the kind of woman who would go into a drugstore and "sail past the douche aisle with her nose in the air and lecture the boy at the register for selling condoms" (7.119). In other words, she's the sort of self-righteous elderly woman who has never once doubted the correctness of her own view of the world.
Although Lou Ann tells Taylor that Virgie Mae is harmless, despite her prejudice, cynicism, and spite, it's clear that Virgie Mae is one of many older women in the novel who represent the close-minded outlooks that come from isolation, narrow vision, and little knowledge of the world. Though she comes to be one patch in the crazy-quilt family Taylor builds, Taylor never comes to respect and admire Virgie Mae the way she does Edna.