A strong story has beauty, curiosity, and… bees?
A couple weeks ago I finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees. Though I’ve never seen it, it was made into a movie starring Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Dakota Fanning in 2008. I picked up the book at a garage sale last summer and finally decided to read it. It was a great beach read for me and one of my favorites I’ve read so far this summer.
The Secret Life of Bees is set in the summer of 1964 in Tiburon, South Carolina during the peak of the Civil Rights movement. The book follows the journey of 14-year-old Lily Owens, a white girl trying to escape her abusive father in search of answers about her mother’s death. She travels with her caretaker, Rosaleen, a black woman with even amounts of stubbornness and kindness. By following clues left behind in her mother’s belongings, Lily, along with Rosaleen, happens upon the Boatwright sisters, honey-selling bee-keepers who have more connections with Lily’s past than she initially thinks.
(A few spoilers are to follow!)
I think that the beauty of this book lies in its characters. Each character is well developed and has an engaging journey for the reader to follow. August, the eldest sister, serves as a stand-in mother for Lily and has all of the wisdom of Mother Willow from Pocahontas. She seems to always know the truth in her heart before anyone can tell it to her. June, the middle sister, resents Lily’s staying with her and her boyfriend Neil’s repeated proposals, not because she doesn’t care about those around her, but because of her dedication to her family.
May, the youngest, is the most poignant character in The Secret Life of Bees. May lost her twin sister April to suicide; April had grown increasingly depressed due to the harsh backlash toward the Civil Rights movement. Without her other half, May goes through life fighting off fits of weeping by praying at her wailing wall, in which she places bits of paper with prayer intentions written on them. She is innocent and kind, but ultimately fragile because not only does she feel her own pain, but she feels everyone else’s, also. I identified with this aspect of May’s character; as the world starts to seem darker and darker with the growing awareness of suffering, hatred, violence, and injustice, I often find myself feeling the pain of others as my own. May’s pain, right now, is the world’s pain.
Though Rosaleen is distressed about the circumstances of her and Lily’s arrival at the Boatwright residence (It involves being a fugitive from a jail, a hospital, and Lily’s father’s peach orchard), her bitterness turns sweet as she finds a sisterhood for herself among the Boatwright women. She is as much a mother to Lily as August is, but the kind who often won’t tell her what she wants to hear.
Though the book does mention bits of the Civil Rights movement–Rosaleen is beaten by a group of white men while in jail for retaliation, and toward the end of the book she is finally able to register to vote–the primary focus is Lily’s journey. I found this to be a fault in the novel; it seems as though a period of time such as the 1960s South is rich with the stories of the struggles of black men and women against racism. Yet, racism mostly bleeds into the story through subtext and in Lily’s maturing thoughts and attitudes. Having grown up in a racist society, Lily shocks the surrounding community–and herself– by staying with a trio of black sisters. As she spends more time with them, she realizes that these women are not very different from white people; rather, the racist culture surrounding them is what separates them from each other. Perhaps this is why Kidd seems not to emphasize the Civil Rights movement in her book– to show the similarities of black and white women. However, it still seems slightly wrong for the white young woman’s journey to usurp the significant historical events that are taking place at the same time.
Still, Kidd does focus on the overt racism of the setting when Lily starts to have feelings for Zach, a black teenage boy who helps the Boatwright sisters with their beekeeping. The two realize that in that time and place, a relationship between the two of them would be not just frowned upon, but an excuse for violence. Even so, Zach grows just as the other characters do; though at first, he is a mild-mannered, hard worker, he eventually finds himself in jail unjustly and comes home with the resolve to further integration and to combat racism. He is filled with more anger than he has been in all his life.
As the story goes on, Lily peels away the layers of racism that her culture has placed upon her, especially in discovering her romantic feelings for Zach and forming a love for the Boatwright sisters. Yet the real driving force of her actions is her complicated relationship with her father, who has told her that not only did Lily accidentally kill her mother with a gun as a child, but also that her mother was attempting to leave her and her father when Lily did it. Lily’s father is abusive, cruel, and hot-tempered; to avoid feeling trapped by him, she finds respite in imagining a perfect mother who loved her unconditionally and would never leave her family.
As she stays longer at the sisters’ house, she learns more and more about her mother. But it isn’t until the fateful day when her father discovers her at the house that she finally sees his humanity, recognizes his pain and reasons for treating her so cruelly, and moves forward with love rather than fear. The climax brings together her father’s and her journeys to emphasize that they have both felt pain caused by the same woman, but that their differing means of overcoming that pain will separate them forever.
At each pivotal moment in the book, there is an element of ceremony. The name for the Boatwright women’s honey is “Black Madonna Honey” after their devotion to the African depiction of the Blessed Mother Mary, especially represented as Our Lady of Chains. The sisters and their friends join together once a week to pray the rosary and to remind themselves of Our Lady of Chains’ story of redemption. When May commits suicide, there is ceremony amidst the pain; a days-long wake before the burial allows for healing and the expression of grief. Even the process of honey making has a certain ceremonial quality to it in its repetition and respect for the bees themselves. August teaches Lily to find the spiritual in the mundane through ceremony and most importantly to find the Blessed Mother inside her, rather than seek her in a mother that no longer exists.
Bees are the perfect frame for this book–Kidd includes a quote about bees at the beginning of each chapter–and they serve as a means to represent different themes. The Queen Bee, the mother of all the bees in the hive, reflects the theme of motherhood–of lost mothers and non-blood mothers, of motherhood towards oneself. There is a sense of complete community among bees, all working toward a common goal, not unlike the honey business at the Boatwright house. Their community of worshipers and friends seeks to emulate the bee community in its harmony and selflessness. Honey, in all of its different uses, serves as a symbol for healing, which is what each character in this story is searching for.
This book is an interesting counterpart to Kathryn Stockett’s popular novel, The Help that I read last summer; both books focus on white women and their changing attitudes about African Americans during the Civil Rights movement. I cannot imagine writing a book from that perspective and walking the fine line between using historical context and racism. Still, I enjoyed both stories immensely, while also recognizing this point.
Kidd is an excellent storyteller with gifts for character development and unique use of language. The captivating world she created was unlike any I have ever read about or experienced. I think that her messages of acceptance of one’s journey and the need to recognize the spiritual in all aspects of life was something I needed to understand at this time in my life. For there is beauty in ceremony, in life, in bees.
Have you read The Secret Life of Bees? What did you think of it? What other books have inspired you? Let me know in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading!