A buzz-worthy Secret Life of Bees

Nov. 18, 2004, midnight | By Caitlin Garlow | 16 years, 2 months ago

Summer novel captures attention of book clubs and fiction fans

Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, is a wonderful coming-of-age story filled with imagery and stunning metaphors set in the turbulent and racist climate of the south during the 1960s. Although The Secret Life of Bees has been heralded by readers and publications as "an absolute joy to read," it often disappoints readers by resolving situations too easily.

The novel starts with an introduction to 14-year-old Lily Owens, who has lived on a peach farm in South Carolina with her insensitive father, T-Ray, since her mother died in an accident. Though T-Ray never mentions the day of her mother's death (a gun went off in Lily's hand, killing her mother, when she was three years old), Lily's thoughts are frequently overcome with guilt and longing for her mother. Only Rosaleen, their spirited black cook, and a few of her mother's possessions comfort Lily.

One day, while accompanying Rosaleen to become a registered voter in town, Lily witnesses the extreme violence of racism when Rosaleen is provoked by three white males and retaliates. Lily's innocence is exposed when she finds herself unable to speak up in Rosaleen's defense, and Rosaleen is badly beaten by her aggressors in jail.

Angry and frustrated with her life, Lily plans to free Rosaleen from jail and leave T-Ray once and for all. This is the first of many situations where Lily finds a way out of trouble too easily. Her successful scheme involves nothing but a simple phone call to Rosaleen's watchman telling him he has been relieved of duty.

Spontaneously, Lily and Rosaleen follow the words inscribed in the back of her mother's picture of a black Madonna, which lead them to Tiburn, South Carolina. In Tiburn, the pair finds their way to the home of August Boatwright, a black female beekeeper who sells Black Madonna Honey products. After spinning a long story about a search for an aunt in Virginia, Lily wins herself a temporary job and home in the honey house, an outdoor cottage that houses honey-making equipment.

As Lily begins to settle in with August and her "calendar” sisters named June and May, she becomes fascinated with their lifestyle that is focused on honey and the Black Madonna and feels certain that she is in some way connected to the Boatwrights. Here, Lily is also able to easily resolve her problem of where to live, as August refuses to force Lily to leave until she is ready, though it was unheard of to have a white girl living in a household of black women.

During the course of the novel, Lily journeys towards self-acceptance and young adulthood, described by Kidd using excellent literary technique and description. She provides subtle parallels between Lily's life back home to her life with the calendar sisters; for example, Kidd describes May's love for all creatures, even roaches, and connects it to Lily's memory of her mother using marshmallow pieces to lure roaches out of their home. Kidd weaves in facts about bees and the way they live and draws connections to the sisters and their community of friends.

The novel also promotes feminine ideals. All of the female characters in the book represent strength and endurance. The calendar sisters retain their independence, though June's sisters eventually convince her to marry her longtime sweetheart. Rosaleen, though a little reckless, never hides her feelings or beliefs, and August, the strongest of the female characters, runs the house and business wisely. The novel's attention to the sisters' religion is especially significant. They worship of the black Madonna and frequently recount the story of her escape from the bonds of slavery. The black Madonna also guides Lily to her sanctuary in the Boatwright home.

The Secret Life of Bees' original storyline, woven with imagery and symbolism, has captured readers and made it a New York Times Bestseller. Though Lily often comes to resolutions without difficulty, she and other realistic characters and situations create an overall choice read for anyone who savors fiction.

The Secret Life of Bees costs $14 and is available at all local bookstores.

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Caitlin Garlow. Caitlin is a second-semester senior at last. Her favorite things include making fun of her homeless sister and hunting down her clothes in other people's closets. More »

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