‘Secret Life of Bees’: Seeing what all the buzz is about
“The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd
Before joining the staff at Neighbors Bookstore, it had been a while since anyone had given me a solid book recommendation. But, it seemed like just about everyone and their mother/sister/daughter who came into the store had read and enjoyed “The Secret Life of Bees,” the moving first novel from author Sue Monk Kidd. Being recently uprooted from the California Central Valley and missing my family (along with the miles of orchards and bee-boxes along Highway 99) I decided to pick up a copy.
Generally, this type of book would not appeal to me. I’ve always been more interested in bizarre, quirky tales by authors such as Chuck Palahniuk, Kurt Vonnegut or Stephen King. But with so many glowing endorsements, I had to see what the fuss was all about. I was definitely not disappointed.
The main character, 14-year-old Lily Owens, has hazy memories of the day she lost her mother in a terrible shooting accident that left her in the care of her harsh, abusive father, whom she calls T. Ray, “because ‘Daddy’ never fit him.” Not knowing how to raise a 4-year-old daughter and preoccupied with the running of his peach orchard, T. Ray enlists the help of Rosaleen, a strong-willed African American woman who acts as a housekeeper/cook/stand-in mother to young Lilly. When Rosaleen decides she would like to register to vote and is chided by the three biggest racists in town, her reaction to their taunts lands her in the hospital and facing jail time.
“The Secret Life of Bees” is set in South Carolina during the summer of 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act and intensifying racial tensions. Lily, wanting to save Rosaleen and unlock the secrets of her mother’s past, sneaks her out of the hospital and heads toward Tiburon, where she believes her mother may have lived at one time. There, the two are taken in by the eccentric Boatwright sisters, three African-American beekeepers who have their own brand of religion relating to their ancestors, honey and the divine sisterhood of women.
As time passes and Lily begins to uncover more clues about the mother she never knew, she must also contend with her own inner turmoil. She must come to terms with racist thoughts she never realized she had; feelings of guilt, anger and abandonment relating to her mother; and heartache over her forbidden emotions toward Zach, the young black man whom she works with out in the hives. When Zach is wrongly arrested after an altercation with some white men in town, tragedy follows and the women must help each other to rise above their sorrows.
Sue Monk Kidd has established herself as a fresh voice in modern literature. Part Southern gothic, past coming-of-age tale, part study of the relationships between women, “The Secret Life of Bees” is sure to be handed down from mothers to daughters for generations to come. A film adaptation is currently in development with Dakota Fanning set to star as Lily.
– Lydia Chagolla is a sales associate at Neighbors Bookstore.
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