The Secret Life of Bees (2002)

by Sue Monk Kidd

In the decade since her mother's death by gunshot, 14-year-old Lily Owens has grappled with nagging questions on top of her grief: Was it really Lily herself who accidentally pulled the trigger, as her mean father claims? Had her mother abandoned her?

Lily's father, T. Ray, a Southern peach farmer, neglects and abuses her. She finds affection only from her black caretaker, Rosaleen. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has just been passed, and Rosaleen goes to register to vote. She ends up jailed for an incident involving three racist white men. Lily manages to spring Rosaleen from jail, and they head for Tiburon, South Carolina, because Lily found among her mother's belongings a picture of a Black Virgin Mary with "Tiburon, S.C.," written on the back. Lily notices the same photo on jars of honey in a Tiburon store and is told the beekeeper/honeymaker, August Boatwright, is from town.

August, who lives with her sisters June and May, offers Lily and Rosaleen bed and board in return for work. The white girl and black caretaker spend a contented summer with the African American "calendar sisters," Lily learning about beekeeping and being mothered by August and even, she feels, by the huge statue of the Black Madonna that August and her friends venerate. It takes months before Lily tells August the truth about her past, and then she learns that August is a link to her mother. In the comforting routines of the beekeeping farm, with August and all the women of the "Daughters of Mary" group around her, Lily comes to grips with her past and learns from August to "find a mother inside you."

The plot of The Secret Life of Bees strains credulity in places, but readers are advised to suspend disbelief because the book has many rewards: a heartwarming message, lively writing, and vivid characters. Another interesting aspect is the lore of beekeeping. It's not just a coincidence that August Boatwright is a beekeeper; Kidd suggests parallels between a bee colony and its queen and Lily's own experience.


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