The Secret Lives of Bees * by Sue Monk Kidd

It came to my mind when I saw Oprah’s book list of books to read that I have heard of “The secret lives of bees” but I never knew what it was about. Beekeepers? The lives of bees?

I never expected to read  a touching story of growing up and taking responsability, racism in America and a fight for equal rights.

“I’ve just never heard of a Negro lawyer, that’s all. You’ve got to hear of these things before you can imagine them.”
“Bullshit. You gotta imagine what’s never been.”

It’s a story about breaking stereotypes.  Lily believes that people have set roles, which they cannot transcend: black women work as housekeepers, black men do not become lawyers, and poor white women like Lily go to beauty school.

The Secret Life of Bees is the story of Lily Owens, a young girl growing up with her harsh father and few memories of her mother. Lily’s mother was killed in a tragic accident and Lily clings to all she has that was once her mother’s: a photo, some gloves, and a picture of the Black Madonna with the words Tiburon, South Carolina on the back. When she and her black “stand-in mother” Rosaleen are forced to run away, they make their way to Tiburon where Lily hopes to understand some part of her mother’s history. What she doesn’t expect is to be welcomed into the home of three black bee-keeping sisters who will change her view of life forever.

I re-read this one for my book group and found I liked it even more the second time. All of the book group folks adored it too! Definitely a book we enjoyed reading and discussing. I love the way Lily grows and changes and is finally able to grieve for her mother. Kidd manages to weave ideas into the progression of the story so well that we don’t notice them until they emerge in full bloom. August was such a wonderful character – the kind of person everyone wants in their life.

I was also drawn to May for the way she experienced life in extremes – both the sorrow and the joy. There is just something about a story like this – not a happy ending so much as a hopeful one – where a young girl manages to rise above the tragedies in her life, even if she is the author of some of those tragedies.

Thoughtful, interesting, a book to be savored. I kept marking passages that I found beautiful or poignant and ended up with way too many to share here. However:

“I looked down at the bee jar still clutched in my hand and saw a teaspoon of teardrops floating in the bottom. I unfastened the window screen and poured it out. The wind lifted it on her skirt tails and shook it over the blistered grass.” p 40

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“You know, some things don’t matter that much, Lily Like the color of a house. How big is that in the overall scheme of life? But lifting a person’s heart – now, that matters. The who problem with people is -”
“They don’t know what matters and what doesn’t,” I said, filling in her sentence and feeling proud of myself for doing so.
“I was gonna say, The problem is they know what matters, but they don’t choose it…The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.” p147

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Lily does not have much experience with the positive effects of love. Her father, whom she loves, never shows any affection for her, and she has reason to believe that her mother, whom she so desperately wants to have loved her, abandoned her before Lily accidentally killed her. This complicated relationship to love leaves her without a clear idea of whether love can be a positive force in life at all, and she reaches the extreme, negatively charged opinion that the fiery passion of love destroys the world. Later in the novel, when Lily learns that love is not only about rejection and longing, her opinion of love softens a great deal, although she never recants on these poignant, passionate words.


The book has a string of climaxes that occur in rapid succession. First, Lily’s sweetheart, Zach, an African American, gets arrested for being with a group of friends when someone throws a glass bottle at a white man. Immediately after, May Boatwright commits suicide when she hears the news about Zach, and the other two Boatwright sisters (August and June) begin to mourn their loss. At the same time, Lily finally confesses to August the truth about her past, namely that she killed her mother and broke Rosaleen out of jail.

What I really felt sad for was May’s death.
She is such a sensible soul and feels too deeply for the world. Every bad action, every pain – she feels like it has been done to her. It reminded me of Eric from HoneyMoon – who feels the same after his wife left him. People like this are rare – a big heart and a lot of love to give to the world, saddened by it at the same time that they cannot change it for the better.
 

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