The Secret Life of Bees (2002)
Penguin, 302 pages, $14.00 trade paperback
Everyone is buzzing over The Secret Life of Bees. Every time I ask people if they’ve read any good books lately, I get the same answer: The Secret Life of Bees. “This book is deceptively simple,” says Mary-Jo, one of my bookie friends.
Mary-Jo’s 13-year-old daughter, Gina, spent an afternoon recently with a neighbor who keeps bees. After dressing in the protective garb and visiting the hive, Gina asked the beekeeper, “Have you read that book about bees’ lives? My mom really liked that book.”
“Yes,” the beekeeper answered, “The Secret Life of Bees. I have three copies, one of my own and two that I loan out.”
Set in the American South during the summer of 1964, the story of the white Lily Owens, her African American housekeeper/nanny Rosaleen, and the African American “calendar sisters” (May, June, and August—the beekeeper—Boatwright) unfolds against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Act. After an encounter with three of the town’s worst racists, Lily springs Rosaleen from jail and the two set out in search of information about Lily’s mother, who died 10 years earlier under troubling circumstances that Lily just vaguely remembers. Lily’s only clue about her mother leads them to Tiburon, South Carolina, where they come upon the shocking pink house where Black Madonna honey is produced. Under the care of August Boatwright and the Daughters of Mary—an extended sisterhood of women who tend a statue of the Black Madonna—Lily comes of age while learning her personal history and her place in the world.
What is the attraction of this deceptively simple little book? It’s the memorable passages that follow one after another:
I realized it for the first time in my life: there is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor, browbeat days, shining brightly, and we don't even know it. (p. 63)
* * * * *
The only thing I could compare it to was the feeling I got one time when I walked back from the peach stand and saw the sun spreading across the late afternoon, setting the top of the orchard on fire while darkness collected underneath. Silence had hovered over my head, beauty multiplying in the air, the trees so transparent I felt I could see through to something pure inside them. My chest had ached then, too, this very same way. (p. 71)
* * * * *
The first week at August's was a consolation, a pure relief. The world will give you that once in a while, a brief time-out; the boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life. (p. 82)
* * * * *
"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 whole 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. You know how hard that is, Lily? I love May, but it was still so hard to choose Caribbean Pink. The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters." (p. 147)
We should not hesitate to use the word feminist to describe the novel. When Lily’s father, T. Ray (Can it be mere coincidence that his name sounds like T. rex?), shows up to take her home, August puts out the call to the Daughters of Mary, who arrive promptly:
The four of them lined up beside us, clutching their pocketbooks up against their bodies like they might have to use them to beat the living hell out of somebody.
I wondered how we must look to him. A bunch of women—Mabelee four foot ten, Lunelle’s hair standing straight up on her head begging to be braided, Violet muttering, “Blessed Mary,” and Queenie—tough old Queenie—with her hands on her hips and her lip shoved out, every inch of her saying, I double-dog dare you to take this girl. (pp. 297-298)
This is the feminist equivalent to circling the wagons. Even the belligerent, obnoxious, and dense T. Ray can see that he’s been outwitted and outflanked.
The Secret Life of Bees isn’t perfect. Early in the novel Lily, as first-person narrator, tells us that these events occurred in the past, during the summer she turned 14. Yet most of the wisdom Lily imparts with her story is well beyond a 14 year old. I was therefore expecting an adult narrator looking back on her childhood—the same narrative stance that Harper Lee uses so effectively in To Kill a Mockingbird. But at the end of Secret Life of Bees we learn that Lily is telling her story only a few months after the events occurred. It’s hard to believe that a 14 year old could have achieved that much insight about herself and others, even with the august August as a guide.
But never mind about that. Read The Secret Life of Bees with highlighter in hand. Savor the book’s pink house and its purple passages. Listen for the hum of bees in your own life. And, most of all, remember to send the bees love. “Every little thing wants to be loved.”
(Very special thanks and much love to my own multitude of Marys.)
© 2003 by Mary Daniels Brown