Sue Monk Kidd
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kid is a heart-warming, coming of age story of Lily, a young girl who became motherless at the tender age of four when her mother died of an accidental gun shot wound.
Lily grows up in South Carolina with her disgruntled and abusive father, T. Ray. Rosaleen, the African-American housekeeper, assumes the role of Lily’s surrogate mother. Plagued with questions about her mother’s death, Lily hungers for but is denied affection from her father. When Rosaleen offends three of the town’s worst racists and is thrown in jail, Lily devises a plan to set them both free.
The two escape to Tiburon, South Carolina, where Lily hopes to learn something of her mother’s past. They end up in the home of three African-American beekeeping sisters. The sisters teach Lily about beekeeping and running a business. They introduce her to their unique form of worship for the Black Madonna. With their network of eccentric female friends, they surround Lily in a cocoon of love and support for the first time in her life. Lily realizes she no longer feels the absence of mother love because she now has several mothers who shower her with unconditional love.
Set against the backdrop of civil rights movement in the early ‘60s, the characters are forced to contend with virulent racism. Rosaleen is harassed by the town’s racists when she declares she is on her way to register to vote. Although successful business women, the three sisters have to be extremely cautious when dealing with outsiders. The youngest sister’s inability to cope with the cruelty of racism leads to tragic consequences. And Lily, who had never given much consideration to racism in the past, begins to recognize her white skin privilege and to purge herself of the seeds of internalized racism planted in her as a child.
The female characters are well drawn, but, in the case of August, a little too good to be true. The novel is told in the first-person point of view of Lily, which allows us access to her inner thoughts. Lily is endearing, resourceful, intelligent, and articulate. Much to her credit, she harbors an innate sense of right and wrong, and her gradual transformation from a naïve, lonely child to a precocious adolescent unafraid to confront her father is believable.
Threaded throughout the novel are references to the habits and activities of bees, including the focus on the all-important queen bee. These references supplement the novel’s feminist sensibility with its gutsy female-centered characters, a female-centered/goddess worshipping religion, and a support network composed of well-grounded, no-nonsense women.
A quick and enjoyable read with writing that is brisk and engaging. Recommended.