The Secret Life of Bees Book Review
The social structure of worker, nursing, queen-tending, and house-cleaning bees serves as a metaphor for the protagonist Lily Owen's need to find maternal emotional support in the presence of an abusive, widowed father.
Kidd, Sue Monk; The Secret Life of Bees; Penguin Putnam, Inc., New York; 2002 pp. 302 ISBN 0-14-200174-0
About the Author
Sue Monk Kidd was born in Albany, Georgia, on August 12, 1948, under Leo, the heart sign, to Leah and Ridley Monk. She grew up nearby in Sylvester and achieved a B.S. in Nursing at Texas Christian University in 1970. Upon returning to Georgia, Kidd worked as a nursing instructor at the Medical College of Georgia (later Georgia Health Sciences University), before committing herself to her literary pursuits. She studied creative writing at Emory University and Anderson College (later Anderson University) in Anderson, South Carolina, and published her first book, God's Joyful Surprise, in 1987. The Secret Life of Bees is the author's first novel.
Sue Monk Kidd on Storytelling and Writing
Layout of the Book
The story consists of 14 untitled chapters, each introduced by a fact about bees. Four such facts are as follows:
- Honeybees depend not only on physical contact with the colony, but also require its social companionship and support. Isolate a honeybee from her sisters and she will soon die. -- Chapter Eight
- A bee's life is but short. During spring and summer--the most strenuous periods of foraging---a worker bee, as a rule, does not live more than four or five weeks....Threatened by all kinds of dangers during their foraging flights, many workers die before they have reached even that age. -- Chapter Ten
- It takes honeybee workers ten million foraging trips to gather enough nectar to make one pound of honey. -- Chapter Eleven
- A worker [bee] is just over a centimeter long and weighs only about sixty milligrams; nevertheless, she can fly with a load heavier than herself. -- Chapter Thirteen
Each chapter averages about 22 pages in length.
In her Acknowledgments, Ms. Monk credits the Greens at Pot o'Gold Honey Company in South Carolina for teaching her about the beekeeping business.
In the back of the book, the author cites six references that supplemented her learning about the life of bees. These are:
- Gould, James L. and Carol Grant Gould; The Honey Bee
- Longgood, William; The Queen Must Die: And Other Affairs of Bees and Men
- Newman, L. H.; Man and Insects
- O'Toole, Christopher and Anthony Raw; Bees of the World
- Simon, Hilda; Exploring the World of Social Insects
- Von Frisch, Karl; The Dancing Bees
The back of the book also includes the publisher's reading guide to the story in three parts: an introduction, a conversation with the author, and questions for discussion that could be useful to literature teachers or a literary club.
Main Characters of The Secret Life of Bees
While there are 15 or more characters in this novel, the most significant are as follows:
Lily Melissa Owens - 14-year-old female narrator and protagonist
Deborah Fontanel Owens - Lily's deceased mother
T. Ray Owens - Lily's father, a peach farmer
Rosaleen Daise - Lily's nanny who actively defies social biases
August Boatwright - eldest sister of three and owner of the beekeeping business
June Boatwright - second sister who is a musician
May Boatwright - youngest, highly sensitive sister with special needs
Zachary Lincoln Taylor - August's employed hand to help with beekeeping and honey delivery
Lily describes the night of her mother's death on page 7:
I don't remember what they [Lily's parents] said, only the furry of their words, how the air turned raw and full of welts. Later it would remind me of birds trapped inside a closed room, flinging [sic] themselves against the windows and the walls, against each other. I inched backward, deeper into the closet, feeling my fingers in my mouth, the taste of shoes, of feet.
And further down on pages 7-8:
Time folded in on itself then. What is left lies in clear yet disjointed pieces in my head. The gun shining like a toy in her hand, how he snatched it away and waved it around. The gun on the floor. Bending to pick it up. The noise that exploded around us.
This is what I know about myself. She was all I wanted. And I took her away.
Apart from Lily's abusive relationship by her father, this is the time in the deep south when the colored people are struggling for their civil rights. President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law (July 2, 1964). On page 32, a passage describes Rosaleen's encounter with three white men as she's heading to register to vote. The men taunt the nanny about her color and size. A question with an innuendo of stealing comes from the third man, and Rosaleen obliges his suspicions with a fabricated statement, "Stole it from a church." After that, she spreads her snuff juice from her jug over the men's shoes.
. . . . I watched their faces go from surprise to anger, then outright fury. They lunged at her [Rosaleen], and everything started to spin. There was Rosaleen, grabbed and thrashing side to side, swinging the men like pocketbooks on her arm, and the men yelling for her to apologize and clean their shoes.
A police officer arrests Rosaleen.
On page 154, gossip begins to rise over white movie actor Jack Palance intending to escort a black lady into a local Tiburon theater. Hearing the discussion between August and Zach, Lily narrates:
. . . and it washed over me for the first time in my life just how much importance the world had ascribed to skin pigment, how lately it seemed that skin pigment was the sun and everything else in the universe was the orbiting planets. Ever since school let out this summer, it had been nothing but skin pigment every livelong day. I was sick of it.
The Black Madonna
The Black Madonna in the Sisters' Home
"She was one of those figures that had leaned out from the front of a ship in olden times . . . . She was black as she could be, twisted like driftwood from being out in the weather . . . . Her right arm was raised, as if she were pointing the way, except her fingers were closed in a fist. It gave her a serious look, like she could straighten you out if necessary. Even though she . . . didn't resemble the picture on the honey jar, I knew who she was." --Lily Owens, p. 70
Two things kept me reading this novel: 1) the delightful interspersed facts and passages within the narrative about beekeeping, and 2) August Boatwright's mature wisdom in dealing with Lily and May--Lily may be the main character, but for me, August left the greatest admirable impression. If these two factors had been missing from the story, I probably would have closed the book and put it in the "Donate" pile because Lily's language and habits are rough, as well as the intermittent tension created through the characters Rosaleen and others on the civil rights issue.
Reviewers noted the significance of the Black Madonna in the story; however, this symbol was not new to me. The icon is well represented in European churches. The figure serves as protection for soon-to-be mothers. In the story, it represents the innate power of woman.
The characters themselves become friends and acquaintances, Lily with her quick-thinking and daring actions (in spite of her language and lies), Rosaleen with her loyalty to Lily, even when Lily ruffles Rosaleen's conscience, and May with her ever-so-sensitive heart for her family and people of the world.
The story contains elements of science, social importance, issues of women, innocence, and bits of amusement. In other words, the book impressed me to the point where I wanted to write a book review about it--and that's saying something.
Here's the book in paperback, if you care to own a copy for reading after this book review. This could be a helpful gift for a troubled young girl coming of age.
Other Books by Sue Monk Kidd
The Dance of the Dissident Daughter
When the Heart Waits
The Mermaid Chair
Traveling with Pomegranates