Book Quote:

“The bees came the summer of 1964, the summer I turned fourteen and my life went spinning off into a whole new orbit, and I mean whole new orbit. Looking back on it now, I want to say the bees were sent to me. I want to say they showed up like the angle Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary, setting events in motion I could never have guessed. I know it is presumptuous to compare my small life to hers, but I have reason to believe she wouldn’t mind; I will get to that. Right now it’s enough to say that despite everything that happened that summer, I remain tender toward the bees.”

Book Review:

Review by Jana L. Perskie (JAN 20, 2014)

Fourteen year-old Lily Melissa Owens has been a motherless child for ten years now. It fills her with anguish to think that she, at age four, had a hand in the accidental shooting death of Deborah Fontanel Owens, her own mother. Lily’s life has been shaped around this incident, and she has never ceased to yearn for her mother, (for a mother’s love), although her memories of the actual woman have been blurred by time. In fact, Lily has very little memory of that dark day’s events, and is totally dependent on her miserable, sadistic father, T. Ray Owens, for any and all accounts of her mom. The only person who shows her any affection is Rosaleen, a black peach-picker T. Ray brought in from the fields to care for his child.

At fourteen, Lily is extremely bright, loves to read and has a talent for writing. One of her teachers has encouraged her to think about a college education, although her father tells her she will be lucky to go to beauty school. On July 4, 1964, Lily’s birthday, she walks Rosaleen to town so the black woman can register to vote. President Lyndon B. Johnson just signed into effect the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Rosaleen feels pride in doing her civic duty, as does Lily in accompanying her. The two are harassed by three white men, one of whom is the biggest racist in town. When Rosaleen tries to defend herself, she and Lily are thrown in jail. In reality, back then in the American South, given what Rosaleen did to defend herself, and to whom she did it, she very well could have been beaten to death on the spot. T. Ray picks up his daughter almost immediately, and painfully punishes the girl. She manages to escape, though, and to break Rosaleen out of the hospital where she is recovering from her afternoon’s encounter with Jim Crowe.

One of the few mementoes Lily has of her mother is a small picture of a black Madonna with the words, Tiburon, S. C. on the back. Lily has saved some money from selling peaches at her father’s roadside stand, and is certain that if she and Rosaleen can reach Tiburon, she will find out about her Momma, and they will somehow be safe. And, sure enough, in Tiburon, S. C. Lily finds a connection between her Madonna picture and a trio of fairy godmother-like women – the calendar sisters May, June, and August Boatwright. These black spinster sisters live in a Pepto-Bismol pink-colored house, on a large tract of land outside of town. They keep bees, sell honey and other bee by-products, and their label, the Black Madonna Honey Company, is the same as the picture keepsake that Lily has from her mother. It is here that Lily learns, among many things, that “without a queen, the hive will die.” She understands that she must replace her own queen, her dead mother, or she will shrivel-up inside.

August Boatwright, Mother Figure, (with capital letters!), earth mother, and Madonna all-in-one, takes Lily and Rosaleen in without question, gives them jobs and a home – at least temporarily, until they can live and grow in an environment which will allow them to thrive. And along the way Lily will learn some basic truths, common for both bees and people.

All kinds of neat tidbits and facts about bees, their lives, habits, care, beekeeping in general, and honey production are woven throughout the book, and the details are fascinating. Each chapter is headed with a quotation about bees. However, as important and interesting as bees are as themes in The Secret Life Of Bees, sometimes the narrative is too sweet and sugary for my taste.

Sue Monk Kidd writes beautifully, lyrically, about a southern white girl’s unusual coming of age. However, the novel reads, frequently, like fantasy fiction. Now, I enjoy a beautiful story, especially when the author is as talented as this one, but I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, and the history I recollect is far different from this book’s version. I clearly remember what the times were like when President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and when Schwerner, Cheney & Goodman were murdered in Mississippi, and when Ms. Fanny Lou Hamer challenged white domination of the Mississippi Democratic Party. I was at the Democratic Convention in 1964 in Atlantic City, as a student delegate, when Ms. Hamer and her colleagues entered Convention Hall. Sue Monk Kidd’s bucolic Sylvan, South Carolina, and the little town of Tiburon, are poetic, magical places – in spite of rampant racism. One character is badly beaten, but not killed – she is actually able to walk out of the hospital within 24 hours. Another is unjustly jailed, but set free after a day or so – and not harmed? A strange white girl just moves in with a family of black women, in rural SC, and no one makes a helluva hullabaloo? And I shudder to think of a white teenage girl driving around in a car, in the front seat, with a black teenage male – in 1964 South Carolina. This would not be believable in many northern cities at the time – but it was unthinkable in the south. That poor guy would have never made it to the jailhouse alive!!

So let me stop here and say, that while I enjoyed reading this book, with its rich narrative and characters, it does read like a fairy tale. The hideous racism and violence of life in the US, north and south, is not depicted realistically in comparison to the beautiful, pastoral setting and peace of life with the Boatwright women. I do hope readers realize that much poetic licence has been taken here in terms of what this difficult period was like in US history.

It’s interesting to note, I think, that Lily’s ideal home, almost heaven, is depicted as being among black women. There used to be many white children, in the south, (and in the north), during the 1960’s and before, who received a primary source of love and care from black women, hired to work for their families. I am sure this warm, loving fantasy is not uncommon.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 1,862 readers
PUBLISHER: Viking; 1st edition (October 10, 2002)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perskie
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More novels to remind us of the way it was in the 1960s:



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January 20, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Theme driven, US South

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