The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics) (January 28, 2003)
This is the second time I’ve read this book. The first time was about four years ago, and what a difference four years and some personal growth makes.
The Secret Life of Bees follows Lily Owens, a 14 year old girl in 1964 South Carolina, during the year the Civil Rights Bill was signed. She lives with her father in rural farm country, growing peaches and being miserable. She’s not one of the popular kids, she’s not pretty, and she’s too smart for her father’s peace of mind. Her father, T. Ray, is verbally abusive and emotionally distant, and closed-mouthed about the events leading up to her mother’s death when Lily was four years old.
After an incident between Lily’s African-American nanny Rosaleen and a group of white men, Lily lands in trouble and Rosaleen lands in jail. In a fit of pure spunk, Lily breaks her out and they run away to Tiburon, a town who’s name Lily finds on the back of a picture of a Black Madonna that belonged to her mother. Once they reach the town, they meet the Boatwright sisters, a trio of independent African-American women who raise bees and stand as pillars in a community that worships the Black Mary. August, June, and May Boatwright may hold the secrets of Lily’s mother and her troubled past, and the ability to heal Lily of years of self-doubt and parental abuse.
When I first read this book, I loved it, and I still don’t think it’s a bad book. It has many thought provoking and touching moments, and I do believe Sue Monk Kidd wrote from the heart. Lily is a believable character, and her troubles, large and small, are things many teenagers go through, regardless of what point in history they live. And as a feminist, I like this book a lot because it’s all about women young and old taking charge of their lives as well as they can. But I don’t think the overall story is believable, and I don’t think it’s necessarily right that it was told from the perspective of a white girl.
I can very much see Lily’s personal narrative happening, in that she runs away and ends up staying with generous female figures. But I don’t think, during that time, they would have been black. If they had been black, I don’t see them wanting or having the ability, to take in a young white girl. In that day and age, I just don’t see that as being smart on the part of otherwise highly intelligent characters, or allowed by the white citizens of the town for that matter. And the ending, which I won’t spoil, is not realistic. I feel that there would have been too many repercussions to the final ending for those characters to make those choices.
I can truly see the history and lore of those women occurring during that time, but I don’t really like how that story has to be told out of the mouth (and eyes) of a white girl. If Sue Monk Kidd wanted to explore the feminist theology of the Black Madonna, why couldn’t she write it from the perspecitive of a young black girl being initiated into the society around her? Or being rescued by it, in a similar situation to Lily’s? Jump on me if you like, but the Boatwright sisters were turned into a trio of Magical Negros for the benefit of Lily. (Ah! Lily! As in lily white!!)
Every twist and turn of the story became a learning experience for Lily, to the detriment of the stories being told about the black women involved. Every event was an Event! that is there to teach Lily, and through her, the reader, a lesson about racial tension during the Civil Rights Era, or about inter-racial relations, or about people in general. The Messages were so loud sometimes that it was hard to hear the story.
These things don’t kill the book for me, but they were a constant thought in the back of my mind as I read. As I said, it’s still a good book, and I’ve been conflicted about this review for days now. I’d recommend it, just to get someone else’s opinion on it. Please, let me know what you think in the comments.