Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

The Secret Life of Bees is one of those books that sat on my bedside stand for over a year before I picked it up--and once I did I wanted to read it straight through.   Set in the 1960s on the cusp of the civil rights movement, the story is told from the perspective of Lily, a white girl growing up in Sylvan, South Carolina. Sylvan is a town of "peach stands and Baptists churches, that sums it up."  Lily's life has not been easy.  Her mother died when she was young under devastating circumstances and she lives alone with her father T. Ray, an embittered man who is a disinterested father and a harsh disciplinarian.   When Lily engages in some particularly bad or disobedient behavior, her father's punishment is to make her kneel on "Martha Whites", a brand of grits, leaving thousands of little marks in her knees and a distaste for grits for life.  

Rosaleen is an African American woman who works as a maid for Lily and T. Ray and is the closest thing to a mother--or a friend--that Lily has.   Lily says of Rosaleen, "I used to have daydreams in which she was white and married to T. Ray and became my real mother.  Other times I was a Negro orphan she found in a cornfield and adopted.  Once in a while I had us living in a foreign country like New York, where she could adopt me and we could both stay our natural color."    What a wonderful passage--thought provoking, wistful and funny in one fell swoop.

Lily has a secret cache of her mother's belongings that she found while rummaging around in the attic one day.  The items include a much-treasured picture of her mother, a pair of white cotton gloves and, mysteriously, a small picture of black Mary (as in Mary, the mother of Jesus) that has been pasted on small piece of wood and has the words "Tiburon, S.C." written on the back.   On Lily's 14th birthday, she accompanies Rosaleen into town to register to vote.  A series of unfortunate events find Rosaleen first in jail and then in the hospital.  When Lily and her father get into another big fight, Lily up and liberates Rosaleen from her hospital bed and they hit the road for Tiburon for lack of a better plan. 

Upon their arrival in Tiburon, Lily stops in the general store to buy some provisions when she sees a jar of honey with the same picture of a black Mary on it that is in her mother's things.  She finds out from the storekeeper that the honey is made locally and she and Rosaleen head to the farm, where they are taken in by August, May and June Boatwright, three sisters who keep bees, make honey and live quite an interesting life.   From here on out, the book becomes an amazing story of the friendship, compassion and wisdom of these women.

Monk's writing is so easy to read that you can skim right over her wonderful words without noticing them if you don't pay attention.  At one point, August tells Lily a bit about her life experiences.  Monk writes, "We walked to the woods...with her stories still pulled soft around our shoulders.  I could feel them touching me in places, like an actual shawl."    I also love her treatment of racial issues and the civil rights movement.  The problems are there--and at times they are front and center--but they are woven into the book as one part of Lily's story as she learns a few things about her mother and a lot of things about herself and the importance of friendship.

It's impossible not to compare The Secret Life of Bees with Kathryn Stockett's The Help, which was an amazing book.  Both are stories of the civil rights movement; both are stories of the friendship of women; and both are great reads.   The Help made me think about myself and what type of person I would have been if I had been a young woman in the 1960s.  I didn't picture myself as a character in The Secret Life of Bees, but it did occasionally make me pause and think.   A book group would have a wonderful time reading both books and talking about the two of them head to head.

It's always a bit hard to figure out what to read when you're coming off a book that's so enjoyable and well-written.  I don't think I'll go back and try to finish Tana French's Faithful Place (which I have retitled "Wake Me When It's Over").   Maybe I'll start Dave Eggers' Zietoun, a story of post-hurricane Katrina.  Or maybe I'll roam the stacks at the library and see what jumps out at me.  I can only hope that whatever I end up reading next is half as engaging as The Secret Life of Bees.  

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