The Secret Life of Bees is the compelling tale of how one girl’s life spirals out of control when she runs away from her abusive father. After falling upon the Boatwright sisters, she lives in a world of uncertainty and apprehension. She has finally found a place of refuge and happiness, but fears everything she has gained can be taken away in the blink of an eye. It follows the journey of one girl’s living nightmare, transformed into an unimaginable heaven in a world of tumult.
Set in South Carolina in 1964, Lily Owen’s lives with T. Ray on a peach orchard. He is abusive, violent, and ignorant of his daughter’s feelings and existence. She is cared for by Rosaleen, an African American woman who used to work on the orchard. Lily goes through each day, curious about the blurry memory of her mother’s death when she was four years old. For her fourteenth birthday, she asks T. Ray for more information about her mother, because all she has are a few small belongings buried in a box under a peach tree: one being a wooden carving of a black woman with “Tiburon, SC” carved into the back. He reluctantly tells Lily that her mother cared for all living creatures and used to lure cockroaches out of the house using graham crackers and marshmallows. Lily cherishes this information and the next day, Rosaleen is going to town to attempt to register to vote and Lily joins her. On the way, they are approached by three white men who question why Lily, a young white girl, is walking with a colored woman. Rosaleen proceeds to spit her chewing tobacco on their shoes, which lands her in jail. The men also beat her when she refuses to apologize. T. Ray angrily brings Lily home and punishes her. He tells her that on the day of her death, her mother came to pack up her things to leave Lily because she did not love her. Determined to refute this information, Lily packs her belongings, writes T. Ray a note that states her hatred for him, and runs into town to sneak Rosaleen from the hospital where she is strapped to the bed and being treated for her wounds. Lily and Rosaleen hitchhike to Tiburon, South Carolina in an effort to discover the missing pieces to the puzzle of her mother’s life.
Once they reach town, they stop at a general store where Lily notices a jar of honey, labelled with the same image from her mother’s wood carving: a black Virgin Mary. She asks the store clerk for the details of the source of the honey and Rosaleen and Lily make their way to the house. They meet May, June, and August Boatwright who warmly invite them into their house after hearing Lily’s story about how both her parents died and how she is on the way to her aunt’s house in Virginia. They plan to work for their stay, with Lily helping August on the honey farm and Rosaleen helping May around the house. They settle into their new, peaceful life and seamlessly transition into the Boatwright lifestyle, with no questions asked about their reasoning for being there. One day, Lily discovers May attempting to lure a cockroach out of the house using the same method as her mother: with graham crackers and marshmallows. Lily asks May if she knew Deborah, her mother, and May says that she used to stay in the honey house. This causes Lily to bring up the wooden carving with August. When she finally builds up the courage to open up about the real reason she ended up at the honey farm, it is revealed that August has been aware of the lie the whole time. August recognized Lily the second she walked through the front door many weeks before. When Lily’s mother needed a break from T. Ray’s violence and oppressiveness, she came to stay at the honey house for a while. She left one day and decided to go back to the peach orchard and pack the rest of her belongings and bring Lily to live with the Boatwright sisters. It was this event that resulted in her death. This news leaves Lily stunned when she fills in the missing pieces of her mother’s story and how she came to be. She is comforted when she realizes that she has eliminated a toxic male figure in her life but gained three new mothers who love her deeply. The theme of mother-figures is present throughout the novel when Lily is reminiscing about her mother or rejoicing in the three new mothers she has gained in her new life at the honey house. “Walking to the honey house, I concentrated on my feet touching down on the hard-cake dirt in the driveway, the exposed tree roots, fresh-watered grass, how the earth felt beneath me, solid, alive, ancient, right there every time my foot came down. There and there and there, always there. The things a mother should be.” We witness the transformation of Lily from an ambitious, sheltered young girl to a kind, mature, and determined young woman.
Sue Monk Kidd successfully blends the issues of segregation and gender inequality in the twentieth century. August Boatwright exhibits the breaking of racial and gender stereotypes by being a black woman who owns a house, runs a business, and is highly educated. The novel embodies female empowerment and color-blindness as Lily blossoms while living in an all-black community. The Civil Rights Act is newly enacted but is “nothing but a piece of paper,” and the presence of racial injustice is evident throughout the novel. We witness the overcoming of abusive relationships and the power of persistence shining through.
The Secret Life of Bees sends a powerful message of breaking the barriers of stereotypes and we travel with Lily as she overcomes challenges while venturing to a South Carolina town that holds the key to her mother’s past. The writing style is fluent and powerful, and the word choice leaves the reader feeling mesmerized and captivated. The language makes us feel as though they are right there with Lily, enduring her fear, pain, and happiness. It makes us question our own lives and the way we live them. This excerpt captures the ambiguity yet power of Kidd’s writing. “Knowing can be a curse on a person’s life. I’d traded in a pack of lies for a pack of truth, and I didn’t know which one was heavier. Which one took the most strength to carry around? It was a ridiculous question, though, because once you know the truth, you can’t ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies. Heavier or not, the truth is yours now.” We journey with Lily as she overcomes the abuse of T. Ray and transitions into a life of bliss and contentment.
Reviewed by Charlotte K ’18