Book Review: The Secret Life of Bees

Read dates: 10/26/10-11/7/10

14-year-old Lily has been a half-orphan since age 4 when her mother (Deborah) died in a shooting incident in the family home. Lily’s memory of these critical events is that her parents were fighting, her mother grabbed the family handgun from its storage place, her parents struggled over it, and, ultimately, Lily picked up the gun and somehow fired the shot that killed her mother. The primary theme of this book is Lily’s longing for her mother and her struggle with guilt over her mother’s death.

After Deborah’s death,  T-Ray hired Rosaleen, a former field hand, as a housekeeper and nanny. Lily’s father (known as T-Ray because “daddy” definitely didn’t fit) was unloving and extremely harsh to the point that Lily imagined a life without her father. Lily had only a few of her mother’s possessions. The most significant was a picture of a black Madonna with the words Tiburon, South Carolina written on the back.

The other defining theme of this story is its setting: South Carolina in 1964, shortly after the Civil Rights Act was enacted. Lily went with Rosaleen when Rosaleen decided to register to vote. On the way, Rosaleen argued with three (racist) men. Lily and Rosaleen were taken to the local jail. Lily was released to her father but Rosaleen was arrested, and, while in jail, was beaten by the men she had argued with. Rosaleen’s injuries were severe enough that she was hospitalized. Meanwhile during an argument, T-Ray told Lily that her mother had abandoned her. Infuriated and worried about Rosaleen’s safety, Lily packed her few belongings and then sneaked Rosaleen out of the hospital.

Lily and Rosaleen began hitchhiking toward Tiburon and, at a diner there, spotted a jar of honey with the same black Madonna picture as the one Lily treasured. The diner’s owner directed them to the home of black beekeeper, August Boatwright, and her sisters, May and June. Lily made up a story about being an orphan and August took Lily and Rosaleen in, with the understanding that they would work for their keep. August began teaching Lily about beekeeping while Rosaleen helped May with cooking and household work. Meanwhile, Lily worried whether she and Rosaleen would be found and about lying to August and her sisters about being an orphan. Lily and Rosaleen learned about the sisters’ religion which focused on a figurehead they called “Black Mary.” Lily met and was attracted to August’s godson, Zach.

Eventually, after Zach’s arrest on a trumped up charge and May’s suicide in reaction, Lily finally confessed to August that she had run away from her father and needed to know why her mother had the black Madonna picture. It turned out that August had been a maid in Deborah’s parents’ home and had known Deborah from early childhood. When Deborah became dissatisfied with her marriage, she left T-Ray and stayed with August and her sisters. Though she now knew more about her mother, Lily was angry and hurt to learn that Deborah had not taken her along when she left T-Ray.

The climax of the story occurred when T-Ray arrived at the Boatwright home. He was extremely angry and demanded that “Deborah” come with him. Though T-Ray accepted August’s offer to let Lily stay with her, he couldn’t leave without a parting shot of “good riddance.”

Memorable quotes:

“You have to know when to prod and when to be quiet, when to let things take their course.” August Boatwright in “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd

 “If you need something from somebody, always give that person a way to hand it to you.” August Boatwright in “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd

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