Good buzz about ‘Bees’

Anna Obergfell

When reading Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, “The Secret Life of Bees,” I wanted to swallow the descriptive narrative with a spoonful of honey. Every time I opened the book to read another chapter, I had an instant and insatiable craving for honey. Kidd does an incredible job unraveling the story of a bold yet gentle young girl with a flare of southern style.

Lily Owens, a small girl reared by her brutal and callous father on a peach farm in South Carolina, takes on the South to find out about her mother with her nanny and only companion, Rosaleen. The last memory that Lily has of her mother is a graphic image of the afternoon she was shot; so taking the few momentous clues she has left, Lily sets out on a mission to discover the life and past of her mother.

Her harsh relationship with her father, whom she called T. Ray, led her to a life of pain, misery and guilt. In this narrative, Lily’s thought process carries the reader through her mind and her world, “As I fixed T. Ray’s plate, I considered how to bring up the delicate matter of my birthday, something T. Ray had never paid attention to in all the years of my life.” Not to mention the apathy and indifference he had for his daughter, he also blamed Lily for killing her mother, saying, “Then we turned around and you were standing there holding the gun. You’d picked it up off the floor. Then it just went off.”

Kidd has developed an image of the South that reveals the most hateful and racist men, but Rosaleen doesn’t seem to pay attention to their malicious behavior. So after a run-in with the law and these merciless men, Lily decides the only way for Rosaleen to escape execution is to run. Lily’s few keepsakes of her mother include a jar of honey with a sticker of a black Madonna on it and a picture bearing the words Tiburon, South Carolina. With nowhere else to go, Lily and Rosaleen flee to Tiburon, and on their journey the two form a bond of friendship which entails brutal honesty and genuine love.

When the two reach Tiburon, they wind up at a bee farm among three black sisters, August, June and May, who welcome the pair into their home. The ringleader and eldest of the three beekeeping sisters, August, holds a soft spot in her heart for Lily and does not turn her away despite June’s attempt to push the child out the door. Presiding over the house even more than August, a wooden statue of a black Madonna reigns supreme, embodying wisdom, love and comfort. Kidd develops May as a woman of great compassion, love and sorrow. She would take on the weight of the world and every problem in it as if it were her own, so to cope with these burdens, “May would start humming ‘Oh Susanna.'” Kidd is incredibly creative with these three women, especially concerning the idiosyncrasies of May, who retreats to her “wailing wall” on a daily basis to slip a piece of paper filled with worries in between stones to purge the sorrow.

Lily’s honey jar with the black Madonna has led her to the honey house and she is determined to find out about her mother thinking to herself, “This is what I know about myself. She is all I want. And I took her away.” But when May’s tragic suicide strikes the family, Lily represses her guilt and curiosity until she can comfortably approach August.

As she and August work hand in hand in the honey house cultivating honey and ensuring the livelihood of the bees, Lily learns about every detail a beekeeper must know to be successful, and thus the reader also comes to learn about the functions of bees. Kidd uses bees as a metaphor; each chapter makes a reference to either the queen bee or the worker bees and how each has a purpose in the whole scheme of things.

Ultimately, Lily learns about her mother and father, but most importantly about herself. She had bottled up her feelings of anger, sadness, uncertainty and a need for love, but the three women of the honey house cultivated love, and each offered her education and healing in their own distinct ways. Although she could not bring her mother back, she has adopted a trio of mothers and their teachings.

She is never able to develop a father-daughter relationship with T. Ray, but she was able to forgive him and let go of the past she had held onto for so long. “We lived for honey. We swallowed a spoonful in the morning to wake us up and one at night to put us to sleep. We took it with every meal to calm the mind, give us stamina, and prevent fatal disease … or heal chapped lips.”

In this book, Kidd gives honey the enchanting power to soothe, unite and ultimately heal the soul, and the story leaves a sweet, magical taste in your mouth.