Krenzel's Reviews > The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
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May 15, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: ala-best-books-ya

"The Secret Lives of Bees" is the simple yet moving story of Lily Owens, a 14-year-old white girl, and her aching search to connect with her mother, who was killed in a terrible accident when Lily was four. Without her mother, Lily was raised by her abusive father T. Ray and a "stand-in mother," Rosaleen, an African-American woman who had previously served as a picker on T. Ray's peach farm. In the summer of 1964, two events serve to alter Lily's life – first, Rosaleen is arrested for pouring snuff juice on the feet of three of the town's worst bigots and, second, T. Ray tells Lily that her mother never loved her. Armed with one of the few possessions remaining of her mother – a picture of a black Mary, marked "Tiburon, S.C." – Lily breaks Rosaleen free from prison and together they set off to Tiburon. It is in Tiburon that "the bees come," as Lily finds her way to a group of beekeepers, who welcome both her and Rosaeen into their home. In searching for a sense of her mother, instead, in these beekeepers, Lily finds both a spiritual awakening and a sense of community, ending her journey with not just one mother but many mothers to care for and look after her.

First, Tiburon provides a spiritual awakening for Lily. Bees are the symbol of one's soul – according to one popular saying, "When a bee flies, a soul will rise," or, in other words, a person's soul will be reborn if bees are around. In searching for the meaning of her mother's picture of the black Mary, Lily comes to Tiburon and, while at a grocery store, notices honey jars adorning the same image. She finds out the honey is made by August Boatwright, who, along with her "calendar sisters," May and June, agrees to take Lily and Rosaleen into her home. It is here, among the bees, that Lily's soul begins to rise. In her new home, Lily discovers a statute of the black Mary, her right arm raised, her fingers closed in a fist, and a faded red heart painted on her breast. Every Sunday, August convenes a group, known as the "Daughters of Mary," which pays tribute to this statue, touching their fingers on her faded red heart. Initially not invited to take part in this ritual, Lily feels like an outsider, the fractured place in her heart pierced whenever she looks at the statue. As Lily gains acceptance within the group, she is emboldened to touch Mary's heart, but still she fails to undergo any substantive transformation. Finally, August explains to Lily that Mary is not some statute, "She's something inside of you," and asks Lily to touch her own heart to find the power (Mary’s fist) and love (Mary’s heart). Whereas, at T. Ray's church, Mary "never got much attention," in Lily's new life with the Daughters of Mary, Mary is not only prominent, but she is powerful. Lily eventually comes to see Mary every day, not just in the statute but in herself: "I feel her in unexpected moments, her Assumption into heaven happening in places inside me. She will suddenly rise, and when she does, she does not go up, up into the sky, but further and further inside me." Instead of feeling the fractured place in her heart when looking at Mary, Lily now feels the holes being "gouged out." While looking for traces of her earthly mother, she has instead found her spiritual mother, her soul being reborn.

In addition to finding power within herself, Lily also finds power within the Boatwrights' community. The symbol of a bee colony as a female community is used extensively throughout "The Secret Lives of Bees." In a bee colony, there is no role for males; they are "reared only at the times of year when their presence is required," or when it is time to mate. On the other hand, females are indispensable: "[i]solate a honeybee from her sisters and she will soon die." Like the bees, Lily is leading a secret life: she is a runaway who has freed a black woman from jail. She lies to the Boatwrights and tells them her father is dead and that Rosaleen, beaten and bloodied in jail, has just fallen down the stairs. At first, Lily is apprehensive of her new surroundings: "I could have been in the Congo for how unfamiliar it felt. Staying in a colored house with colored women, eating off their dishes, lying on their sheets – it was not something I was against, but I was brand-new to it, and my skin had never felt so white to me." Eventually, though, Lily finds sanctuary in their community, participating in their odd rituals, becoming a "true beekeeper," and especially coming to love August, the kind maternal "queen" of their community. Finally feeling secure enough to reveal her secrets, Lily confesses to August that, not only is she a runaway, but she was the one who killed her own mother. Even if it was an accident, she still believes she is unlovable. August insists otherwise, telling her how she loves her, Rosaleen loves her, the Boatwright sisters love her, and all the Daughters of Mary love her too. According to bee lore, "A queenless colony is a pitiful and melancholy community [. . . b]ut introduce a new queen and the most extravagant change takes place." While Lily has lost her mother, there is no more aching, because she realizes she has "more mothers than eight girls off the street." August, Rosaleen, and the Daughters of Mary all represent new "queens," or mothers in her life. With their support, Lily undergoes "extravagant change," beginning her new life, a life that she loves.

As Lily undergoes her transformation, initially it is unclear what the book’s message is: do we find power through our own spirit, or through others? While August tells Lily that she can find Mary – or her spirit – inside of herself, in reality, Lily’s spiritual discovery occurs as she makes connections with others, specifically, August and the Daughters of Mary. It is through them that she is able to overcome her prejudice that an African-American woman cannot be her mother and comes to not only accept all of her new mothers but also comes to identify with the image of the Black Madonna. When Lily asks August why she puts that image on her honey jars, August answers that doing so allows black women to see themselves as divine because "everybody needs a God who looks like them." That Lily, as a white girl, comes to identify with the Black Madonna suggests a female solidarity – that we see ourselves along gender lines. But there is also a Black man who attends the Daughters’ meetings with his wife. While his inclusion in this female community is never fully explained, the basic message seems to follow that, whether you are male or female, or white or black, spiritual discovery cannot be made in isolation, for it is only through others that we discover ourselves.
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message 1: by Janice (new)

Janice I read this book and really liked it. It was a fast read and hard to put down.


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